Banks retain marketing autonomy despite government ownership

LONDON - Nationalised banks must act with taxpayers in mind.

Given the seismic changes being experienced by the UK banking sector, the review and renegotiation of the marketing agency arrangements of a few of its members should not be a surprise.

Yet last week's decision by Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to move its retail direct marketing account from LIDA to CHI & Partners reminded everyone that, although the banks are nationalised, they retain the autonomy to choose their own agency partners.

It could easily be different. Take government-backed financial-services brand National Savings & Investments, which conducts agency reviews in conjunction with the COI, all with the aim of delivering the best value for the taxpayer.

With the COI's media spend set to overtake that of Procter & Gamble, making it the UK's biggest advertiser, there are clear cost-saving advantages to centralising agency procurement for Lloyds Banking Group (LBG), RBS and Northern Rock. 

Under scrutiny

The latter has been under particular pressure to behave like a publicly owned property. Last October, this resulted in the bank removing an ad campaign for a range of savings products deemed to be overly competitive.

In addition, according to Billets Media Analytics, the bank spent £3.4m on marketing in 2008, more than 30% less than in 2007. With added government purchasing power, however, this budget could have stretched much further.

The COI is certainly keen to strike up a relationship with nationalised banks, says deputy chief executive Peter Buchanan. 'We'd be delighted to talk to any of the relevant banks to see if we could provide marketing services.'

hy, then, has the government opted against funnelling agency matters through the COI? One marketer, who has experienced life both in the financial and public sectors, believes that the government wants to stick to a hands-off approach to maintain the impression that the banks' public ownership is only temporary. He explains: 'The government doesn't want to interfere with the day-to-day management of the banks. If it were further involved, it would be more difficult to unwind when it tries to dilute its stake.'

The integration of the banks into a public-sector management style would appear to be a major stumbling block. Industry experts say a decision was taken very early on to continue to run the banks along commercial lines, albeit under the auspices of UK Financial Investments, a government body.

There are other concerns hindering the involvement of the COI, such as competition. If Northern Rock had handed control of agency procurement to the COI after its nationalisation last year, the precedent would have been set for LBG and RBS to follow suit, leaving the COI vulnerable to accusations of favouritism.

Others are convinced that the government has retained the status quo for pragmatic reasons. 'It's purely political,' claims Anthony Thompson, chief executive of the Financial Services Forum. 'Even if there is some behind-the-scenes manipulation, the government doesn't want to be seen as controlling the banks.'

As things stand, a high level of COI involvement in the nationalised banks is unlikely. The onus lies squarely on bank marketers to ensure that the messages they put out are appropriate to public ownership, and that they get the best agency deals possible for the taxpayer.

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