Lessons in authenticity from the inimitable Warren Buffett

I’m hardly the first person to be charmed by the wit and wisdom of Warren Buffett. The number of people who make the pilgrimage to Omaha for the Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting would do Bruce Springsteen proud if he were on stage in the exhibit hall where the meeting takes place rather than 87 year-old Warren and his 93 year-old sidekick Charlie Munger. Call them rock stars of a different sort.

I did visit the Berskshire Hathaway website recently because I was curious to see what it looks like. I knew that Warren had been a sworn technophobe for a lot of his life, but I also know that he’s been buying big stakes in Apple lately, and I thought this might mean that Berkshire Hathaway would have a great, polished site. The fact that the Martin Agency does Geico’s advertising also contributed to that notion since I figured Warren could prevail upon them to build a site for him if he wanted. Berkshire owns Geico.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The website is as dog ugly a website as there ever was, and I doubt it’s changed since it first went live.

There’s an interesting statement on the home page that reads, “If you have any comments about our WEB page, you can write us at the address shown above. However, due to the limited number of personnel in our corporate office, we are unable to provide a direct response.”

What I think they’re telling us, in so many words, is that this is a company that really doesn’t care what people think about its website. And that’s fine. Their brand is strong enough that it doesn’t need marketing approbation.

While I didn’t find any tasty photos or beautifully rendered brand imagery, I did find a link to A Special Letter from Warren RE: Past, Present and Future, and it was this that has prompted me to write this blog post. It’s every bit as interesting and well written as the Berkshire website is drab and forgettable. I strongly recommend it to you. In fact, I believe there are lessons in it that are meaningful and relevant whether you’re an advertising copywriter, a financial advisor, an investor or a CMO.

Lesson #1: Be friendly and approachable

In the letter, Warren’ straightforwardness shines. He’s not putting on airs.  Sure, he may be the best investor in recorded history, but he’s not pounding his chest. That’s not who he is. He’s sharing insights and making us smarter about what it means to run a successful financial company.

Lesson #2: Use stories to make your point

This is not academic writing. It’s folksy. It has personality, and that keeps us engaged and interested. Here’s Warren talking about buying shares of Berkshire in 1962: “Buying the stock at that price was like picking up a discarded cigar butt that had one puff remaining in it. Though the stub might be ugly and soggy, the puff would be free.” See what I mean?

Lesson #3: Be truthful

Warren isn’t perfect, and he acknowledges it. Like admitting he paid billions of dollars more for Dexter Shoes than he should have or needed to, he doesn’t sugar coat history. In my opinion, that simply enhances his credibility.

Lesson #4: Have pride in your brand

It’s very clear that Warren loves Berkshire Hathaway, and he’s exceedingly proud of what he and his team of talented CEOs running companies like Geico, See’s Candy and many others have accomplished. “Berkshire is now a sprawling conglomerate,” he writes, “constantly trying to sprawl further.” He goes on at some length about why conglomerates generally don’t work (“Every Napoleon meets his Waterloo”), and then explains why the structure works so well for Berkshire.

Lesson #5: Let the people who matter know they do 

Warren concludes his letter with a shout-out to shareholders, saying he’d be remiss if he “didn’t salute another key constituency that makes Berkshire special.”

You can call it expectable that he would thank this group, but he provides an example of how they and management are in lockstep, and it demonstrates the point he’s making – that the relationship goes beyond those of many companies and their shareholders.

No one who knows anything about Warren Buffett doubts his authenticity, and no one who owns the stock questions his skills. For me, the two work hand in hand.

It’s a stock photo world: disruption and adoption

Part 2 in a series

In a previous post, I explored the early uses of stock photography. Now let’s look at the factors that led to its widespread popularity today and the creative challenges that have arisen as a result.

In the mid-‘90s, agencies and studios moved en masse to digital design and production on Macs and PCs. Now-quaint magic marker sketches for creative presentations were tossed out the window – the digital design era had arrived, and stock photography was given a wide-open door to grow opportunistically.

Designers began to receive thick catalogs from Photodisc, the pioneer in rights-free images. Catalogs were filled with images categorized by subject. Specific image collections like ‘common objects’ and ‘families’ could be ordered on a $300 CD containing 50-100 images. Give designers easy access to thousands of high-resolution digital photos at a low fixed cost with an unlimited license for usage, and you can guess what happened next.

Creative work is streamlined and presentations are tightened up

With high-resolution photos integrated at the beginning of the design process, creative development and presentations tightened up considerably. Out went rough sketches on layout paper, in came full-color ‘comps’ of digital designs printed on the new color printers and copiers just becoming available. By combining high-quality color printing with ‘real’ photos and ‘real’ copy shown in ‘real’ type fonts, creative presentation work became virtually indistinguishable from the finished product.

