HSBC’s £400m global review that never was

March 9, 2013

Chris Clark HSBCSo, what was all that about? HSBC’s group marketing director Chris Clark calls a review of the “£400m” (actually rather less these days) global account late last year. Well, not exactly a review. More a series of private meetings that happen to take in the incumbent agency’s rivals at Omnicom, IPG and Publicis – just in case they have any bright ideas. No fundamental discussions take place on either strategy or creativity, because none are called for, even from the incumbent JWT.

Sniffing a rat, McCann (IPG) and BBDO (Omnicom) pull out. Late yesterday (a good time to bury news) it trickles out that WPP has, er, retained the account. But there have been a few twists of the kaleidoscope. Most salient is that outsider Saatchi & Saatchi (Publicis) will now handle the small-spending (relatively speaking) retail banking and wealth business across Europe and in Latin America. JWT is still at the epicentre, with the global brand business, but will now share the rest of the account with its WPP sister agency, Grey London.

Is this a classic piece of agency punishment meted out by the client? We still like you, WPP: but you’ve gone a bit flabby. So, just to make sure you’re on your toes, we’ll keep you on tenterhooks for a few months and then award a chunk of business to one of your rivals – to see how hungry they are.

Was it simply an exercise in cheese-paring the fees, as JWT officially likes to see it, on the part of one of the world’s wealthiest institutions?

Or is this Chris Clark desperately trying to justify his job as CMO (in all but name)? A marking time exercise, while he and his boss, HSBC chief executive Stuart Gulliver, dream up a successor to the faded strap line, The World’s Local Bank?

Because, of course, it isn’t anymore. If you rolled the market capitalisation of Barclays, Lloyds Bank and RBS together, they wouldn’t add up to that of HSBC – which remains by far Britain’s largest bank. But internationally, Gulliver has been busy rolling back the borders, with the divestment of businesses from as far afield as Argentina, Russia and Singapore. The proceeds of which were one contributory reason for the humungous profits the bank was able to declare only last week.

In the recent past, Clark has talked up the need to spend more marketing pounds on the product side (i.e., the separate bank businesses) and less on the corporate brand. One reasonable interpretation of this stance is that banks, in these bonus-bashing times, would do well to get their heads down to providing some basic customer service, as opposed to extravagantly boasting about their global expanse.

Another (they are not mutually exclusive) is that Clark and his colleagues haven’t got a clue what they should do. “In the future” doesn’t quite do it, does it? And in any case, as Clark himself once quipped, it’s more of a start than an end line.

Greed not marketing to blame for lack of trust in banks

December 1, 2012

Rich-Ricci-barclay_2266097bMy eye recently alighted upon the following headline in Marketing magazine: “Marketing ‘to blame’ for lack of trust in banks”. The article went on to say: “Senior banking executives have argued that marketing is to blame for the breakdown of consumer trust in financial services brands.”

Extraordinary. Bank officials in self-inculpation shock. I read on, avid for fresh enlightenment about the real roots of the 2008 global banking crisis. And was disappointed.

It turned out that the subs, in their eternal quest for the succinct and memorable, had been a little too sharp with their headline. The only bank marketer actually shouldering any of the responsibility was David Wheldon, now rejoicing in the title of head of brand, reputation and citizenship at Barclays Bank: and he, in any case, is a recent import from Vodafone. Furthermore, what Wheldon actually said was pretty anodyne:

“Marketing has let financial services down… The voice of customers has not been ever-present in decisions, and marketing must bring the voice of society to the table. A brand is what a brand does, and how you behave in the wider world forms whether you’re seen as a good citizen.”

Nevertheless, I think the subs unwittingly raised a very good question. To what extent has marketing been responsible for the banking crisis?

Not very much, I would suggest, when compared in the scales with systematic mis-selling and its parent, corrupt corporate culture.

