OPINION: Cowen on ... Barclays

Dead cert for a Pencil? It has Shakespeare in it - so maybe.
File under? B for big (like the last one)
What would the chairman's wife say? What is he talking about?

Barclays' marketing director, Simon Gulliford, was fairly free with his opinions last week, decrying the "dumbing-down of UK advertisers and, in particular, the "fluff and candy stuff peddled by its rival Lloyds TSB. By contrast, he announced, Barclays' new campaign through Bartle Bogle Hegarty would be thought-provoking and credit the advertising-literate audience with the intelligence that it deserved.

Could it be that Gulliford is hyping the campaign in these terms because he feels the need to justify the controversial account switch between Leagas Delaney and BBH? It seems more than possible, because the first thing that springs to mind when you see the new Barclays ads isn't their groundbreaking intelligence, but their resemblance to the "big campaign that preceded them.

The word, which caused Barclays so much trouble when it decided to greet the campaign's launch with the closure of 170 branches in a day last year, has been dropped and replaced with the strapline: "fluent in finance. But the essential ingredients remain the same - charismatic star delivers a crisp, dramatic monologue about something vaguely related to banking.

In fact, the casting of Samuel L Jackson intensifies some of the problems that faced the Leagas Delaney campaign. There is no natural connection between a massive American movie star and a UK high-street bank. In fact, there's no earthly reason why Jackson should have any knowledge of Barclays at all. Tim Roth and Anthony Hopkins are big movie stars but at least they are British - at least it was possible they could have banked there at some point in their lives. Not Sam. He comes from a different world completely. He feels like a hired gun.

This isn't helped by Jackson's natural screen persona. This is a man who's made his name playing gangsters, instantly associated with the scary guy from Pulp Fiction who recites Ezekiel 25:17 before blowing his victims away. It feels as if Hopkins in his "big house has sent his big hitman round to lecture us scarily about money before popping a cap in our collective ass.

If the underlying strategy hasn't changed, then it's with good reason.

It was based on an astute insight into the nature of Barclays' business that, if anything, has become more valid with the centralisation of the marketing department under Gulliford. It's clear that the most important aspect of Barclays' affairs is no longer traditional accounts. The company's profitability is driven by corporate banking, share portfolios and international ventures - and any central brand has to fit these priorities. But Barclays is still making a gallant bid to have it both ways by using its supposed expertise in these "grown-up areas to impress upon retail customers that it knows what's best for them too. Why else is one of the first ads devoted to the stock market?

This strategy of financial paternalism isn't designed to charm in the way that Lloyds attempts to do but, despite Gulliford's pleadings to the contrary, it's not really designed to engage consumers in an intelligent discussion of money either. This is just as well, since the scripts, which are as wonderfully rambling as anything Quentin Tarantino's given Jackson, are completely impenetrable the first time they're viewed - and devoid of any provocative insight, or relevance to personal finance, when you do understand them.

If the new Barclays campaign is about anything, then, like the old Barclays campaign, it's about impact. It's about leaving an audience with a sense of awe at these people who know an awful lot about cash. As a tool to achieve this, Barclays has simply rented Jackson's charisma as a more amiable alternative to Leagas Delaney's obsession with size.

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