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Big is beastly, especially if we’re talking big banks like Barclays

August 28, 2012

Which brands make us most angry? Yes, you guessed correctly. The big ones that rip us off, starve us of mortgage funds, pilfer our savings and behave with amoral disregard for everyone’s interest but their own. Anything, in short, that ends with the word “Bank”.

But come, let’s be a bit more specific. How about some brand differentiation – which is the worst, and which the runner-up? Well, coming in at number 2 – just behind the winning “All banks” category – is Barclays. And next, in 7th position, is Royal Bank of Scotland.

I know all of this thanks to some research, just out, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by creative agency Johnny Fearless (of which more below).

Why don’t Lloyds, Santander and HSBC make it into the top 10? Surely not on account of the odour of sanctity. We can only speculate, but could it be that Barclays and RBS have the two biggest Swinging Dicks attached to their brand heritage, namely Bob Diamond and Fred the Shred? I doubt that most people know who Antonio Horta-Osario is, and would struggle to recall his name in sufficient detail if they did. Which is probably just as well for Horta-Osario and Lloyds Bank.

More interesting, if perplexing in some ways, is the identity of the other 7 members of this exclusive Top 10 club. Tenth equal with Coca-Cola is Nestlé – still regarded as a corporate pariah on account of its anti-social baby-milk marketing practices in developing countries. I’m sure that doesn’t depress sales of Kit-Kats and Yorkie bars one bit, though.

And what’s Coke doing in there? Sorry boys and girls, for all your tender investment in clean athleticism, those grubby practices in Third World countries have not gone unnoticed.

Next up, “All utilities companies” at number 8, on account of their high prices and perceived profiteering. But two deserving special mentions here are British Gas – with its conspicuously bad customer service; and BT – with its ineffectual overseas call centres.

Virgin Media is in there at number 8 as well, although I have yet to discover whether this is because we’re all being beastly to Beardie or on account of some graver underlying cause – such as woefully inadequate service.

That leaves us with McDonald’s at number 4 – poor quality food and an inappropriate Olympics sponsorship, apparently.

…And, weighing in at number 3, the nation’s unfavourite retailer – Tesco. Memo to Tesco CEO Phil Clarke: it’s because you’re too big for your boots, despoil our high streets and blackmail your suppliers. No other retailer can do this so successfully, it seems.

  1. Which companies or brands make you feel angry? 
  2. What is it they do to make you feel angry?
Rank Company or brand
1 All banks’, ‘Banks’
2 Barclays
3 Tesco
4 McDonald’s
5 BT
6 British Gas
7 Royal Bank of Scotland’, ‘RBS’
8= Virgin Media
8= Utilities’, ‘Energy companies’
10= Nestlé
10= Coca-Cola

The research was commissioned by Johnny Fearless and carried out by YouGov. Total sample size was 2077 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between August 3-6th 2012. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

Johnny Fearless is a Soho start-up agency founded by Paul Domenet and Neil Hughston, whose stock in trade is creating “social crackle” around brand messages. Or so it says in their publicity blurb.

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GlaxoSmithKline marketing scandal makes Barclays’ woes look like small change

July 4, 2012

This week, the US Justice Department fined a well-known multinational $3bn (£2bn) for serial corporate malpractice. And, in the manner of a suspended criminal sentence, it imposed on company managers – up to its chief executive – stringent measures for slashing their pay and bonuses should further illegal activity come to light.

Another bank getting the Barclays treatment? No. This is one of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies, GlaxoSmithKline, getting its comeuppance for inappropriately marketing a slew of prescription drugs.

The only reason we haven’t heard more is because Barclays’ former chief executive Bob Diamond is hogging the limelight, for which Glaxo CEO Sir Andrew Witty must be profoundly grateful. All Diamond and his colleagues did was to manipulate the money markets. What GSK has done, by contrast, is gamble with human lives – including children’s lives – in the hope of making a fast buck for its shareholders and management team.

