Martyn Lewis spoke at the PLSA virtual conference yesterday. It’s not easy to see how many were listening but I was as his contributions to the world of pension provision, though few, are valued.
Speaking from home, Lewis explained the genesis of the Money Saving Expert website and how his Money Saving Tips email has grown to a circulation of 13m. Yes 13 million people are informed by Martyn and his team every week and he was at pains to explain that he is very much an executive chair with editorial control over what we get.
He was clearly wondering how many in his audience were familiar with these mails and it would be interesting to know how many senior people in pensions watch and learn from his phenomenal capacity to incite interest in saving money.
Lewis explained his ongoing battle not to lose the identity established in these mails and on his website. Martyn’s face is not going away, his articles are not going to promote product over content and the site will continue to look a little ragged.
The chair of the event , the excellent Michael Watkins, asked a crucial question about how Martyn knew what people wanted to read and see which solicited a sharp rebuttal. Lewis claimed he didn’t write what people wanted to read but what they needed to read.
He introduced us to the word “hegemonic” – to describe the style of his journalism. For those not wishing to look it up – it means “ruling or dominant in a political or social context”. He later described himself as didactic. (a teacher with moral instruction as the ulterior motive). He explained that people come to him to be told.
Knowing the limits
This capacity to be seen as authoritative is perhaps the reason why there is no pension aisle in his Money Supermarket. The conversation did turn several times to “pensions” but it was clear Lewis did not want to appear didactic on the investment of the money of his 13m readers.
His style is to remain within the boundaries of what is known and indisputable. When Watkins turned to the vexed question of small pot proliferation, Lewis would not be drawn on a solution , only that whatever the solution was, it needed a campaign behind it. Again Watkins bravely asked about campaigning by probing about PPI.
Lewis made it clear that a campaign would could not be organized by a provider of pensions looking to gain from consolidation and would need to define the audience, what the audience had to do and a specific and immediate call to action. He mentioned that typically he had five minutes of his audience’s time to make the call to action.
This was, to Lewis, why consolidation was so hard, because it required a way to make it easy to consolidate without making it easy for scammers to get our money. Knowing his limits, he did not push towards a solution to this challenge but the analysis was clear enough.
Defining the audience
It is well known that Lewis speaks to an audience that are notoriously wary of pensions , of advice and of investment. I have frequently vlogged Martyn at this country fair
Lewis speaks to the people who don’t take advice but are interested in their money and he was clear that people want him to talk about pensions. His problem is that when he does write about pensions, his audience doesn’t listen, which is why there is no pension aisle in his MoneySupermarket.
Pensions doesn’t need a new name, but a rebrand
Lewis is clearly puzzled about how to deal with pensions, he has recently spoken on his site about auto-enrolment and mentioned that he intended to do more.
He explored where he had become disenchanted and pointed to the opacity of with-profits pension policies which he compared to with-profits endowments. While he was able to campaign on endowments, which clearly mis-sold the outcome, he accused the pension industry of not just poor practice in the opacity with which with-profits delivered returns, but a failure to be accountable for the outcomes of the policies, he had no way of campaigning against with-profits pension policies. The implication was that pensions were just too obscure and complex for his readership but auto-enrolment is different.
This led Lewis into his one clear recommendation to his audience. He called for a line to be drawn in the sand and deliver consumers a bill of pension rights that allowed them to feel they had control over the money they owned.
To Watkins question “do we need to do away with the word ‘pension’, Lewis replied that what was need was a rebrand of the word – not its abolition. The publication of pension rights might, as happened with banking – merely tell people the rights they had anyway, but there would need to be a clear difference between what had come before and what came after, the line in the sand.
Tellingly, Lewis did not commit himself to any such campaign but I hope that the Pensions Minister, who is speaking today, was listening. He should speak with the CMA and Lewis.
Lewis on auto-enrolment
Lewis was cute on the success of auto-enrolment which happened because Government “accepted defeat” on getting mass market engagement with saving. But Lewis was clear that we now need to start educating people as to how pensions work.
I look forward to a forthcoming Money Savings Tip landing in my inbox as an Auto-Enrolment special. It will certainly not be focusing on the Pension Minister’s suggestion that AE pots might be used to secure a deposit on a property
— Josephine Cumbo (@JosephineCumbo) October 13, 2020
Which Lewis saw as a new means for Government to screw up the housing market with no compensating features.
Lewis saw the engagement of his audience with pensions coming through technology with the emphasis on getting people to ask questions rather than be given answers.
And he returned again and again to the need for an authoratative voice, that could force people to consider on-line decision trees. He pointed at MaPS as a place where this might happen but we were left wondering, can anyone make it happen – if not this man?
Pensions needs an aisle in Martyn Lewis’ MoneySupermarket
Lewis is Britain’s #1 financial champion. He reaches an audience nobody else reaches and is trusted for what he is and what he says.
He does what politicians cannot do, nor pensions experts, which is talk directly to people who otherwise do not listen.
We have to find a way to meet his challenges , if we are to restore confidence in pensions.
I hope that the PLSA put Martyn’s interview with Michael Watkins in the public domain, as it is the most interesting session I have watched at any conference, for some time.