There was one presentation at the Marketing Society conference which was particularly thought-provoking. Given by Vernon Hill, the founder of the revolutionary new Metro Bank.
At least partly because his presentation style was a combination of Robert de Niro and Mr Burns from The Simpsons.
Or maybe Robert Duvall playing the guy in Apocalypse Now who prefers napalm to soya latte in the morning.
If we’d offered any prisoners on that day, it is my considered opinion that Mr Hill wouldn’t have taken them.
So, instantly he stood out.
That was good.
And he had a vision to disrupt a deadly boring market sector – so that was good, too.
He was on a self-proclaimed quest to destroy the old-fashioned myths of British high street banking.
He named those myths as
1. No-one switches account.
2. Rate is everything.
3. You can only make money by cutting costs. I.e., not by investing in service.
4. The branch is dead.
He wanted to screw these stone dead by recourse to a belief that people will trade slightly lower rates for a much better retail experience.
(Although First Direct, the bank I helped launch 21 years ago, offers both …)
However, it all looked very impressive. He had research to back him up and, even more convincingly, a wildly successful US track record.
He forged on, and I felt that the only reason he wasn’t thumping the table was because he hadn’t been given a table to thump.
He claimed to be on a quest to kill stupid bank rules.
If I was a stupid bank rule, I can tell you that I would have gone to the toilet at this point.
I imagine Mr Hill knows many ways to kill a stupid bank rule with a single blow.
He named these rules as –
Hours, Coins, Pens, Painted Vans and Dogs.
In response to these, he’s opening longer hours, he’s got coin-counting machines, he’s giving away millions of pens, he’s painting his vans – and you can take your dog into the branch, where it will be given a branded water bowl and encouraged to open a deposit account.
Well, maybe not the last.
He said his better retail experience would be based on hiring good people.
Which sounded fine, but he backed it up by saying that if the staff didn’t perform, they’d be “opted out”.
This tone continued as he announced that he wanted to “crush the competition”.
When Nick Ferrari (MC-ing the day) asked if business had to be this aggressive, Mr Hill looked genuinely astonished and enquired if anybody in the room would care to disagree with this.
For a second, it was as though a conference of senior marketing people had turned into chucking out time at the Red Lion.
Now I’m having a bit of fun with Mr Hill’s super-confident presentation style, but there’s no denying that he’s right about the bank sector.
He presented some incredibly damning research into “dissatisfaction” figures for brands in this area.
This sector has NEGATIVE net promoter scores.
In any other sector, up to and including the surgical removal of haemorrhoids, such levels of dissatisfaction would be suicidal.
So, I whole-heartedly approve of Mr Hill’s crusade and his acumen.
I’m sure he’ll clean up.
But I did have a nagging doubt about his attitude.
It wasn’t just that Laura Tenison of JoJoMamanBebe had earlier spoken so warmly about CSR as a viable business model – working ethically in the belief that people would want to work with you, supply you and buy off you if you approached business in this way.
It was the fact that this tone had been present in everybody else’s presentation.
Mark Price of Waitrose summed it up best. Rather than talking about “opting out” unsatisfactory employees, he spoke of his job as being a mission to make 45,000 people happy – those 45,000 people being his staff.
And not one person in the audience doubted him.
Of course it’s easy to stand up at a conference and talk about being a good citizen.
But Waitrose does it.
50% of their profits are distributed among their staff. Staff are given the power to affect the company.
Their Community Matters initiative, where customers vote with green tokens, generated Â£3m last year, and they donated a further Â£5m to send staff to work in local charities.
Mark gave us a wonderful Bertrand Russell quote: “The only thing that will redeem mankind is co-operation”.
All the other speakers seemed to embrace this view, too. As Camillo Pane said, Reckitt Benckiser aims to save 1,000,000 lives this year, working with Save the Children.
That’s very serious potatoes.
I loved Mr Hill’s vision, and his determination, and I would even join his bank – but it reminded me of the attitude which famously prevailed at Saatchis in the 1980s – “it’s not enough to win, somebody else has to lose”.
I’ve always preferred the thought that “nobody wins unless everybody wins”.
Now – what about if Nationwide built on its mutuality credentials and took that course ?
They could revolutionise this sector more profoundly than even Metrobank will.