Glossy client magazines offer private banks a newly glamorous means of speaking to the super-affluent. But is it possible to mix fun and fund management? Sophie Brodie assesses the evidence.
The Pill was developed from a yam’ is not the sort of information you expect to find in a private client magazine. But find it you will in A Journal of Interest, a title launched last year by the Queen’s bank, Coutts & Co.
Eschewing the usual investment round-up, the magazine has opted for ‘lifestyle’ articles with scented titles, such as ‘Reflections’, ‘Passions’ and ‘Meditations’. In the foreword, Coutts chief executive Sarah Deaves explains why: ‘We know that many of you enjoy talking to other successful people. It is not always possible to do this face
to face, so here is a collection of stories of fascinating people – some are even clients.’ Full marks for flattery, there.
The opening section of A Journal of Interest publicises a charity, sponsored by Coutts, and encourages you to visit the Almeida theatre, also sponsored by Coutts. The bank, the text continues, is opening a branch in Milton Keynes because the town is a ‘haven for the wealthy of tomorrow’ – a rather distant tomorrow, one suspects.
Often, however, the Coutts link is tenuous or non-existent. Instead, the Journal is one of an exotic breed of corporate magazines whose content resembles that of the consumer glossies beloved of West End hairdressers.
Competition between banks has grown so fierce that a standard newsletter is no longer considered sufficient as a means of keeping in touch with clients. Instead, companies are recruiting famous names to write about anything from the US elections to the durability of romance. So the magazines reviewed here contain contributions from the likes of Simon Hoggart, Fay Weldon and Philip Pullman. Nor
is this an exclusively British phenomenon. For its Credo magazine, Liechtenstein bank LGT has persuaded alluring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter to pose, complete with ‘come hither’ smile, for its front cover. Inside are stories on air-ballooning and Old Masters.
Coutts’ publishing venture, however, has an additional purpose: ‘brand repositioning’. The bank is keen to move away from its supposedly ‘stuffy’ image and attract more
of the mass affluent, particularly women, who have £100,000-plus to invest.
The Journal has the feel of a luxury in-flight magazine -the material is often more amusing than you might expect.The first story is that of a computer salesman who swaps the rat race for the vineyard. It’s relayed in typically enthusiastic style. So, wine is ‘fascinating’, the specific claret peddled is ‘the finest’ and Our Man in Bordeaux ploughs on even when disaster strikes. Naturally, one or two misguided Frenchies object to his methods but thanks to that famous British sang froid, Our Man precipitates ‘a revolution of Bastille Day proportions’ and wins the day. Cue rapturous applause.
It seems churlish to dwell on the fact that the wine, despite awards and celebrity endorsement, hasn’t actually turned a profit. Poverty en plein air may be idyllic, but it won’t necessarily entitle you to a Coutts Gold Card.
The second article examines signatures of famous people – a favourite journalistic trick. I myself once asked the lady graphologist featured in the piece to scrutinise Gordon Brown’s hand. Her observations were as illuminating then as they are here. So, Charles Dickens’ scrawl on a Coutts cheque has ‘intensity and focus’ because he underlines a lot. Bram Stoker, who writes to cancel his library subscription, ‘shows a people-centred approach’. As, no doubt, did his Count Dracula.
Other pieces include an appraisal of Coutts’ credit-card design, an attempt to persuade customers that a brightly-coloured plastic rectangle constitutes a replacement for the iconic Coutts chequebook, and gender-driven eulogies
to fast cars and handbags.
In the main, however, articles are well conceived and
executed. They target the moderately wealthy rather than the mega-rich, allowing the magazine to stray into areas unlikely to concern consumer equivalents. The ‘yam’ quote, for instance, comes from digging up facts related to the Millenium Seed Bank. There is also an outstanding piece on aristocratic bon viveur Charles James Fox. The latter’s sole connection to the bank is that Thomas Coutts gifted large sums of money to the charming but inveterate gambler. It is enough to spark a riveting tale that wouldn’t look out of place in The Spectator.
The Journal is a brave attempt to do something entertaining and it’s certainly more readable than the sort of private-client newsletters favoured by the Swiss private banks that bang on about global inflation. Customers, too, seem to appreciate it – perhaps even the residents of Buckingham Palace have copies on their coffee table.
Meanwhile, RBS (Coutts’s parent company) has its own expensive production to maintain – a 98-page glossy entitled Private Banking. Given the number of celebrity-penned articles about everything but finance, the title seems a misnomer, rather.
