Typical bank approach – ‘we care’

Creative guys have a difficult mandate on this one

There’s a nice little radio campaign out there that’s got me musing about banks. It’s for TD Canada Trust, and it’s talking to small-business owners, which would unquestionably include me.

It’s just a guy describing the very-small-business world, in good copy that has a lot of empathy. ‘Your delivery van is at soccer practice’ … ‘Your Director of Mergers & Acquisitions is out buying stir sticks’ … ‘If chewing on a pencil between breakfast and dinner counts, then yes, you have business lunches.’ The spots demonstrate that TD Canada Trust realizes I’m not Frank Stronach or Harrison McCain, and they might nevertheless deign to deal with me anyway. That’s not bad.

Contrast that with the night, not a long time ago, when the research world actually allowed me into a focus group on the consumer side of the one-way glass. (RECRUITER: Would you be interested in attending a group on… JOHN, INTERRUPTING: I wouldn’t be eligible, I’m in advertising. RECRUITER, SCANNING HER SCRIPT: No, that doesn’t seem to be a problem. JOHN: Hot damn, they’ve never let me in before, I’ll be there!)

I qualified for the group because I was a small-business owner, and a very very very large bank wanted to listen to me. (Sure.) After all the preliminaries and cookies, the moderator got to the subject that the communicators behind the mirror wanted to hear about. It seemed that this very very very large bank had real interest – pun somewhat intended – in small business owners, and was therefore planning to offer me a deal.

They were going to give me a line of credit, up to about 25 grand as I recall, and for that munificent sum, I only had to pay them a setting-up fee plus an administration fee plus three-bloody-per cent over prime! (I wonder if they bounced this deal off Stronach and McCain.) And after we debated the merits of this wonderful offer, they then wanted to know if we preferred the bank’s new slogan to be ‘The Bank That Cares About Small Business’ or simply ‘The Bank For Small Business.’ I voted no on both, suggested a couple of pithy alternates, and was not asked back.

Bank advertising is very hard, because it’s just a massive service business, and 99% of the time the strategy boils down to ‘We care,’ and there’s significant skepticism (in my case, reinforced by that focus group) that they do. So it all falls in the laps of the creative guys, and we wind up with ads like the odious BMO marching children chanting Bob Dylan Muzak about the changing times (‘We didn’t care yesterday, but today we do.’)

One bank – not even technically a bank – had the guts to break the mold and actually do something to show they cared. A couple of decades ago, Canada Trust started to keep the doors open longer, a lot longer: 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Any bank could have done that – computers had long before eliminated the need to close the doors and balance the books – but only CT did. And the public loved it. It’s no coincidence that they’re the only old trust company with a meaningful presence today (albeit merged with TD).

Now, Canada’s largest bank has invited a select list of 38 agencies to compete to tell the public why it matters that the bank is now RBC instead of the Royal. Unless they introduce 24-hour service or negative interest rates, their strategy will probably once again be to dump everything into the Creative Department saying ‘Tell them we care.’

It’s going to be fun to watch. The Royal Bank needs a new profile; they haven’t made an advertising impact in a long, long time. I’ll bet if you asked anybody old enough to remember it, the #1 Royal Bank campaign would still be Mary, their symbolic teller of virginal name and demeanor, who vanished into The Adland Retirement Home about a quarter century ago.

Mary executed the ‘We care’ strategy extremely well…but of course, you couldn’t use her today. It would be sexist piggery to imply that all tellers are women, and even if you could, you’d have to modernize and dimensionalize Mary. She would become Ling Tao or Olga, study nuclear physics in night school at Centennial College, serve soup in a Jarvis Street shelter, and play Fender bass on weekends in a grunge band.

No, I don’t envy the 38 Creative Directors facing the Royal challenge, and I don’t think I’d want to be one of them. And with life’s wonderful synchronicity, it’s worked out that way. RBC neglected to put me on their list.

John Burghardt’s checkered resume includes the presidency of a national agency, several films for the Shah’s government in Iran, collaboration with Jim Henson to create the Cookie Monster, and a Cannes Gold Lion. The letterhead of his thriving business now reads ‘STRATEGIC PLANNING * CREATIVE THINKING.’ He can be reached by phone at (416) 693-5072 or by e-mail at burgwarp@aol.com.