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Sky high hopes for future of IFA market

At a time when the Treasury and FSA plan to undermine independent financial advice, one of the world&#39s media giants is pouring millions of pounds into an interactive TV channel geared towards IFAs&#39 needs.

BSkyB is embarking on an extended period of consultation with IFAs, product provi ders, trade bodies and the regu lator to shape the agenda, con tent, style and scope of its planned Financial Channel.

Due for launch next year, the channel could revolutio nise the way IFAs are trained and communicate with provid ers.

Unlike the Government, Sky has identified independent advice as a robust and lucrative market which warrants its own dedicated multi-media interactive channel.

Sky says it is not doing this because it is emotionally emb roiled in the long-fought battle to defend independent financial advice. It is establishing the channel because it makes good commercial sense.

DBS spokeswoman Sue Lewis says: “IFAs remain the consumer&#39s number-one choice so it should come as no surprise to those involved in the market that, out of all the sectors it could have selected, financial advisers are at the top of Sky&#39s hit list.”

The media giant has already kicked off its business-to-business TV enterprise with channels for the automotive and drinks industries. But it is a testament to the strength of the market for independent financial advice that Sky has this industry firmly in its sights.

The company believes it is a perfect time to enter the world of financial services although question marks exist over which avenues of revenue the channel will exploit.

It sees the market as strong and dynamic but in need of a an extra hand when it comes to raising standards, cleaning up its image and continuing to deliver the best possible deal for consumers.

The core content of Sky&#39s proposed channel will incl ude up-to-the-minute industry news, product information and analysis, expert panel reviews and discussion forums.

The scope for continuing pr ofessional development is also being explored, with Sky seek ing talks with the FSA and CII to discuss how CPD and best practice can be worked into the project.

The channel will be laun ched parallel to an extranet service which can be tailored to diff erent audiences. For exam ple, members of a network might be offered res tric ted acc ess to different pro gramming.

A website will also run alongside the TV channel, where it is hoped IFAs can download application forms after watching product reviews.

With an audience consisting principally of IFAs and their back-office staff, tied agents, bank staff and life office emp loyees, those competing for airtime are likely to include product developers, broker con sultants, IFA leaders and trainers.

The channel would also provide the perfect forum for those in power to face the professio nals whose livelihood dep ends on them understanding the value of independent advice.

Another possible application could be to use combined new technologies to replace common trading platforms such as M-Link, Assureweb and The Exchange.

Yet some industry experts remain unconvinced this will happen for a while.

Misys editor-in-chief Paul Charles says: “It is a good idea and we would be delighted to talk to them. We do not see this as a threat – that is like saying The Money Pro gra mme is a threat to the business pages in national news papers.

“There are lots of ways of working together. I think this could provide invaluable information from providers but, if it was going to transact, it would take three or more years.”

The Financial Technology Centre consultant and director Ian McKenna says: “They are going to need a huge amount of infrastructure if they are planning a CTP. Sky would be asking life offices for money at a time when they are already saying they cannot cope with demands from current pro vi ders. It would be better to partner with an existing player.”

So far, the reaction from product providers has been very positive, perhaps in antici pation of the potential cost savings of communicating with a notoriously splintered audience through the new channel.

Those which have already registered initial approval for the move include Standard Life, Norwich Union, Clerical Medical, Scottish Life and Scottish Equitable.

However, there is initial scepticism among some IFAs. Tor quil Clark pensions development manager Tom McPhail says: “I wish them well but they are going to have to work very hard to make it work. They will need a huge chunk of market share to make it pay.

“Are IFAs really going to go home and switch on their televisions to watch an IFA training programme? They are more likely to watch the football.”

But the feeling is mostly positive. The news of such a highly visible investment in the sector could not come at a better time for the market as it attempts to hold its nerve during uncertain times.

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