This year’s Dynamic Planner Annual Conference climaxed with a Question Time-style panel debate involving keynote speakers Alastair Campbell, Nic Coward and Ben Goss. Conference host Simon Jack chaired the panel and invited questions from delegates in the audience. With such enormous and broad business and life experience on the panel, what ensued in the following 30 minutes captivated the Kelvin Lecture Theatre at the IET London
Simon Jack (also BBC Business Editor): When we consider this whole issue around fake news and a lack of trust in media, one could argue Alastair that you invented fake news and encouraging the public to take their eye off the ball when you were a government adviser from 1997-2003. Did people first begin to lose faith in the government and media then; were you the original spin doctor?
Alastair Campbell (former Director of Communications and Strategy at 10 Downing Street): If I may say so, it is an argument I have heard before and I think it is a very self-serving argument for the media, and I will explain what I mean by that. I did the job that I did at Number 10 and it is a job that has been done by people since the beginning of time – advising leaders and people in positions of power. I was doing it at a time when the media world was changing beyond all recognition – because when I started out in my career as a journalist, what was the media? It was a newspaper you read or the news you watched once a day.
By the time I was in Downing Street and working in a very small team, we were dealing with a media which had grown exponentially and, what is more, had ceased to become merely purveyors of information, but more like political players. As that change happened, if we had not had a strategy in government to communicate our messages at that time, the media would have blown us away.
Look what has happened to Theresa May more recently: she can’t do it. She hasn’t got control of that landscape. She’s making it up as she goes along. It’s day to day survival for her.
Ben Goss (Dynamic Planner CEO): I am worried about fake news and the proliferation of the media, but if I try and put myself in a financial adviser’s shoes – and think about how I protect my reputation – there is essentially a line of argument in the press that goes along the lines of, ‘All financial advisers are scoundrels’. That has always been slightly true of our industry. If you have a financial adviser, then you absolutely trust and rely upon them to manage your investments wisely.
But it is really easy for the media today and on social media to attack what is ultimately a very close and trusted bond between two people, and say, ‘Look, you’re making money at someone else’s expense’. And most financial advice firms don’t have an army of spin doctors to help manage their reputation – and I worry about that. I think there is a role we can play here by producing more transparent client reports, which help show the returns you are receiving for the risks you are taking. That’s important.
Alastair Campbell: I think reputation is the most important currency there is. During Tony Blair’s government, I probably received more bad press than anybody, while today I get to earn a very nice living travelling all around the world advising people how to manage their reputation. Why do they ask me to do that? Because they think I have great experience in doing that in a very difficult environment – government.
How do you do that? First, you genuinely must not care about what other people say about you. If you do that and govern by what people who are likely to be hostile think, then you will stop doing things you think you should.
Arsene Wenger, the manager of Arsenal football club, said something incredibly insightful very recently. He said, ‘We’ve gone from a vertical world to a horizontal world’. In a vertical world, you have leaders who set the tone and direction and make decisions, which work their way down in society. In a horizontal world, we are bombarded all the time by the views and fake expertise of other people – but you can’t control that. All you can control is what you do and what you say, and in doing so shape the landscape. In that sense, modern media today is too noisy.
Ken Clarke said the other day that all MPs today are terrified of newspapers – but why? Politicians have got way more power, if only they would see it and use it. In financial services and in every single walk of life today, it is the same. You have to break out of that mindset, because if you allow the media and this culture of negativity to affect your judgement, you’ve had it.
Nic Coward (former General Secretary of football’s Premier League): I think it all comes down to your grand plan, your vision which grabs hold of people. I think a huge gap has grown in the UK between this current generation and the younger, next generation. For example, in the EU referendum, we had an older generation having a certain view of what Europe means to us now and in the future, compared to a younger view.
Alongside that and an issue which I think is acute to the UK’s economic future is pensions. Firms carrying large pension fund deficits nationwide removes our ability to invest in the future and in our children. Who has a plan to resolve that issue? I don’t think it exists and in sync with what other people have said, yes, there is too much concern with what the media will make of it and too little serious vision.
