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Why Aberdeen Asset Management wants to be the Intel of financial services

Piers Currie - Aberdeen Asset ManagementWhat’s the biggest, most successful, company you’ve never heard of? Impossible to say, of course. But a good candidate would be Aberdeen Asset Management.

It’s in the FTSE-100; it’s genuinely global. And it’s very profitable indeed, judging from its latest interim figures. Just to make the point: profit before tax increased 37% to £223m; earnings were up 43%, while the dividend increased 36%. And it manages financial assets of £212bn.

Yes Siree, the people at the top of this company are heading for deferred bonus payments that will make Sir Martin Sorrell’s look like a storm in a teacup. And, do you know what? There won’t be a squeak of dissent from shareholders.

Anonymity – outside the global capital markets – has served Aberdeen well these past 30 years. It has had little need to trumpet its wares through the megaphone of mass-media publicity, since what it does – trade in equities, fixed income instruments, properties and multi-asset portfolios – is mainly aimed at the wholesale financial market (other people sell the product on), and has little resonance with the punter on the street – unless that punter happens to be reasonably wealthy in the first place. True, Aberdeen has spent some trifling amount on a corporate ID (it looks a bit like a mountainous ‘A’) and does dispose of a £20m annual global marketing budget (peanuts for any equivalently-ranged consumer products company). But most of that money goes on getting a word in the right, expert, ear – via the rapier of PR and that trusty old ambush-marketing technique, the roadshow, rather than the blunderbuss of advertising.

Not any longer, however. This week Aberdeen is launching a global corporate branding campaign – its first since 1983. “Simply asset management”, the strap line, may not sound like rocket-science but, in fact, it is shrewdly timed. And for that, presumably, we must thank Aberdeen’s long-serving head of marketing (now group head of brand), Piers Currie (pictured above).

At a time when interest rates on deposit accounts are near zero (after inflation is factored in, you effectively pay the bank, not the other way round), investors are finding it increasingly difficult to gain a reasonably safe return on their financial investment. They must therefore turn to more risky asset classes – fixed income instruments and, more fashionably, shares. Who to trust in this treacherous financial world, however? Certainly not the universal banks – discredited bancassurance conglomerates that were yesteryear’s financial toast – who have comprehensively fleeced us of our savings, through rank incompetence, downright fraud or a combination of both.

Aberdeen’s modest proposition is that it is a narrow specialist; but within a field where it has gained great expertise and evidence-based returns. Stuff that isn’t going to be lost in the miasma of a bank’s balance sheet, and is there for all to see – should you wish to. There’s been an element of luck here, but also a good deal of judgement. When chief executive Martin Gilbert set up Aberdeen (it was a management buyout from an investment trust, which owed its name to its physical location in Aberdeen), he deliberately targeted emerging markets, and in particular the Far East, as the company’s area of fund management expertise. At the time, ’emerging markets’ were the financial equivalent of  the Wild West. Today, they’re mainstream. Anyone without a decent chunk of his or her portfolio in China, Brazil, India, Hong Kong or Singapore is probably suffering from asset imbalance.

Aberdeen’s sweet-spot won’t, of course, last forever. But while it does, it has – on the evidence so far – a reasonable claim to being regarded as the Intel of financial services.

Which is what this corporate makeover seems to be about.

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