Now, where’s the thought?

Barclays’ latest TV ad sets a new low standard for the bank.

Davidreviews has a stream of it here. It’s a fantasy in which a young executive creates a debit card that can be made to vanish at a touch. This he explains to a colleague makes it theftproof. So excited are they at this genius that they engage in a dance making the invisible card fall on the floor so they don’t know where it is. (I think we’re supposed to find this funny.)

At which point, the voiceover intones,

“At Barclays, we’re always looking for new ways to protect you from fraud.”

Followed by the tagline

“Barclays. Now there’s a thought.”

Err… sorry… where is the thought in this?

This is an ad which really has nothing to say at all. Is there any concrete example of a real innovation they’re offering us? No. Just the waffly claim that they’re always looking for new ways to protect us (except when they’re busy squandering millions on this exercise in vanity). With the suggestion that they’re a bit silly and overenthusiastic (which I suppose might be true of their marketing department). Back in the day, Barclays actually was an innovative organisation… it pioneered credit cards in the UK, and was ahead of the game in inventing cash machines. Now they’re reduced to this shallow posing.

It’s pathetic. In recent years, the best Barclays has managed is to run ads with Anthony Hopkins about how BIG they were. Then ones with Samuel L Jackson telling some fairy tale to let us know they were “fluent in finance”. (That line lasted a year or two and now, it seems, has been quietly buried.) Now they’ve hired Bernard Hill (who played Theoden in LOTR) to try to add gravitas to the voiceover for this bit of flim-flam. This is an organisation with a serious case of Brand Narcissism. Every couple of years, a new pose, each more trivial than the last.

This is the sort of fatuous rubbish that gets me grumbling out loud at my television. For me, it’s the mark of an organisation that’s failing to engage in a real conversation with its customers. Instead, its high powered executives are preening themselves in the mirror and wondering if they look good in their latest promotional costume.

This sort of tripe can only arise from a marketing department where there’s a complete failure of internal conversation. Having worked in the business, I can easily imagine the series of meetings in which agency and client pretend to themselves that this is a great idea. That it’s “research-based” (which translates as, we wasted a ton of money on research, so let’s spend millions on a TV ad to support the pretence that we discovered something.) And no-one had the nerve to point out the elephant under the table: the ad is childish nonsense.

And if a massive bank can’t look at the state of the world and the real issues facing its customers and find something intelligent to say, then its got serious problems. This is the attention economy after all.

I was a bit surprised to find this was the work of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, the agency that just won the British Airways account. BBH’s site says “great creative work should be rooted in great strategic thinking”. They might claim to have done that for some of their clients. But here, they’ve conspicuously failed.

The Marketing Blog also points to a prnewswire report that an accountancy firm is suing Barclays over the line “now there’s a thought” as they’ve been using it for 5 years.

It also reports that “The campaign and accompanying strategy to position the bank as customer facing and approachable has been masterminded by group marketing director Jim Hytner.” I wonder if Jim is the brother of Nicholas Hytner, the director of The Madness of King George? In the time of his insanity, King George III carried on a conversation with an oak tree as if it were the King of Prussia. I imagine that his courtiers had to go along with the delusion. That’s probably what it’s like in the court of Barclays bank.

6 thoughts on “Now, where’s the thought?

  1. Chris Lawer

    Johnnie. I had the exact same sentiments. Sadly, the second ad – the “robotic financial planning adviser” – is even worse than its invisible credit card precursor. I find that there is nothing worse than using a bunch of in-company smart ass suits act as spokespersons for the “brand”. Sadly, what both ads suggest is that Barclays staff spend more time mucking around, acting like complete t*ssers instead of implementing decent and REAL innovations that deploy their vast billions of profit to betetr serve their customers. Perhaps they are just devoid of any proper ideas….

  2. Andrew Marritt

    I suspect that the marketing folks at Barclays don’t suffer because they don’t listen to the rest of their colleagues, but because many of their colleagues believe they understand, and can craft the marketing message. Most importantly that senior management in the businesses set the marketing agenda not the marketing folk.

    Fluent in finance was supposed to be an expression how the bank could lead in knowledgeable advice. They didn’t want to be seen as the sort of friendly, ‘matey’ organisation that, let’s say, Halifax was positioning itself as. The campaign was pretty well received, well if you believe those Millward-Brown type of surveys.

    There are / were two issues here. First, they never owned financial fluency, certainly not in a way that Credit Suisse or UBS would claim to in the domestic Swiss market. The second arises from their history and that of the other big UK banks – they are not seen by most of the UK as businesses but as institutions.