For clients, stock photos provided reassurance – they no longer had to imagine what a rough layout sketch represented. At the same time, many agencies were happy to remove the uncertainty – not to mention the time and effort – associated with hiring a photographer, negotiating costs and editing images. Suddenly, a concept could move from presentation to production faster than ever before. And clients were quite happy that rights-free stock photos cost next to nothing. 

A short step to online ubiquity

Marketers of stock photography struck gold with the commercial adaption of the Internet. Today, creatives at digital, design and advertising shops first stop for imagery is stock photo sites. In addition to photography, many sites now sell music tracks, video clips and digital effects and illustrations as well. Pricing, always low, has shrunk to single digits, and today most stock photo firms like iStock and Shutterstock offer cheap monthly subscriptions.

Supply side is bottomless

The availability of affordable high-quality digital cameras has democratized image creation. Hundreds of new photos are added to stock site daily. And the market is constantly evolving. Image creators – both professionals and amateurs – are swamping the market with imagery of every description. Stock photography vendors range from multi-national behemoths like Getty Images and Alamy to cheap subscription websites like iStock and Shutterstock to small crowd-sourced endeavors like Unsplash and Negative Space.

Creativity takes a hit

The client side

There’s no question that clients influence the type of work that agencies produce, and, as cheap, rights-free stock photography became more readily available and the quality of imagery increased, clients took note. Line items in creative budgets for photo shoots got slashed altogether. “Why can’t you use a stock photo?” became not a question but a mandate.

On the agency side

There’s no arguing that creativity is at the heart of the advertising and design business. But something insidious happened with the confluence of digital design and rights-free stock availability. Designers took the easy route. It goes something like this: spend 15 minutes searching online, pick an image from thousands of options, buy it for $3 or $30 or $300, load it into Photoshop, optimize it for a specific use, drop it in an InDesign or Photoshop layout, and voila!

It’s no wonder that we all see so much look-alike creative work. While there are many principled creatives working today and some do work for clients with products or budgets that require and support commissioned photography, the vast majority of creative work is turned out with time and budget constraints. An entire generation of creatives have never picked up a sketchpad, developed a visual idea from their imagination and pondered the virtues of varying concepts, tossing out the bad and developing the promising ideas. To a certain extent, creative communications has moved from a craft-based process to a production line. Cheap stock photography has played some part in that lamentable trend.

What’s so bad about stock?

The pervasiveness of stock imagery has meant that many small businesses and design firms have access to high-quality images for web, print, advertising, you name it – and that’s a good thing.

But, I see a couple of problems here:

  1. Every brand needs to stand for something. To do that, its style and story should differentiate the brand from its competitors. That’s tough to achieve when the starting point for brand advertising and design is an iStock search. A look-alike brand is often the result. Marketing commoditization is the price paid.
  2. Once a market gets used to cheap-and-plentiful, costly-and-unique is a tough sell. Clients and designers have become so used to cheap imagery that fresh ideas dependent on commissioned photography face an uphill battle. It takes an enlightened marketer and a brave agency to go to the mat for budgets that let the best ideas take flight.

As with every game-changing disruptive force, the world soon adapts and we all move on. In the creative industry, cheap stock photography is now part of the furniture. It just might be time to rearrange it a little bit.

Next: It’s a stock photo world, Part 3: How to make the most of it

It’s a stock photo world. We just live in it.

Part 1: How we got here

The use of stock photography has profoundly affected the field of creative communications over the past decades. I thought it might be interesting to explore the factors that led to its adoption, the challenges its use presents to designers, and ways in which marketers and communicators can avoid the more obvious stock photo pitfalls and best integrate it their work.

As I was driving out of the Philadelphia airport recently and passed billboard after billboard, I noticed a visual pattern – large stock photo images of attractive, smiling men, women or children. The products and services being advertised were…what? A healthcare plan? A bank? A junk removal service? A nonprofit’s fun-run? And what do all those shiny, happy people reveal about the brands and ad agencies that employ them in their communications?

To better understand why we live in a stock photo world, let’s first start at the beginning.

Stock as last resort

For years, stock photography agencies supplied either topical or historical news photos that were difficult or expensive to go out and shoot – a monkey in a jungle, a mountain climber atop a peak, FDR smiling confidently. Art buyers at ad agencies put out an image request to a few stock photo shops – there were several in Boston and many more nationally – and a few days later several FedEx packages stuffed with plastic sleeves of 35 mm slides arrived. The art buyer or art director pored over the tiny images on a light table with a handheld magnifying ‘lupe’ – now there are two quaint anachronisms some may remember – and made several selections for client consideration.

