Close-Up: The Advocates - Selling the 'white knight' of high-street banking

In the first of a new Campaign series, The Advocates, celebrating advertisers who are committed to advertising through recession, John Tylee debates procurement and not pushing agencies to extreme financial limits with Abbey's Keith Moor.

To steal a slogan from one of his company's most famous campaigns, Keith Moor is banking on an "Abbey ending". Amid the wreckage of a banking system laid low by greed, the Spanish-owned Abbey is one of the few financial institutions to emerge with its reputation - and its £38 million adspend - pretty intact.

And there's a tangible confidence running through the company's TV and print advertising, presenting Abbey as the "white knight" of the high-street financial sector. Not even Lewis Hamilton's economy with the truth in the wake of the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year can dent the assurance Moor, Abbey's director of brand and communications, has in the public face of his brand.

"Its true Lewis Hamilton isn't doing too well at the moment but we've a lot of faith in him," Moor insists. Not to mention a great deal of money invested in the Formula One champion, whose ability to transcend cultural and age barriers is seen as a perfect fit with the global aspirations of Santander.

Advertising through recession

Moor's confidence, at a time when so many other advertisers in the sector are struggling, can be traced back to the goodwill generated when Santander absorbed two of Britain's financial basket cases - Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley.

Santander was in the right place with the right credentials at the right time. "People thought every bank was about to go bust," Moor recalls. "They'd lost trust. They didn't know where to find a safe haven for their cash. We were fortunate because Santander was a strong business which hadn't been exposed to the toxic deals in the market." The Abbey team believed they had a reassuring message for staff and customers and could deliver it at a time when it was most needed.

"At the moment, I can see us maintaining adspend at current levels," Moor predicts. "If it drops slightly, it will only be because of the efficiencies across our brands."

Equally important is the fact that Abbey feels optimistic enough to maintain and even increase its brand-led advertising. Much of it has to do with the company seeing itself as the standard bearer for a damaged sector.

But there's more to it than that. "Financial services have become completely price-led," Moor complains. "As a result, products like mortgages, savings, credit cards and insurance have become massively commoditised. We've made a rod for our own backs."

Moor speaks with a confidence and authority that belies the fact he isn't a main board member. He reports to a "very marketing-literate" chief financial officer. Indeed, he doesn't think the time will ever come when marketing is represented in all major boardrooms.

High-level battles fighting marketing's corner haven't been necessary, he says, because Santander plans to go global by thinking local when it comes to marketing.

The future for Abbey's agencies

Meanwhile, there's much streamlining of the merged company's marketing arrangements to be seen through. Last year, Moor consolidated the Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley media planning and buying accounts into Carat and ended Tequila's tenure of Abbey's direct marketing account. This is now handled by a TAG-run internal studio.

And he doesn't rule out centralising all the enlarged group's creative work into Abbey's agency, WCRS, as part of what is clearly a long-term plan to phase out the Abbey, Alliance & Leicester and Bradford & Bingley brands and phase in the Santander name.

The remuneration question

How the recession in general and the rise of procurement specialists in particular will change relationships between agencies and clients is an open question. Moor admits that Abbey has "few stones left unturned" after a five-year drive to get its marketing budget working at maximum efficiency.

Roster agencies have also embraced the new reality and have refrained from demanding significant fee hikes or being unrealistic in their aspirations, he adds. So how will Abbey's agencies earn a decent living? Not least, as Moor points out, because cash-strapped clients who have been driving down marketing costs won't be expecting agencies to come steaming in with massive demands when the good times return.

"Agencies shouldn't be pushed to the extreme limits of what they can survive on," Moor says. "And, if they are, it's the marketing director's responsibility to make their businesses aware of that."

A changing agency relationship

However, he expects the downturn to usher in a different kind of agency/client relationship. It may herald more performance-related agreements and force agencies to work faster and more flexibly. "We used to change ads once a month. Now it's once a week," he says.

At the same time, as clients switch to more centralised multi-disciplined marketing models, Moor suggests agencies will follow suit: "I don't expect to see a return to 80s-type full service because with that model came a lack of transparency and quality control. But we have been asking our agencies to think more holistically."

And, it seems, more co-operatively. Moor, along with other clients, is aware of the trend by media agencies to get more involved in client problem-solving. But he says he'd rather WCRS and Carat work together on a communications solution rather than in competition.

Is this because, at the end of the day, clients just want cheap media? Moor says no. "Clients should see media as a cheap opportunity, albeit one with significant bias in terms of cost-effectiveness," he explains. "TV is cheap at present so it's a strategic opportunity - and Carat's efficiency as a media buyer shouldn't be ignored."

For the moment, though, Abbey's hope must be that Hamilton's human side will emerge to trump the questioning of his credibility. As the advertising face of the brand, a lot has been banked on getting him back on track.

THE MOOR LOWDOWN

- Childhood

As a kid, Keith Moor aspired to be like his dad when he grew up. This may seem unusual since Moor senior wasn't a football star, a TV personality or even a captain of industry.

Moor's dad worked in quality control for the Burton Group, a job which, on the face of it, seemed at odds with his mercurial personality.

"He was always busy, well travelled and he talked a lot," Moor recalls. "We lived in a strong family unit and he gave me a real buzz."

- Early career

Not surprisingly, a parental steer nudged him towards Hull University, from which he emerged with a business studies degree and an entree into financial services marketing. He's remained within it ever since.

The sector has given him the opportunities to reach his goals - becoming the marketing director of a FTSE 100 company before the age of 35 being one of them.

- Joining Abbey

Moor came to Abbey in 1995 from the Axa-owned direct insurer Prospero, where he rose from graduate trainee to marketing controller within just three years.

An Abbey career spanning various senior marketing positions saw him involved with a number of landmark campaigns, including "because life's complicated enough" starring the actor and comedian Alan Davies.

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