The paradox about bank marketing is that, despite the vast budgets put at its disposal, no one takes very much notice of it. There are a variety of reasons for this: among them, overblown corporate claims unsusceptible to real analysis; phoney discounted interest rates showered upon the bewildered would-be customer like confetti; the perception that banks act as a cartel and are extremely unlikely to break ranks for the sake of a genuine marketing initiative; and customer inertia, which makes bank management as resistant to change as their customers.

But perhaps the most compelling reason why bank marketing is a study in failure is that the upper echelons of bank management don’t really believe in it themselves. Despite the eye-watering financial packages senior bank marketers command (when compared to industry benchmarks), only half-jokingly are they referred to as “heads of flower arrangement”; in effect they are of middling rank in the bank hierarchy. Top executives have rather more important things to worry about than the latest lick of corporate paint or flowers in the shop window. Things like the international money markets, their bonus structure, and, er, Libor.

Much more insightful on the breakdown of trust between the banks and the public than Wheldon et al speaking at the Marketing Society conference is Richard Ricci’s recent performance before a parliamentary committee. Ricci (image above, doing a passable imitation of a spiv at the races) has just been appointed head of Barclays’ investment operation. His predecessor was turfed out over the Libor scandal (for which the bank was fined £290m last June) and he has been entrusted the hapless task of cleansing the Augean stables after all the horses have bolted. Pressed hard on why he thought the banks had failed society, he admitted that they been allowed to put too much emphasis upon employee incentives to the exclusion of all other considerations:

At the top of the house, the industry, and I would say at times Barclays, was skewed maybe too much towards the financial performance and not enough towards the other areas. And so one of the pieces of work we’re doing is trying to get that balanced scorecard right around appraisals, around reward, to get all those interests aligned properly.

Greed, not marketing. Enough said.

Barclays bully should do his homework on Stonewall’s Bigot of the Year award

November 1, 2012

Tonight’s the night. The night, that is, when we finally discover who has won the much-uncoveted title of Bigot of the Year at the Stonewall annual awards.

Stonewall being a charity dedicated to promoting the civil rights of gays, lesbians and bisexuals, it requires little to imagine what kind of bigot might qualify for this category. Take any ante-diluvian churchman or off-guard Tory politician and you’re practically there as far as the longlist goes.

So far, so dull. But wait. This year, sponsors have decided to spice up the awards – by threatening to pull out if Stonewall goes ahead and announces a Bigot of the Year winner.

Coutts (RBS-owned, but sshh, don’t mention that to any of its wealthy customers) – which is only a category sponsor (the anodyne Writer of the Year) has already pulled its delegation from tonight’s hoe-down. And Barclays – which, rather more challengingly appears to be a general sponsor – has threatened to terminate its financial commitment.

Mark McLane, managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays told The Telegraph: “I have recently been made aware of the inclusion of a ‘Bigot of the Year’ category in the awards. Let me be absolutely clear that Barclays does not support that award category either financially, or in principle and have (sic) informed Stonewall that should they decide to continue with this category we will not support this event in the future. To label any individual so subjectively and pejoratively runs contrary to our view on fair treatment, and detracts from what should be a wholly positively focused event.”

So, righteous fulmination at the underhand introduction of a new category, eh, Mark? Well not quite. Some swift desk research, which even someone as grand as a managing director and head of Global Diversity and Inclusion might deign to do before opening his mouth, would reveal that Bigot of the Year has been a staple of the Stonewall awards since 2006. And, even more interestingly, Barclays itself seems to have supported the self-same awards since 2009. Now I know that there has been a lot of staff churn at Barclays recently and corporate memory tends to be – at the best of times – short. Even so, wakey, wakey, Mark. Or is Stonewall so low down the list of sponsorable causes that you simply haven’t noticed it before?

Either way, Stonewall should sack Barclays before Barclays sacks Stonewall. With friends like that… Surely corporate bullying is just the sort of thing Stonewall is trying to stamp out?

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