Nic Cicutti: Advisers need a clear message to be able to regain trust

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Every year I go on a scooter-riding holiday abroad with a bunch of friends. Negotiating the dramatic twists and turns of a small road 5,000 or 6,000ft up in the Pyrenees and the Massif Central, as a group of us did this year, is an excellent way of clearing your mind of so much superfluous junk.

But eventually you have to come back, sadly. And so it was that I returned the other night, to find a cryptic message waiting for me in my email inbox: “Looks like Keith Richards agrees with you.”

Which was how, after a quick online search, I found myself on the Daily Mail’s website, reading about how Keith would “mix different chemicals into powerful drug cocktails to see what would happen”.

Now, although I’ve enjoyed more than my share of alcohol and both smoked and inhaled dodgy cigarettes occasionally, unlike the subject of this article I have never “looked upon my body as a laboratory”.

It was only when I looked at the pictures that I realised the Keith being quoted was not the fresh-faced chief executive at the Personal Finance Society but someone else entirely.

And the article I had been referred to was a comment piece in Money Marketing, where the “real” Keith Richards had argued that the industry has engaged in too much in-fighting, harming consumer confidence in itself.

Keith wrote: “Continuing pressures of regulatory change and risk have contributed to divisive reactions, which can often attract unsubstantiated negative comment or views from one adviser firm about another, or against other sectors of retail financial services.”

He went on to add: “For those who would like to see greater respect and confidence in the sector they represent, it is important to recognise the risk of unintended consequences that public statements can have.”

To the person who emailed me, Keith Richards’ comments echoed those I made the preceding week, in which I argued that the IFA side of the industry was no longer being listened to seriously in the corridors of power, partly because it was seen as self-centered and focused only on its own needs.

Actually, I beg to differ. What we have in common is a similar disdain for some of the more ridiculous commentary, usually to be found at the bottom of online articles, passing as a critique of what the author has said on a given subject.

Indeed, evidence for this can be seen in the reaction to Keith’s article, in which we are told that “the PFS is the FCA’s puppet” and that he should “just shut up”.

In my case the other week, I had lots of comments about MPs’ expenses, as well as personal attacks on the unnamed MP I’d spoken to.

Probably the saddest comment came from someone who wrote: “Most IFAs feel disenfranchised and…. it is pointless to get involved politically.”

Which is fine – except that like them or loathe them, MPs still have a certain influence and effective lobbying can make a difference. But you have to have the right message to put across.

In contrast, Keith’s view, and that of the PFS, is that it is divisions between different sections of the advice sector that are causing problems for the industry as a whole. In other words, it is the efforts of those like Gill Cardy’s IFA Centre at one extreme, or the old Adviser Alliance at the other, that risk harming the advice sector.

In fairness to Keith, he probably wouldn’t go that far. It is the language of abuse he does not like, pointedly referring to the fact that “the FCA has made it clear it intends to monitor media and social networking sites”.

My position is different and I hope some of you will forgive me if I express in in stark terms.

First, while the overall debate may not be about different “types” of advice, I have always argued in favour of IFAs as the “purest” element of the profession. It is they who have the greatest potential to differentiate themselves within the advice industry by displaying the full extent of their professionalism.

Second, despite this potential, in the past 10 years IFAs have lost much of the genuine influence they had within the corridors of power. This is in large measure because the “mystique” surrounding independent financial advice, as opposed to other sales-driven and product-limited forms of offering financial solutions, has gradually evaporated.

Ironically, while contributors to my own column spoke disdainfully about MPs in general and my contact in particular, they ignored the reality of how isolated they are in terms of the support they might be able to call on from the media consumer groups compared to a decade ago.

Third, while “unity” is important, what really matters is vision of how to project the advice sector as a professional entity, interested in seeking alliances with other consumer bodies to promote higher standards of financial advice, as well as better financial solutions for consumers as a whole.

Unity will never come through self-imposed silence. To achieve it, argument in the pages of Money Marketing and its website – wide-ranging, passionate yet disciplined – is essential. But it needs to be debate with a higher purpose in mind: without it, the advice industry will never regain the influence it once had had.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk