From the Front Lines of the Meltdown

Over the past 20 years, I’ve spent considerable time on the front lines of financial services advertising. I’ve written ads for retail and commercial banks, investment firms and insurance companies. I’ve done advertising for checking, savings, credit cards, investment funds, mortgages, risk management, private bank services and derivatives. I helped small banks become large banks and merge with even larger banks. I’ve watched an industry strut its stuff one day and take a perp walk the next. It’s been quite a ride.

Now, as the country slogs through an economic meltdown and the financial services industry faces a future of regulatory change, I’ve been thinking about what I and other advertising professionals witnessed from the front lines. Working on financial services products — particularly heavy-duty investment products — is not easy. Marketing, for many investment firms, is neither understood nor valued. Products are not explained in simple, straightforward language. The legal department waters down any strong claim you might want to make. The target market, from private bank clients to high finance professionals, is more difficult to pin down than consumers of tennis shoes or paper towels. (It’ll take more than $125 and a plate of cookies to bring the mega-affluent into focus groups.) Though these are problems that can be found in any number of industries, particularly the pharmaceutical industry, they seem to loom larger in financial services.

So did I see any signs of the meltdown from my privileged perch? Not at the time. Like everyone else, I mistook the danger signals for dollar signs. After all, when a client is pouring millions of dollars into the agency coffers, who is going to look for the worm in the apple? But in retrospect, I can see now what I couldn’t see then.

For instance, the briefings I got on high-finance products were frustratingly obscure. I remember asking an analyst to explain derivatives to me. Sanskrit would have been easier to understand. I asked again and, after the third try, began to glean that a derivative was basically a bet. When I tried to probe deeper about the downside of such a high-stakes gamble, the analyst ramped up the jargon and the meeting came to an abrupt close.

Other veterans of financial services advertising have similar tales. There was always a sense that the financial community was an insular place that could not be penetrated by the outside world. Quite often, in the small but growing financial services firms, marketing was assigned to someone in the sales department who looked upon advertising as a necessary evil. Anyone trying to gain a deeper understanding of products and services ultimately became a nuisance to the busy masters of the universe of high finance.

Because there was so much money to be had, agencies often let clients dictate the terms of the advertising. Campaigns were merely paeans to a CEO’s ego with little for the consumer to take away other than “See how big we are?”

Certainly advertising played a role in the run-up to the economic meltdown. We helped shape the public’s perception of global banking as safe, secure and efficient. We reinforced the financial services industry’s perception of itself as an unstoppable force of upside earnings. We did our job.

I think the financial services industry missed — and continues to miss — the opportunity to use us in a way that could help avoid disaster and assure success by bringing the advertising professional’s perspective to new product development. Too often financial services clients hand us a fait accompli to advertise. We see the flaws immediately; a poorly thought out name, inside jargon benefits, impossible to understand features. We’re left in the uneasy position of raising questions after the fact. From the client’s insular and highly profitable perspective, they’ve done all the homework. It’s time to get the product to market.

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like if advertising professionals had been able to weigh in on the inception of sub-prime mortgages. At the very least, we would have generated more conversation about the connection between the product and the consumer. Perhaps we could have exposed the flaws in a product that assumes someone with no income could buy a $600,000 home. Perhaps we could have revealed the dangers of what happens when a flawed product is given a massive rollout. Perhaps someone would have listened.

Sue Montgomery is a freelance creative director and writer. She can be reached at