What’s it like to leave one of the UK’s biggest and best-known investment houses to build a brand new financial advice and investment management company from scratch?

That’s a question Ben Cowley has faced every day since becoming head of marketing at Flying Colours, a next-generation financial advice provider. Having spent more than five years at Octopus Investments, Ben took the plunge in mid-2015, embracing the challenge of not just generating brand recognition in a hugely trust-dependent industry, but of doing so with a business model that Flying Colours hopes will carve out an entirely new niche in the advice and investment industry.

We sat down with Ben to discuss marketing, at firms both big and small, why Flying Colours is different, and how to write a blog post about Leicester City.


Ben Cowley, head of marketing at Flying Colours

Ben Cowley, head of marketing at Flying Colours

Q: What does Flying Colours do that’s different to what’s already on offer?

A: We think the current advice industry is in need of a shakeup. There’s a lot of inefficiency and it’s a sector that’s remained reasonably unchallenged by the use of technology.

Investor returns are currently impacted by the costs that they pay, not just for funds but for financial advice on an ongoing basis. Lots of financial advice businesses have pulled away from delivering independent advice to people with less than £100,000. So far, how the market’s tried to respond to that gap is by using technology for cutting out the personal relationship. You’ve got ‘robo-advice’ like Nutmeg, Wealth Horizon and a number of others. All of those businesses have entered the market from a point of view of guidance, and the fact they can lower the costs to make it accessible to people. But they don’t offer financial advice.

What you haven’t got is a hybrid model – combining the best of technology and access to low-cost advice, but with that human support and the protection of a regulated financial advisor.

Our lower-cost model covers everything from our systems, to the way that staff are remunerated and the location of the office. For instance, we’ve taken the decision to provide financial advice over the phone, or via video conferencing online, and to do away with the face-to-face meetings.

Q: What kind of technology are you using?

A: We’re developing our own technology in the back office to make sure that our administrative processes are much more efficient than in traditional financial advisory businesses. We’re also looking at automating some advice processes. Financial advice and financial plans tend to come out of a snapshot in time and objectives that investors want to achieve in the future. What we’re hoping is that, through the use of technology, people can update when their situation changes, and create an adaptable plan with actions to undertake each year to make sure that they’re still on track for the goals that they decided.  

Q: What’s with your company name? What is Flying Colours?

A: There’s a lot of worry and stress that’s involved when thinking about how to manage your money, but it shouldn’t feel like a battle to deal with, and I think that’s where Flying Colours have come in. We want to help people succeed financially. So it’s about injecting some colour and vibrancy and maybe even a sense of victory into something that people stick their heads in the sand about, aren’t clear about, and are confused about.

Q: How does Flying Colours’ marketing support those goals?

A: We suspect that the people most likely to apply for financial advice are those who are at retirement and need to make a decision about what to do with their pension, or are approaching retirement and want to organise and improve their investment strategy. We’ve also got a whole world of UK investors who aren’t accessing financial advice at the moment and need to consolidate the pensions that they’ve accrued through different careers.

As a new brand, we’re looking to establish trust and credibility quickly among those audiences. From a marketing point of view, how we’re doing that is through PR, through direct mail and through the use of digital channels, to really build our awareness. That’s one of the biggest challenges at the start, building awareness that we exist, and that we offer an alternative to using just online platforms or more traditional financial advisors.

I’ve got a virtual team that’s helping to build the brand of the business, specifically our chief executive Guy Myles. He’s written thought-leadership pieces regarding one of our most important pieces of research, which we commissioned through a PhD student at Cambridge University using data across 15 years and 5,000 funds. The research shows the corrosive effects of costs on lifetime returns from an investment. While advisor fees are expensive, our research shows that people opting for DIY investing face significant erosion of their returns through timing errors.

Using the content on our website, we want to engage people with their finances and show that Flying Colours has their best interests at heart in terms of reducing costs, while trying to explain the murky world of finances to them using simple, engaging language. We’re in the process of developing an online web tool that enables you to input your current age, your retirement age, whether you’re retired or not, the value of investments that you’ve got, and the standard of living you want to have in retirement. The tool would then show how much your investment could be eroded by DIY investing or typical financial-advisor costs, so we can very quickly get to the heart of our proposition.

