The other day, I was banging on to a friend, as I do, about the near-impossibility of producing intelligible financial services marketing communications under the constant onslaught of stupid, ill-considered and counterproductive interventions from the FSA.But I noticed that my friend – a successful advertising copywriter who writes TV commercials for a trolley-full of leading grocery brands – was looking at me with increasing mystification. After a while, he interrupted, which is not easy when I am in full flow on this subject. “What I don’t understand,” he told me, “is why the Food Standards Agency cares about what you say in your Isa copy.” It was a timely reminder that two people can work in the same industry but still live in very different and separate worlds. To him, the FSA is indeed the Food Standards Agency (a body which, incidentally, has effects on his grocery commercials similar to, if rather milder than, those of our FSA on financial communications). Being reminded of this point, I was also reminded of the long-running turf war that is linked closely to it. In the world of agencies and consultancies – advertising, design, brand, marketing, public relations, sales promotion, whatever – there is an age-old disagreement about whether financial services clients are better off working with specialists who do little or nothing except work on financial services or generalists who also work, like my copywriter friend, on accounts in markets such as the curiously named yellow fats, brown goods and carbonates. This is obviously a topic of some interest to us on the agency side but it is also not without significance to those in financial services manufacturing and distribution businesses responsible for choosing agencies of one sort or another. Such people sometimes turn to me in a state of obvious confusion. “What is the right thing to do?” they ask me. “I need your objective advice.” Needless to say, they do not get it. What they get is the highly partisan observations of a man who has spent his last 20 years in specialist agencies. But this – biased as it may be – is what I tell them. In a nutshell, the way I see it, the generalists have only one argument in their favour and it is obviously stupid and fatuous, whereas the specialists have at least three arguments and all three are sensible and compelling. The generalists’ stupid and fatuous argument is that since they know little and care less about financial services, they are better able to identify with consumers, most of whom are in the same situation. Specialists, they claim, are “too close to the products”. It is impossible to resist the temptation to respond to this nonsense with scornful analogies. Would you want to see a doctor who proudly proclaimed that in order to stay close to his patients, he went out of his way to avoid knowing anything about illnesses? Or a mech-anic who said that in order to retain his empathy with his customers, he made sure he never figured out what goes on under a car’s bonnet?But these are obviously just cheap jibes. The more serious objection is, for goodness sake, when you are an expert in something, how hard is it to remember that other people are much less expert than you? This is, let’s face it, pretty much what every married bloke who cares about football has to do most Saturday afternoons. So, far from being some sort of crippling handicap, expertise is in fact pretty much the single most important requirement for worthwhile communication. Who cares what someone who knows nothing has to say?Enough said. Let us turn to the three sensible and compelling arguments that the specialists put forward. Effectively, what they are saying – no, what we are saying – is that there are three different, if perhaps slightly overlapping, benefits of specialisation. The first and most obvious is, of course, specialist knowledge. Quite apart from the sheer tedium and frustration of trying to explain pound-cost averaging or market value adjustments to people who seem almost wilfully determined not to understand, it is also not easy to explain why you would want them to get their education at your expense. The second is specialist judgement, especially as far as creative work is concerned. Right now, at a non-specialist agency somewhere in the UK, there is a young creative team in the middle of noticing that hey, yeah, when you come to think about it, getting financial advice that is not well adapted to your needs is a bit like getting a suit that does not fit you very well. At some point in the next few weeks, they will take a photograph of a man in an ill-fitting suit and at some point in the new few months, their client, whoever it is, will run the 8,763rd ad likening bad financial advice to an ill-fitting suit. Amazingly enough, the young creative team and their colleagues in the non-specialist agency may never realise that they have just created the 8,763rd version of the world’s most cliched ad. But any half-decent specialist agency would realise this – as well as having similarly negative attitudes towards all the other equally cliched ideas, for example, including anything to do with a round-the-world cruise, a daughter’s wedding, men shaking hands, globes, analogies with gardening (usually to do with the concept of growth), surfboards (usually offshore), rowing (teamwork) or headlines asking whether your money is working as hard as you do. The third – and in my view the most important – benefit of specialisation is specialist passion and commitment. To explain why this matters so much, I have to share bad news with you. Imagine for the sake of argument an agency – it does not really matter what kind – that has a car account, a fashion account, a beer account, a confectionery account, a travel account and an insurance account and imagine for the sake of argument that this agency decides for some reason to ask its staff to rank these accounts in order of how much they want to work on them. I do not know which account is going to come first but I must tell you that I am 99.9 per cent sure which one is going to come last. This is seriously bad news for the insurance company. If I could give one piece of advice to clients wanting to know how to get great work, great service and great value from their agencies, I would simply say that they should aim to establish themselves as the agency’s most popular account – the one that all the best and brightest people are queuing up to work on. This is not, generally, the position that financial accounts hold in non-specialist agencies.On the contrary, they are the accounts that the best and brightest avoid like the plague. Why so many financial clients persist in giving large amounts of work and money to agencies who think of them, at best, as a barely necessary evil is a complete mystery to me. So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I say to you that when it comes to choosing agencies of all kinds to work on financial services business, the evidence points overwhelmingly towards the verdict that generalists are completely hopeless and specialists – especially, of course, the leading specialist, a firm by the rather peculiar name of cchm:ping – are indisputably the right choice. I understand that some people say I am biased and that there is another side to this argument which I am choosing to ignore but, then again, some people will say anything to try to sell what they have on offer, won’t they?
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