Ben Goss: What is interesting in the financial services industry is that the regulator does have a plan and getting us MIFID II ready before we leave Europe has been an important priority and the FCA has been very clear about that. We have all within the industry had to work incredibly hard to get ready for MIFID II at relatively short notice, so that there is harmonisation. You can see that not just in the UK but across Europe investment managers and financial advice organisations have had to raise their standards. I think generally that has been positive, because, in keeping with this conversation, if we were to ask firms, ‘Who are they most afraid of: the media or the regulator?’ I suspect most firms would answer, ‘The regulator’.
Simon Jack: Let’s take the opportunity to take some questions from the audience.
Question: A lot of people like me would like to do something to stop Brexit happening. But what can we do?
Alastair Campbell: The problem we have is that we are a parliamentary democracy and ‘our’ side of the argument, so to speak would normally be made by the opposition. But while the opposition in parliament continues to not make that argument, us Remainers are going to continue to be very frustrated. Ultimately, the Remain argument, if it is to be successful, has to move forward in parliament. David Cameron – and I don’t know how he feels about it himself – has set in train something that parliament can’t fix, because if we carry on in this vein we are going to do real, lasting damage to this country.
Simon Jack: What if say Vauxhall closes Ellesmere Port and specifically say it is because of Brexit? Is there any point or moment like that which forces a second referendum?
Alastair Campbell: There might be, but you could argue we have already seen plenty of significant moments like that. So what do you do? I think you have to stay angry about Brexit, be determined and continue to believe that you still have a chance of changing people’s minds. Yes, there are hardcore groups of people on both sides of the argument. But there are millions of people in the middle who have changed their minds. You have one-time Remainers who are now saying, ‘For goodness sake, get on with it’. And you have one-time Leavers who are now saying, ‘I’m really scared about this’. But if our political process is saying, ‘Under no circumstances will we allow this issue to be revisited’ then we have a problem with democracy in this country.
Nic Coward: Surely then this is the perfect platform for somebody charismatic to carry that widespread feeling and that momentum. But where is that person? And arguably where was that person making that argument on the side of Remain when we voted back in June 2016?
Ben Goss: I remember going to bed on the night of the EU referendum at 3am – we were holiday in the States - and I said to my wife, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no point buying US dollars. The pound will be back to normal in the morning’. However, it proved to be the most expensive holiday I have had in years!
There is no knight in shining armour here or silver bullet and Brexit is going to be messy and foggy, and will be for quite some time. Again, if I put myself in the shoes of a typical client of a financial adviser, I am perhaps 55-60 years old and I probably am quite scared, because I don’t have much ability now to accumulate wealth in my lifetime - so sterling matters and the UK’s ability to trade matters. I think the only reasonable argument you can give at this time – and we have heard it from CIOs of our partners here today – is you need a diversified portfolio; you need to understand in absolute detail how much risk a client is willing but also able to take; and you need to position your client’s portfolio in a way which will achieve his goals come what may.
Making better financial advice available to more people is certainly a passion of mine. At Dynamic Planner, we are a technology company, so we invest in technology. Products like AccessAdvice hopefully show that you can reach the next generation of investors and the regulatory framework is moving in the right direction here regarding and encouraging the use of technology in financial services.
Simon Jack: Let us finish by going around the panel and asking for your reasons to be cheerful.
Alastair Campbell: I genuinely believe French President Macron is a very good reason for being cheerful. And I also am optimistic about the next generation. I think they want to get on; I think they are much more inventive than the current, older generation were at their age; they’re more sassy; and I think they will sort out the mess that we have made.
Nic Coward: My reason is a message: work hard, see the good in all people and everything will be alright in the end.
Ben Goss: I am cheerful because the early feedback we at Dynamic Planner have already had today is that our clients want us to do the things we want to do, which shows that we are on the right track and is a great source of positivity moving forward.
Simon Jack: My reason for being cheerful is that social media giants like Facebook are going to start ranking their searches in order by how much a website is trusted. In this era of fake news that can only be a very good thing.