    Barclays can’t compete with many of the new entrants on things such as product (look at the innovation of Halifax Cards compared to Barclaycard) and that includes price. The customers that bank probably wants are not ones who will jump for the latest 0% offer but those who want to develop deeper relations to manage complex financial issues. From an outsiders view I suspect that they want the position of a UBS or Credit Suisse here in Switzerland. Of course these inertia based clients are profitable in a cash-cow way and will give certain business leaders power even though aren’t ideal in the long-term.

    Unfortunately for Barclays its institution position in the UK market (here it is seen as a premium brand) means it can’t say ‘we don’t really want you’ to its lower income clients. It’s seen as an institution and the British public believe that they have a right to bank with them at ‘fair’ prices. Instead it charges realistic cost-based prices which are not competitive because Barclays doesn’t have a cost-structure well designed to support this group. However, many customers don’t shift to banks better geared to serve them and the Barclays of this world make huge profits on the back of this. I suspect it would rather they go to a Halifax in the long-term.

    A really big issue for them is that most of their branch staff don’t fit into the ideal Barclays customer profile but do fit the ideal Halifax one. As the bank can’t say ‘we are really best suited for reasonably wealthy clients with complex finances’ because of the institution view and the certain bank-bashing that would follow the staff can’t understand why it can’t compete. They see a Halifax offering a good product mix and can’t understand why their employer can’t. Put it simply, they don’t believe in their employer. (Their employer continues to buy wealth management businesses like Gerrard to build the client base it really wants and I suspect is well positioned to serve).

    I suspect some of their staff see the approachable positioning of a Halifax, see how well that organisation is performing in the market and want some of it hence the new campaign. They don’t see the campaign and strategy being out of alignment. I suspect marketing have been told to ‘listen to the staff’.

    18 months ago Barclays did a visual identity relaunch – new logo, quite rigid style guidelines etc. Its aim was to bring the brand position together in a similar manner to HSBC. It was deeply unpopular internally partly because it wasn’t understood which is partly because the bank can’t tell its staff who it really wants to bank with it. Every time I’m in the UK I see it in a further watered-down version. I suspect now with a new marketing director wanting to make his mark he has listened to these staff and decided to U-turn to be approachable and ‘matey’.

    Because marketing traditionally was directed by the business they got to a situation where each product group or business unit created its own adverts. None of them related to the others. There was no central position or long-term planning done. Marketing was seen as a short-term lever at the business level.

    It’s because marketing is probably run by the business that they have the issues they do. Marketing in the business is weak, not able to implement the necessary long-term approach. I guess it’s the senior non-marketing people who demanded this sort of rubbish and the marketing folk just gave them what they wanted.

    Sorry if this is a bit too long, hopefully it makes sense.

  3. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks for the support Chris.

    Andrew: Great comment… one of the reasons I like to blog is to get this sort of input and elaboration… The picture you paint is of an organisation that can’t carry an honest conversation with itself. The real creative effort could go into finding ways to talk more authentically, not wasting money on another here today, gone tomorrow ad campaign.

  4. Michael Homula

    This is an exceptional blog post with some truly intelligent comments. I do hope I don’t dumb it down. I’ll be brief.

    Over here on this side of the pond banks are even less creative and less in touch with their customers than evidenced in this blog about Barclays.

    The undeniable truth is that all banks are the same. The same boring products, the same boring services and often the same boring talent being bought and sold between them. In fact, it is the sharing of the same boring talent that drives the rest of the approach banks take. It is a very incestuous world when it comes to how and where they hire the talent (or lack of talent in this case) behind all this boredom. When they keep trading talent they keep trading the same tired and played out ideas as well as the same aweful approach to customers.

    Banks are so insulated from their customer because of their top down heirarchy of leadership, drawn from the military mind you, that the customer has now become a sort of “enemy”. It shows up in the way banks treat the customer and their employee talent. Have a daring idea and work for a bank? You won’t be working there for long!

    This has been a problem that has been festering inside of the banking community for a long time. Actually putting it out there in public ad campaigns only sheds light on the enormity of the problem and demonstrates how disconnected and full of themselves bank executives and leadership really are.

  5. Big vs local

    Johnnie Moore has a post about what seems to be a dire ad from Barclays. Obviously, it isn’t running in Beijing, so I haven’t seen it myself (and I can’t be bothered to download it).


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