It’s a grubby tale, stretching back over a decade, which involves bribery, treating, corporate bullying and wilful suppression of the truth. And an interesting definition of what appears to have passed for trade marketing in Big Pharma.

Glaxo admitted corporate misconduct over the mis-selling of three drugs, the anti-depressants Paxil (known over here as Seroxat) and Wellbutrin, plus the asthma drug Advair.

Most egregious, perhaps, was the “repositioning” of Paxil – once GSK’s best-selling drug – as safe for adolescents, when clinical trials had failed to establish any such premise. No expense was spared in covering up this inconvenient truth.

“Luxurious conferences were organised in exotic climes where paid-for scientific speakers hyped up the conclusions of dubious academic papers,” The Independent tells us.”GSK held 8 ‘Paxil forum’ events in Puerto Rico, Hawaii and California, where hundreds of doctors were treated to snorkelling, horse-riding, sailing, deep-sea fishing, balloon rides and spa treatments, and given an ‘honorarium’ of $750 in cash. The company knew it was worth paying for these kinds of boondoggles; it monitored the doctors who attended and found they significantly increased prescriptions of Paxil in the months after the event.” Note and appreciate the scientific attention to the analysis of marketing data.

And there is more. GSK published an article in a medical journal that mis-stated the drug was safe for use by children, despite being asked several times by the journal’s publisher to change the wording. (Why was the publisher not more insistent? Probably because it feared going out of business. It’s a small world, Big Pharma.) Copies of the offending article were then handed to sales reps, to help badger GPs into seeing GSK’s point of view.

In the case of Wellbutrin, GSK paid a well-known medical media star of the time, Dr Drew Pinsky, who hosted a then-popular radio show, nearly $300,000 to say nice things about it – like it could give you 60 orgasms in one night. Funnily enough, the good Doc failed to disclose to his audience, or anyone else for that matter, that he was taking the GSK shilling.

Woe betide you if you showed any scruples, however: when a GSK-funded doctor refused to suppress his own misgivings about the safety of the drug, GSK removed his funding.

What emerges about the marketing of the asthma drug Advair is its crassness. It was launched to sales reps in Las Vegas using images of slot machines – to emphasise the money they could make from bonuses. At the event, Jean-Pierre Garnier (pictured), the CEO on whose watch all these shenanigans went on, told them: “What is the number one reason why you should love to be a GSK rep? Advair’s bonus plan. Yeah!”

It’s reassuring to know our life is in their hands, isn’t it? Makes Barclays Bob look a bit of a saint by comparison.


Premier League scores spectacular own goal with new Barclays sponsorship deal

July 3, 2012

The Premier League just doesn’t get it, does it? The world is crashing around Barclays ears: its chief executive Bob Diamond has just been forced to step down by the Governor of the Bank of England; its chief operating officer Jerry del Missier has quit; its chairman Marcus Agius will be exiting in the coming months; and Bob’s top team of investment bankers face a mass clear-out (if, that is, they had anything to do with BarCap between 2005 and 2008, which is highly likely).

And what does the Premier League do? It inks another sponsorship deal with Barclays Bank, this time for a whopping £35m a year over 3 years (or so Brand Republic tells us).

Granted, when scandal strikes, the boot is usually on the other foot: it’s the sponsor that  assesses the collateral brand damage and, if necessary, does the firing. For instance: Coca-Cola repudiating its association with Wayne Rooney, after the latter consorted with a prostitute while his wife was pregnant; everyone junking Tiger Woods once his elaborate sexual gymnastics came to light; Vodafone shaking a big stick at McLaren Mercedes (but not much else) over cheating on the F1 track; and Emirates Airline threatening to drop its World Cup sponsorship because of FIFA chief Sepp Blatter’s limp-wristed approach to racism on the pitch.

