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.


The ads that defined Tony Scott

August 22, 2012

For the late Sixties Hollywood Britpack – Ridley Scott, Alan Parker, Hugh Hudson, Adrian Lyne, David Puttnam – commercials production was the school where they learned the film-making art.

Tony, Ridley’s younger brother by 7 years, was no exception. Initially, having graduated from the Royal College of Art, he hankered after the austere, attic-lit life of the painter. But materialism – and maybe common sense – got the better of him. In 1967, Ridley Sr lured him into joining his nascent production company RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) with the promise of a Ferrari. It is invidious making a selection from the hundreds of high-grade TV commercials that followed during what the younger Scott later described as a generation of “girls, jeans, rock and roll – a wild period in advertising; … a blast.” But here, all the same, are a few milestones:

First, what we might now refer to as Barclays’s finest hour, with Anthony Hopkins in the starring role of Bob Diamond. A classic, even 12 years later:

Then the Viggen jet fighter ad for Saab, which allegedly put Tony in the frame for making Top Gun, his best-known film:

And finally, finally – his last ad, made for BBDO and Mountain Dew, and featuring Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban :

It’s all in that last line, isn’t it? “But I’m Mark Cuban!” Scott’s sudden death last Sunday remains a mystery. His wife has discounted all rumours that he was suffering from “inoperable brain cancer”.


Sir Martin Sorrell – a fit and proper Olympic torch-bearer?

July 10, 2012

“Millionaire at centre of ‘fat cat’ row will carry the Olympic torch through streets of East London” howled the Daily Mail, in one of its ‘world exclusives’.

Downpage, there were 57 varieties of indignation from the good folk of the north-eastern London borough of Redbridge, all queuing up to express their disgust and dismay at the soiling experience of having someone not themselves carrying the sacred flame through their hallowed land.

Charlotte Law, 19, was typical (of Daily Mail reportage, at any rate): “I would be much better at carrying the torch than him. At least I’m from around here. Did he have to apply like everyone else? I don’t think so. It’s a disgrace.”

And you could sympathise with her. The bastard. He may have given up his £20m bonus rights, but here he was trying to worm his way back into the big time by wielding an Olympic torch.

But no, not Bob Diamond. It was someone most of them had never heard of, until coached by Mail hacks. Some bloke called Sir Martin Sorrell. Something to do with a big advertising company and a scandal. He’d asked for much too much money (don’t they all?) and been told he couldn’t have it.

We don’t want his sort round here. Michael Aldridge, a 51-year old care worker, summed it all up: “It goes completely against the Olympics spirit, but it’s not about that any more, it’s about money.”

Let me put you right on that, Michael: it always was. Even in ancient Greece, where a prodigious amount of vicious cheating and betting invested the quadrennial games like a swampy miasma. Come to think of it, the Olympic Torch Relay itself isn’t exactly of blameless historical pedigree. It was introduced in 1936, just in time to fanfare the Nazi games. The Nazis were very good at that sort of thing.

But, coming back to Sir Martin, what is it – precisely – that he has, or hasn’t, done to qualify as one of 8,000 bearers of the Torch? Well, behind the scenes, he has since 2005 been giving a good deal of his valuable time to promoting and supporting, pro bono, the London Olympics. And, as if that weren’t disqualification enough, he has actually been asked by the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland to carry the torch!

Outrageous. You know Sir Martin’s problem? He’s not one of the Little People – except of course in the literal sense. He’s one of them, the elite, who rule our lives. But then, the last I heard, the Olympics – motto: Faster, Higher, Stronger –  is all about elitism. It’s a gladiatorial contest where the best man – and woman – always wins. How inegalitarian is that?


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!


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