Once an image was settled on, the stock shop calculated fees for a license based on specific media criteria – number of publications, total circulation of the pubs, number of insertions and usage period, for instance. Usage fees could run into the high 4-figures for larger campaigns.

Usage fees spread

Commissioned photography was the norm for ad agencies for many years. A creative team developed a concept, and the art director hired a photographer to take a specific image that brought the idea to life. While licensing fees were sometimes negotiated with top commercial photographers, usage was seldom discussed with the vast majority of commercial  ‘shooters’. In many cases the client paid for location fees, model fees, a makeup artist, a stylist, wardrobe options, photo assistants, Polariods and film, the processing and, yes, lunch. Most photographers made a living on their professional fee.

The Copyright Act of 1976 legislated that creative work was the sole property of the creator. Suddenly many commercial photographers saw a way to increase revenues and photo licensing terms entered the conversation. The same questions that asked by stock photo agencies were now asked by photographers. Where will the photo appear? How long will it be used? How many times will it be used?

Understandably, conversations about incremental usage costs with clients were uncomfortable for agencies. Going back to the client constantly for additional photo usage fees as ad campaigns were renewed wasn’t something an account executive enjoyed. Clients ended up paying more than they anticipated for photography that they had funded in its entirety to begin with. There was ample room for resentment.

Tighter budgets, more scrutiny

The 80s and 90s were a period of consolidation and efficiency in all lines of business, Bottom-liners who counted beans carefully took the reins of companies on the agency and client side.

One of the many marketing line items that received close scrutiny was photography costs, and it, along with a host of other costs, were subject to downward pressure.

The search for relief

With concerns rising over photo costs by both agencies and clients, the commercial photography business was about to be rocked by a force that disrupted the commercial image market.

It came in the form of a thick, printed catalog that arrived in ad agency mailrooms and a small compact disc that designers slipped into their Mac’s CD player.

Next: It’s a stock photo world: Part 2: Disruption

Financial Advisor Videos: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

If you follow digital media consumption habits even slightly then you’re aware that the popularity of online video has exploded. Your wealth management firm can’t ignore the potential that it offers to engage site visitors and to help tell your story. So how do you decide about where video might fit into your firm’s marketing?

You may find the following helpful in focusing your thinking.

The primary types of advisor videos

I’ve divided wealth manager videos into three categories. Each has its own purpose and requirements.

1) Profile Video
Profile videos serve as an introduction to your firm and are typically shot within the firm’s offices. They often feature partners speaking about the firm and they may include b-roll – cut-away footage that either illustrates points being made or simply provides visual relief.

The Good: A well-executed profile video first and foremost communicates the personality of your firm that simply isn’t possible with static bios and “mugshot” photos. Further, video with focused messaging can communicate what makes your firm different and why someone should care. Good videos exhibit high production values and leverage a firm’s personality, knowledge and professionalism.

The Bad: Video can be challenging. Not everyone is comfortable in front of a camera, no matter how well-prepared they think they are for a video session. Compromises occur when on-camera individuals appear stiff, rehearsed or flat. Further, if the video’s subject matter is too generic, you’ve missed an opportunity to educate viewers about your firm’s unique qualities and areas of strength.

The Ugly: You know one when you view it. The video appears to be shot on a iPhone, the lighting is poor, the sound quality echo-y, and the story line a jumble of firm attributes. The result is unprofessional, incoherent and off-putting. Your firm deserves better.

2) Topical Video
There’s a lot going on in the world, and as an advisor you’re expected to stay on top of all of it so your clients don’t have to. Topical videos tackle what’s going on right now. They provide proof to clients, prospects and centers of influence that your firm is paying attention and reassurance that it isn’t likely to get whipsawed by current events.

The Good: The best topical videos are timely – they are produced as close to actual events as possible. Production values are less important than the conviction and intelligence conveyed by the on-camera spokesperson. As viewer engagement should be a top priority, an authoritative presenter is a real plus.

The Bad: Being late to the party is the biggest crime here. There are lots of reasons why this occurs in firms – personal time commitments, compliance review holdups and even a lack of internal consensus can conspire to derail your efforts. Old news gets little attention in today’s ‘right now’ environment.

The Ugly: You may have come across the lowest common denominator in user-created video: a guy reading a script off of his laptop screen while speaking into the laptop’s camera. An advisor friend of 360’s recently called these ‘hostage videos’. That kind of says it all.