From my point of view, in order for prospects to establish contact with us, they’ve got to go through an initial interest and consideration process. They may want to do a lot of searching and reading of our website before they can engage, so we have to give them what they need. Do we have the right service for them? How do we compare in terms of the costs that we’re offering? What’s the credibility of our team? We’ve got to overcome all of those using our website before we can actually get the engagement that we want, which is a phone call with our advice team.

Q: How is marketing for Flying Colours different to your previous role at Octopus Investments?

A: At Octopus, we’d grown to become the leading player in tax-efficient investment. We had the biggest market share for those products, and the key challenges were maintaining market share, looking at the development of different products, and even diversifying. By contrast, Flying Colours is completely new. Not only are we a completely new consumer brand, we’re offering a product that’s different to what we’ve seen before. We’ve got a blank space, and we’re going to have to do an awful lot of testing and learning to see what works and what doesn’t. We’re enthusiastic about that challenge, but it’s worlds apart from what I faced at Octopus. Where the commonality arises is that there’s a ferocious appetite to succeed in both businesses. It’s incredibly stimulating to be challenged on a daily basis and to have to think on your feet about what’s going to work.

Q: What are the disadvantages to working in this kind of environment?

A: Well, the disadvantages are obviously the challenges you face and perhaps not necessarily having the resources or the structure you need. There isn’t a wealth of marketers in our team to bounce ideas off, so that can be difficult. In lighter terms, we’re a start-up, so we’re working in a start-up office in Ascot. Before we were actually operational, we were even cooking for each other, so we had a stove in the office. We’ve got a hell of a lot busier since going live, so now we’re on bags of crisps and sandwiches at our desks!

We know that we’re going to need investment to grow, so we’re not scared of that. I’ve got a strong virtual team that I can trust, so I want to work like an orchestra conductor, bringing in external experts who can help us. My job is to make sure that those relationships are strong, that they’re working, and that the concept that we’re producing is excellent, so we’ve got a full sweep of experts across all of those platforms.

Q: What successes did you enjoy at Octopus that gave you lessons you can use in Flying Colours?

A: I worked to develop the customer portal at Octopus that people use to monitor the value of their investments. That was a process of working with customers to get their feedback and find out why they were ringing up and interacting on a regular basis, so we could create that functionality, and that’s the same kind of thing that we’re doing with Flying Colours. In terms of the customer experience, that was a real success. We’d like it to be the focal point of view of our business because we want our customers to live their Flying Colours ‘life’ on the portal.

Another thing was the whole end-to-end communications process for customers. On-boarding and retention communications programmes is something that we’ve had to spend time on, and I led that at Octopus too.

Q: What would you say are key trends in investment marketing and finance marketing, both now and in the future?

A: All the traditional marketing agencies have rebranded themselves as content marketing. There’s a recognition that there’s so much information out there, unless you’re providing something valuable, you’re going to get lost in the noise. I think it’s a given that businesses should be trying to engage people with their finances, and writing to people as equals.

Certainly for our brand, we don’t want to talk down to people – we want to see a very open, same-level relationship. The real key is that you’ve just got to stand out, so topical content is going to generate attention. For instance, we did some content recently about the three things Leicester City’s title triumph can tell you about financial planning. I think the challenge for marketers is to align creative content with the right audience and then engage.

Q: You’ve said that you’re aiming for customers who have perhaps not been as closely engaged with their finances. How would that affect the kind of content you produce?

A: It’s important to put brands in front of people and to engage people on the level of their personal interests rather than just their finances. What is it that people do when they’re not dealing with their finances? Are they interested in wine, travel or gardening? How can you engage them in that way? I don’t think that we should be surprised to realise that when people are reading about finance, they do so in publications and media that aren’t the traditional financial press. In our case, we’ve already had a placement in yours.co.uk that triggered a sizeable jump in traffic to our site.

Q: What’s your most hated piece of financial jargon?

A: I hate any kind of legalese. I think that the worst thing about financial jargon is that it tries to put a barrier between the customer and the advisor, or the person delivering the service. That’s all part of creating this mystique of this cagey world that they can then charge an excessive fee for. Personally, I think that’s terrible. I hope, in time, that it becomes impossible for people to do that in business, because more and more businesses are communicating to people in clear, transparent and human language rather than patronising them or bewildering them and failing to make a real connection. I’m actually really passionate about that.


Niels Footman

Londoner by birth, Scot by accent, Niels is Copylab's managing director of the UK and Europe.
Niels Footman