The magazine’s latest cover story, for example, is a bought-in Vanity Fair interview with the ever-glamourous Nicole Kidman. It is full of exactly the sort of vapid nonsense one expects from worshippers of the Hollywood cult. So Nicole ‘has always valued deep, personal connections’ and ‘has never been careless about her personal life.’ Sadly, we do not hear how well Nicole’s share – as opposed to film – portfolio performs, or which investment strategy she favours. Then again, if you’re that rich, who cares?
Tony Blair does of course care, though his biographer, Anthony Seldon, would have you think otherwise. In the Summer 2007 edition of Private Banking, of which Blair
is the cover boy, pundits including Seldon predict the former PM’s next move in ‘Dear Tony’ pieces. Seldon says: ‘I do not see you being happy to earn large sums from the lecture circuit.’ Oops, don’t think so, not if reports of a lucrative speaking engagement at Goldman Sachs are anything to go by.
Seldon continues: ‘I think you will use your extraordinary international contacts to advance your cherished causes in Africa, the Middle East and beyond.’ Maybe one day, but less obsequious predictions made by blogger Iain Dale and Mirror Journalist Kevin Maguire have already proven accurate: sign a multi-million-pound deal for memories – tick; bask in the admiration of Americans – tick; land a £500,000-a-year job with JP Morgan – tick. All this is great fun, but throws little light on the nation’s economic future.
Similarly, Private Banking’s celebrity authors expound few theories of asset allocation. Instead, the bank has commissioned that well-known capitalist Christopher Hitchens, revered business guru Matthew Parris and tax expert Simon Hoggart to take our minds off money.
Parris, for example, describes how MPs go Bunburying every summer, pretending they are fighting their constituency’s corner in London, while fooling Westminster
colleagues their surgeries are inundated with pressing complaints. It’s hugely entertaining, partly because it so eagerly reinforces prejudices about politicians and journalists. The one iota of financial advice is reserved for hacks: stick around in August in case the story of the century breaks. With everyone else on the beach, you will be able to charge the earth for your services. For which tip, thanks Matthew. Though I fear few hacks beyond those featured earn enough to qualify for a subscription to this sort of invaluable counsel.
In another edition, Hitchens writes an essay on wit – other people’s that is. The best line inevitably goes to Voltaire. Told to renounce the Devil on his deathbed, he reportedly whispered: ‘This is no time to be making enemies.’ The analysis concludes obviously: wit belies a greater seriousness – but is so perfectly written as to render the content irrelevant. In a way, the piece is like Nicole. Its style is so over-powering, the substance hardly matters.
Indeed, Private Banking is so attention-seeking it wouldn’t look out of place on a newsagent’s stand. Why should that be? After all, it’s a ‘private’ magazine. And
therein lies the clue: it has a captive audience advertisers can sell to, either through page ads or friendly reviews. Marketing external products may not push the magazine into profit, but can help defray costs.
While Coutts’s Journal takes a jaunty look at the more eccentric parts of British life, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Private Banking offers the literary equivalent of the comedian compere at industry awards. He livens up the ceremony, even if his jargon jokes are a little tired, but you keep wondering how much he’s been paid. Nonetheless, the soft, weekend style – features on swimming pools, cars, gardening, recipes and branded events such as the Six Nations Rugby – is so seductive that when a serious and useful piece turns up, it’s rather a shock.
One page on from Nicole is a raft of economic forecasts for 2008. This is the ‘private banking’ bit. It tackles issues such as market uncertainty and the Chancellor’s hike in capital gains tax with comment from experts, such as Lord Lamont and Jeff Randall. Lamont’s view? Pay your debts. The perfect message to RBS customers – especially as the UK has racked up total borrowings of £1.2 trillion.
There are smoother crossovers between finance and fluff. One thinly-disguised book-plug details the fact that 10 per cent of successful businessmen such as Sir Philip Green lost a parent before the age of 14, compared to just 1 per cent in the wider population, while 90 per cent of entrepreneurs have had some sort of ‘marginalising experience’. Bullied at school or sent to bed hungry? Who knows, but it makes me wonder: are businessmen the new artists – an impossible, perhaps unhinged, stereotype on whom we shower money and love because they create things we cannot?
Towards the back of the magazine is the regular finance section, ‘Asset’. The latest edition has illuminating articles on the dollar, Northern Rock, house prices, the Gulf states and gold. In short, everything you want to know if you let someone else run your money. The information is compiled by in-house chiefs and is highly pertinent.