3) Evergreen Video
If your firm has discrete stories to tell, there’s no better way to do it than in short-form videos. Subject matter is wide open – dealing with life events, specific firm differentiators, solutions for issues within vertical markets, firm expertise in specific areas. Finding messages that resonate with your prospect personas is of course the goal. Because these videos will be a staple on your site and can prove useful for content marketing, investing in creativity and quality production is worthwhile.

The Good: There is no better story-telling tool than video. Good evergreen videos address subjects that are important to your firm and your prospects and clients. Bringing a story to life is best done in narrative form. Ready to watch another video offered by a firm? Then they are producing good ones.

The Bad: The road to bad wealth manager videos is strewn with good intentions. “Let’s include the entire firm in a group shot”; “We’ll feature the partners because they’re most important”; “We spend a lot of time in meetings, so let’s show us all in meetings.” Focusing on the everyday routine of your firm produces routine videos.

The Ugly: Generic messaging. Table stakes claims. An incoherent storyline. Production values that are no better than a viral cat video. If they’ve lost you after 15 seconds, you’re watching a truly bad advisor video.

Other common advisor video types

Bio Video
Every advisor website has photos and bios of team members. What I’ve found more common of late is an accompanying personal video. The best of them convey a subject’s personality, expertise and point of view.

Explainer Video
Please, enough already with the hand-drawn whiteboarding and breathless narration. They were kind of fun when they first appeared 5 years ago. These belong on investing 101 websites, not on yours.

Do you believe that there’s a story to be told about your firm’s approach to wealth management? I’ll explore an effective approach to conceptualizing your videos that we’ve used here at 360 in a future post. The process is designed to tease out and bring to life the authentic stories that every firm has to tell.

Advisors untrustworthy? Sorry, I’m not buying it.

A friend of mine who knows that 360 does work with financial advisory firms told me he had read a study recently that showed that fewer than half of Americans trust the financial advisory industry, and he wanted to know what I thought about the findings.

Frankly, the low number didn’t surprise me. I understand that questions about the practices and ethics of the financial services industry in general, and the big banks and Wall Street in particular, have cast a shadow over all participants, advisors included, since at least 2008. And I recognize that among the thousands upon thousands of financial advisors in America, there are occasional rogue players who have, in the words of Mark Tibergien, head of Pershing Advisor Solutions, inflicted reputational damage with the investing public, dissuaded young people from entering the profession and increased government regulation and compliance costs. (See Madoff, Bernie for amplification.)

Despite all this, my personal experience with advisors suggests a different story. I believe that by and large, they share certain characteristics that are actually quite positive and commendable:

  • They are intricately and intimately focused on the financial and personal well-being of their clients.
  • The concept of fiduciary responsibility is deeply ingrained in them (i.e., Madoff was an aberration, not the norm).
  • They operate with integrity.
  • They are almost always driven by a long-term orientation and, in that way, are precisely the opposite of short-term traders.
  • They are typically motivated by strong values like commitment to their community.

Was I just being naive?

After the conversation I had with my friend, I considered why my personal point of view differs so markedly from those who say they lack trust in financial advisors.

The new DOL Fiduciary Rule notwithstanding (and who knows if it’s even going to be put into practice), there’s no doubt the issue of trust is a hot button.

A 2015 study by the CFA Institute and Edelman, the PR firm, sought to determine, among other things, what led affluent investors to select a wealth management provider. Interestingly, while 17% said it was their ability to achieve high returns and another 17% said it was their commitment to ethical conduct, more than double that number – 35% – said trust was the #1 determinant. Net, net – did they trust the provider to act in their best interests?

Similarly, State Street Global Advisors, quoting experts from Wharton, said that when it comes to selecting a manager, “the advisor the client chooses is frequently the one the client feels she can trust the most.”

They went on to cite three levels of trust they said an advisor needs to satisfy:

  • Trust in their technical competence – Does the advisor know what he or she is doing?
  • Trust in their ethical conduct and character – Can clients trust the advisor “not to steal their money?” (That’s not my language, by the way. It’s the experts from Wharton.)
  • Trust in their empathetic skills and maturity – If clients tell their advisor personal things about themselves, can they trust that the advisor will be discrete about it?

Of course it comes down to money.

The subject of money is one in which bias and prejudice can often override rational discourse. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that money can end friendships, strain marriages, disincentivize children and cause no end of grief generally.

Since the stock and trade of financial advisors is other people’s money, it’s not surprising that issues can get raised and tempers can occasionally flare.

Still, I wonder if the people who disparage financial advisors have actually ever worked with any.

If fewer than 50% of Americans said they doubted the investment performance of financial advisors could match the performance of popular indexes, I’d say they might well be right about that.

But not trusting advisors?  Speaking personally, I reject that.