GUEST COLUMN: Whose side is the compliance department on?

Lucian Camp

Brand & Marketing Consultant

Lucian Camp Consulting

Lucian Camp is a financial services brand consultant, copywriter, author and blogger. He co-presents the On The Other Hand podcast.

Financial services research and consumer insight company The Wisdom Council is the latest in a long, long line of firms to have carried out a survey finding that consumers have a horrendously low opinion of the communications we address to them.  They don’t understand them, they don’t believe them, they find them too long, too complicated and terribly boring and, by and large, they don’t read them.

As someone who’s spent about half my time in a 40-year financial services marketing career writing this thoroughly detested material, you’d probably expect all this to make me feel more than a little ashamed of myself.

Well, to be honest, you’d be partly right.  There have been times when I’ve taken too much understanding for granted,  and used words and concepts that have left my readers puzzled and confused.

But I have to say that my failings pale into insignificance when compared with the organisation which, it seems to me, works tirelessly to make financial communications as boring, mysterious and impenetrable as it possibly can.  That organisation is, as every financial writer knows, the Financial Conduct Authority.  And of course it’s hugely aided and abetted in its task of preventing understanding by its agents in compliance departments all over the industry, who act as the interpreters (and often the misinterpreters) of the regulator’s often-cryptic rules and regulations.

I’m not going to bore you with a micro-focused whinge about how these idiots changed this sentence or cut that adjective;   I’d prefer to keep it more general.   I am, actually, quite a good writer.  The first drafts I write for my clients aren’t too bad.  They’re clear, they’re lively, they have a bit of a snap to them.  As far as possible, I’ll try to make sure that they have a voice which is distinctive to that client, reflecting the personality of its brand and fitting with the preferences of its target market.

But by the time Draft 16 finally appears, online or in print or wherever, you’d never know.  The clarity, liveliness and snap are long gone.  And the tone of voice has been chipped away, with watered-down compliance-speak creating a kind of verbose blurriness that so much financial copy shares.

I know what you’re thinking.  I’m just an over-excitable copywriter, who hypes up the stories he’s telling with over-promises and over-simplifications which have to be pulled back to something approaching reality by sensible grown-ups.

I certainly can’t say I never get over-excited.  But, honestly, after 40 years I’d like to think I do more or less know what I can say and what I can’t.  Except that obviously I don’t.  Because if I did, it wouldn’t take 16 drafts to get the copy signed off.

As you go through those endless redrafts, what happens is that you lose the will to …. well, not to live exactly, but you lose the will to try to do something any good.  Way back at Draft 1, you start by trying to write a story that people might actually understand and enjoy.  By the time the finishing post comes into sight, fifteen drafts later, all that’s long gone.  You’ll write anything, make any change, that means it’ll soon be over.

I expect an FCA person would reject all this.  He or she would probably say that the rules aren’t as damaging as I’m saying, and anyway a big part of the problem is over-zealous interpretation by compliance departments.  At one level that’s probably true:  but the reality is that the FCA’s modus operandi, expressing its requirements as abstract, intangible concepts which have to be translated by anxious, risk-averse compliance people, makes over-zealous interpretation an inevitability.

In time, some compliance people actually forget whose side they’re on.  Having come to believe that keeping the regulator happy is the first item in their job description, they take satisfaction in making the copy worse.  That, they think to themselves as they order up another box of blue pencils, was a good day at the office.

If this is how I feel, I expect it seems odd that I’m still doing it.  I suppose I’m an optimist, a glass-half-full kind of guy, and I top up my enthusiasm tank with the one job in twenty which actually turns out more or less how I hoped it would.

But I fear I’m in a minority.  A lot of good writers who find their way into the financial world find their way out of it again as soon as possible.  And of those who stay, with the greatest of respect to my most immediate peer group, many are gradually ground down by a process which does permanent damage to the talent they began with.

That’s really bad, because good writing is more important in financial services than in most other parts of the consumer economy.  Financial services are difficult, important and very often completely intangible, and that’s a combination that means good writing matters.

It is, obviously, an extraordinary irony that the organisation whose job is to protect the interests of consumers is playing such a central role in alienating them.  It would be good if they understood this better.

And with this in mind, I’d like to suggest to my friends at The Wisdom Council that they might think about a follow-up research study, looking behind the depressing findings of their latest piece of work and asking a sample of financial copywriters why so much of their output is quite so generally ghastly.

If three-quarters of them don’t mention the FCA as one of the most important reasons, I’ll be astounded.

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

Previous article

Pacific Asset Management: How small marketing teams can compete with an Apple mentality

Next article

INTERVIEW: Challenger Ashman promises to ‘make better happen’

Get access to valuable thought leadership from the financial services marketing industry

Keep up-to-date with current trends and changes across marketing and financial services is vital in this fast-moving business environment.