But the scandal now engulfing Barclays is of such epic proportions that even the Premier League – not normally known for its ethical sensitivity – should carefully consider whether it is prudent to continue its association with such a blighted brand. Let’s face it, it doesn’t look too clever, does it? ‘We’re a wholesome family sport, happy to take money from anyone – cheats and spivs especially welcome’.

Of course, the Premier League commercial negotiators have been unlucky in their timing. Little were they to know that, as protracted negotiations were nearing their conclusion, international financial regulators would hit Barclays with a £290m fine for manipulating the interbank lending rate. Even so, a suspension in the negotiations would now be the intelligent way forward – while the Premier League looks for an alternative commercial partner; and Barclays does the decent thing by withdrawing its offer. Tip for Premier League negotiators: try sectors other than financial services. It will save pain later.


Poor old Diamond Bob – a martyr to Barclays’ brand values

June 28, 2012

BarclaysA lot of people are accusing Barclays Bank and its chief executive Bob Diamond of racketeering. Acting like white-collar gangsters, in other words. They say the bank and its principal directors colluded in serial distortion of the interbank rate, Libor. What this means in plain English is that they beggared us – the saps who are their customers – with artificially inflated interest rates on loans and mortgages  – in order to enrich first themselves, through bigger bonuses, and then their shareholders, through bigger dividends. Barclays has been fined a total of £290m by the regulatory authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. But it’s the thin edge of a very thick financial wedge. Once the lawyers get weaving on behalf of aggrieved customers, who knows where the liability will end up?

Martin Taylor, a former Barclays CEO himself, summed it up best on this morning’s Today Programme. He said that Barclays had engaged in “systematic dishonesty” between the years 2005 and 2009. While he didn’t explicitly link Diamond – who then happened to be head of BarCap, the division most closely tied to the scandal – with the gigantic swindle, he did say that chief executives set the cultural tone of the businesses they run. Implication: Diamond should retire to the discreetest room in his penthouse suite and make good use of a service revolver. Diamond – Taylor implied – may, or may not, have colluded in such corrupt dealing practices; but because they happened on his watch, he was at very least grossly negligent.

Now I know what I’m about to say isn’t going to be popular, but I’ll say it all the same. Was Bob so very wrong in what he did – or rather, for the sake of any legal eagles looking in – er, what he didn’t do? I mean, at least Barclays Bank co-operated with the investigative authorities, whereas other banks did not. Barclays is paying the price of being first to fess up: a media Exocet amidships.

Then again, the bank took not a penny of public money in the wake of the Lehman Bros collapse. All right, it was pretty stupid to allow such an unredacted and inculpatory email trail to get into the hands of the regulators. But at least you won’t hear any trading floor intercepts along the following lines: “Dude, thanks a billion in Treasury credits. I owe you big time. But not as much as I owe the taxpayer. Come over after work and let’s break open the Bollie.”

I’m not sure the same will be said of RBS and Lloyds. Both were big recipients of taxpayers’ bail-outs, and both – along with HSBC, Citigroup, JP Morgan, UBS, Deutsche Bank and others I probably don’t even know of yet – are, so it seems, up to their gills in interest-rate-rigging mire too. Poor old RBS. Talk about reputational damage: it’s not only guilty of systemic incompetence with customers’ direct debits, but of “systematic dishonesty” in charging them higher interest rates as well. Will this publicly-owned company owned by the public ever recover?

But I digress. Bob’s is the head that everyone wants to stick on a pike over Tower Gate. That’s because everything about Bob is Big and Boastful. Biggest salary, biggest bonus, biggest ego. He is, in short, the archetypal arrogant, swaggering, fat cat.

And as such, he has been entirely consistent with Barclays brand values over the years. Do you not remember Barclays brand ambassador Anthony Hopkins telling us how, if you weren’t big, you were nothing in banking circles? You don’t, do you? So, here as an aide-memoire is a superbly-crafted ad by Leagas Delaney, dating from 2000:

Sometimes, you see, advertising really can convey complex, uncomfortable, inner truths – without the client even noticing. Bob did, of course. He’s been a part of Barclays’ cultural furniture since 1996. He took the message very seriously indeed and acted out the part. What a brand martyr the man is!


