Opinion

Advertising wasn't Money Advice Service's problem

When was the last time you asked your mum for advice?

That most of us seek our mothers’ counsel even in adulthood is the thought behind much of The Money Advice Service’s advertising since its launch in 2011. 

George Osborne’s decision to scrap the website was one of the surprises of last Wednesday’s Budget, even if it was the sugar tax that grabbed all the headlines. Moneysavingexpert.com’s Martin Lewis, who sat on a challenger panel formed to improve the body, criticised the move, saying that The Money Advice Service was in the process of being turned around.

When The Money Advice Service arrived, much was made of the face-to-face guidance it would offer people struggling to manage their cash. It was included in the coalition agreement in 2010 as a sop to the Liberal Democrats in the aftermath of the credit crunch. But the service never had the funds to be able to deal with people’s problems in person and so its main function was as a website of resources that often replicated information available elsewhere. 

Its detractors saved their most enthusiastic criticism for the £50 million spent on marketing the service to potential users. But, according to an independent review published in March last year, FCB Inferno’s £1.35 million four-month "ask ma" campaign increased web visits from 1.1 million to 2.3 million. The review accepted marketing’s role in increasing awareness but found "considerable spend" would continue to be needed to maintain it.

When the report was published in the dog days of the coalition, the Conservatives did not yet have the freedom to do away with the service. Now The Money Advice Service’s critics have what they wanted – but after 12 months have been spent trying to fix it. During this time, the service’s marketing has scaled right back. FCB Inferno decided not to repitch in the recent review – a process that will presumably no longer go anywhere, wasting more people’s time. 

The world has changed since 2011. The attitudes and actions of financial services providers have moved along, as have the rules governing what they can do. You can’t blame banks for their reticence to fund something they believe they are doing themselves. But this is a story where marketing undeservedly plays the bogeyman. The fact that the service went through two agencies and various ad treatments suggests it wasn’t clear about what it wanted to say. 

The Money Advice Service was not a particularly well-thought-through politically motivated levy to fix a perceived problem. And – when you put it like that – it reminds me of the sugar tax. Let’s hope they have better luck with childhood obesity than they had with people’s personal finances. 

maisie.mccabe@haymarket.com           
@maisiemccabe