I enjoyed reading Private Banking. I admire the famous authors and the private bankers who air their views. But this strange mix of glitz and
granular data jars. And you wonder what those RBS customers infuriated by banking charges might think of the bank spending, let us say (they are too coy to be exact), hundreds of thousands on producing this publication. Mercifully, as impoverished non-recipients, those people need never know it exists.
St James’s Place, the upmarket wealth manager, publishes a magazine called The Investor. One front cover shows a South African plain, another shows cricket bats. Both relate to financial stories. Both told me things I didn’t know: the African nation has recently recorded its first-ever budget surplus, and a handmade Warsop Stebbing bat will set you back £300.
Neither nugget rocked my world but there was other material to interest me. In particular, a piece on women in the boardroom and the ‘glass cliff’ – the alternative theory to the glass ceiling, which has it that women are more likely to be appointed in times of crisis and so are set up to fail. I’m not sure if I believe this, though the latest (American) female to become a FTSE 100 chief, Cynthia Carroll, certainly has her work cut out at mining giant Anglo-American.
There’s an extraordinary piece of cross-marketing in the form of an interview with Eton headmaster Anthony Little. St James’s Place benefits from Eton’s upper-class sheen, while the school directly targets parents who can afford the £26,000-a-year fees. This and most of the publication is the work of a single, unassuming author. None of
his articles would scoop a Pulitzer Prize – the self-referential branding is rather off-putting – but if you don’t read business news every day, this magazine will keep you
au courant: there are briefings on infrastructure funds, credit turmoil, food inflation, contactless debit cards and private healthcare.
Most intriguing, however, are the opinions from those who matter. Not celebrities in the Hollywood sense, but well-respected fund managers, such as Ian McVeigh at Jupiter, and Duncan Owen of Invista Real Estate. They can answer all-important questions, such as ‘Where should I put my money?’ and ‘How are your funds performing?’.
Best of the bunch is Barclays Wealth. But then the bank has been smart. Instead of aping consumer publications, it has partnered with them. So, clients receive a copy of
Intelligent Life (the Economist spin-off) with Barclays advertising draped across the cover. Needless to say, it’s intoxicating: bursting with beautifully wrought articles on rising IQs, lazy language, diamonds, hunting and the $10,000 gin and tonic. It’s so good I want a subscription.
Barclays also sponsors a booklet of essays on mentors. Contributors include Charles Spencer, Philip Pullman and Diane Abbott. The latter flouts convention and chooses Winnie Mandela as her role model, despite the South African’s ‘violence and financial malpractice’. Not quite the ‘mentor’ Barclays head of stock-broking, Amy Nauiokas, had in mind, perhaps. But then Amy is the sort of corporate manager who uses made-up words, such as ‘mentee’. Barclays also sends customers a single-issue magazine called Barclays Wealth Insights and an annual-report-style doorstop, Signpost. Both are
readable but don’t say anything new. Then again, I’m too buried in Intelligent Life to pay much attention.
Considering UBS is the world’s largest asset manager, its client magazine, Wealth Management, is surprisingly slim. Articles on risk and the Swiss franc are aimed at a technical audience but occasionally there’s a piece with broader appeal. ‘Could violent swings in the stock market result from a rush of blood to investors’ brains?’ hypothesises one. Any recent observer of the Dow Jones and FTSE would shout ‘Yes!’. Neuroscience is at an early stage but evidence shows rookie traders’ brains light up ‘like Christmas trees’. Otherwise, this magazine offers only standard fare, with non-financial staples, such as cars and wine.
Private clients of JPMorgan Private Bank can look forward to receiving Portfolio magazine. No attempt at cocktail publishing, here. The big
interview is with JPMorgan’s new head of private-client advisory. It’s all about ‘delivering effective solution-oriented banking’, which may be a little jargon-heavy for some readers.
More fun is SG Hambros’ NB, which I scan eagerly for tips on spotting large-scale frauds at French banks. Sadly, rien. Instead, there are articles on topics including inheritance tax, hedge funds and investing in art.
Perspective from Brewin Dolphin is more appetising. The articles range from the sell-off in the property market to stamp indices and green technologies. Editor Charlotte Black has wisely commissioned a senior business hack, Grant Ringshaw of The Sunday Times, to explain how the Northern Rock debacle will change London. He is an old-hand, so it’s an easy read. The other articles, penned by investment professionals, are more technical, but those who read to the end are rewarded with a crossword.
On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by what small teams with limited resources have achieved. The fluffier stuff made me want to be rich while most of the financial information was useful and often thought-provoking. Though, for all their sequined ambition, I cannot help feeling that private-banking magazines are unlikely to give the likes of Condé Nast head honcho Nicholas Coleridge sleepless nights.