Watch out, there’s a Hytner about – Jim takes the helm at IPG’s Initiative

March 4, 2012

Interesting to see that Jim Hytner – whose career has more switchbacks to it than the mille miglia – is once more emerging triumphant from the quicksand of a career in marketing.

Hytner has just replaced long-serving Richard Beaven as worldwide chief executive of Interpublic Group subsidiary Initiative. Beaven (a surprisingly urbane man for the head of a media-buying house) has apparently left to spend more time with his passion for photography, an alternative vocation he says he has toyed with since childhood.

While none of this is to be doubted, we wonder whether he was also uncomfortably lodged in a career cul-de-sac. Beaven was once seen as a successor to Nick Brien when Brien left Mediabrands (the overarching arm of Interpublic’s media operations) to take on the top job at McCann Worldgroup. But the Mediabrands role instead went to Beaven’s chief rival at Universal McCann, Matt Seiler, who has been aggressively reorganising McCann’s media operations ever since.

Anyway, enter Jim. He’s relatively new to the world of media buying, having joined another IPG subsidiary, Universal McCann’s G14 (essentially the bits that aren’t America), as its boss only two years or so ago. Like Brien, he’s a Brit who has done rather well in the upper echelons of American-dominated McCann – the traditional breadbasket of Interpublic Group. There, however, the parallel ends. Where Brien is essentially a media services specialist who has made it into top agency management, Hytner’s much more colourful career has embraced the full ambit of marketing: he’s been an FMCG client; marketing director at some of Britain’s top television companies; client at one of Britain’s leading banks; a digital content wonk; and is now trying his hand – seemingly successfully – at the agency business.

The first thing to note about Jim is he is the youngest scion of a talented and very competitive family. All three Hytner brothers – the sons of a successful Manchester barrister – have set the bar high in their chosen fields. Nicholas, now Sir Nicholas, is the director of the National Theatre with such successes as the Madness of George III and The History Boys to his name. Richard, a lawyer by training and a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is now deputy chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide.

“Cheeky chappy” Jim, less cerebral than his two brothers (they went to Oxbridge; he went to a redbrick), gives every appearance of being a lot more entrepreneurial. Certainly the young Hytner was prepared to give anything a go. First, like his eldest brother, he tried to tread the boards, but this was trumped by a potential career as a chef de cuisine. The way he tells it, his attempts to follow in the footsteps of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay stopped dead one night, when thanks to a kitchen shift at the exclusive Miller House Hotel in the Lake District, he suddenly realised he was going to miss the 1985 FA Cup Final between Manchester United and Everton. To say that Jim is fanatical about Manchester United would be a considerable understatement. He (like more self-effacing elder brother Richard – though I’m not so sure of Sir Nick’s views on this subject) eats, lives and breathes the club’s highs and lows. “It’s the one final I’ve ever missed in my whole life, so I thought I can’t be doing with this hotel lark,” he tells us. Haute cuisine‘s loss was marketing’s or, more specifically, Kraft’s gain.

To this day, football analogies are never long absent from Jim’s utterances. And, in truth, it is a passion that has stood his career in good stead in the laddish, sports-mad environments of Sky TV, ITV – where he was marketing director – and (dare I mention it?) media buying circles. Though what Americans make of all this “soccer” talk, I have no idea.

Will Jim ever reach the top – conceivably, in time, replacing Brien? Over the years, Hytner’s maverick antics have made him a rather endearing fixture of the UK marketing scene. But they have also raised questions about his gravitas. This, after all, was the man who dreamt up those infamous idents of celeb TV personality Keith Chegwin in the nude when he was marketing director of Channel 5. What Jim may choose to call “brave” others in the industry characterise as controversy for the sake of controversy. He did something to allay this enfant terrible reputation during a (comparatively sober) stint as UK marketing director of Barclays Bank. But it remains to be seen whether he has mellowed sufficiently in his middle years…


Why HSBC £40m fine over mis-selling scandal gives marketing a bad name

December 6, 2011

Chris Barraclough is right. While the marketing community obsesses about Marks & Spencer lingerie ads, Size Zero models, Twitter trending and the monetisation of Facebook, it is almost entirely oblivious to some criminality of Dickensian proportions tarnishing its name.

Criminality? We’re talking big banks here, and yet another “mis-selling” scandal, although in truth the scandal involves everything from new product development through to sales, marketing and marcoms. Not to mention some truly appalling internal supervision, with a hint  of News International about it.

Villain of the piece is HSBC, Britain’s biggest bank, which has just been fined £10.5m by financial services regulator the FSA and ordered to pay back £29.5m to old age pensioners it had systematically swindled out of their savings over a period of 5 years.

It’s a complex story with many, unflattering, angles. Here are a few of them, to give the flavour. The mis-selling involved an investment bond with a capital protection element. The snag was, you had to put the money away for about 5 years or incur a huge financial penalty. Many of the 2,485 victims were very old; one was 94 – the average age was 83. Obviously, a large number had a life-expectancy shorter than the term of the bond. Yet, they were easy prey, not necessarily on account of mental infirmity but because they were 1) capital rich (compared to most of the rest of the population) and 2) very fearful of the eventual cost of living in a halfway decent care home. Quite a few sold their houses to fund what they were told was the answer to their financial prayers; on average, they handed over £115,000 each. The average loss was £11,790 per customer, spookily adjacent to the £11,500 commission over 5 years received by advisors who had helped to sell the product. The FSA judged that 87% of sales were “inappropriate”.

HSBC is not solely culpable. It bought the rogue organisation responsible, Nursing Home Fees Agency, long after it had been set up in 1991 – presumably on the basis that NHFA was a nice little earner (as indeed it was). Then, too, NHFA came highly recommended. Help the Aged, the charity, was being paid commission for passing on names to the NHFA, while the Royal British Legion listed the company as a place to seek advice on how to pay for care fees. NHFA salesmen were also aided by a listing in the government’s financial advice website at Direct.gov.uk.

For all I know, malpractice may date back two decades. But that hardly exonerates HSBC, which took 4 years to wake up to something being rotten and then to report it. NHFA was only closed down in July of this year.

Horrendous though this mugging of pensioners may be, it would be nice to think of it as an isolated incident. No such luck.  In January 2011 Barclays was fined £7.7m and ordered to pay £60m compensation to thousands of elderly victims of a similar mis-selling scandal. In April, the banks finally lost a case in the high court, after years of procrastination over the payment protection insurance scandal – making them liable for billions of pounds of compensation. In May, the Bank of Scotland, a subsidiary of Lloyds Banking Group, was fined £3.5m and forced to pay £17m compensation to elderly customers after – guess what? – selling them risky investments.

How do they get away with it? Well, because they can. These fines may seem astronomical by my standards or yours, but they are a spit in the ocean compared with the Big Fours’ bottom lines. HSBC, for example, made interim profits of about £7bn this year. Banks also benefit from a culture of impunity. This is usually taken to mean stratospheric and wholly unjustified annual bonuses, or irresponsible, arcane, casino investments that eventually bring the house down. It is equally apparent they have a licence to plunder the needy and vulnerable with little fear of meaningful retribution.

For that state of affairs we too, as Barraclough implies in his blog post, are partly responsible. And marketers, obsessed with youth and cutting-edge technology, especially so. Finance, particularly retail finance such as pensions, investment bonds and mutual funds, is nit-pickingly complex and unsexy. It’s also, as often as not, about an unsexy sector – the over 50s – who happen to own most of the nation’s wealth. So we defer to the so-called experts. These experts don’t mind being boring, in fact they positively revel in it. And you can well see why.


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