What does Luxury really mean?

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

We’ve been busy recently – working with a top Luxury Retailer, exploring what luxury really means. Fascinating insights coming out…and it’s all about the detail!

The Beauty Myth

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Picture1This ad stopped me in my tracks.

I’m used to seeing beauty and cosmetics ads featuring the usual icily beautiful 20 something model, the kind of woman who must be tired of people telling her how beautiful she is.  She knows she is beautiful, it’s so obvious that the comment becomes fatuous.

I’m also used to Dove’s ‘campaign for real beauty’ ads, featuring women who are slightly less than perfect; well at least they display a range of different body shapes.

But this ad felt different:

  • firstly, you don’t normally see  52 yr old in a cosmetics ad unless she is Andi McDowell or Claudia Schiffer
  • the lady looks normal; she could be someone’s mum
  • she actually has wrinkles!

I’m not the target audience, but this ad feels like a brand that has found its authentic voice

It promises no miracles; it feels grounded; it feels honest.

Are You Faking It?

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

I hate it when a brand takes me for a fool…and that’s what TSB’s new campaign is doing.

It’s soft cartoon imagery and friendly smiling people look great; two women; two men, one of them non-white.  All smiling and non-threatening.  The antithesis of what 21st Century Britain has come to feel about its banks.  This lot look human. Even the strapline ‘Local banking for Britain’ sounds good.

But it’s bull-shit.

People would love for their bank to be like this – human, friendly, approachable, trustworthy, down-to-earth, embedded in the community.

But saying you are all these things is different to actually being those things.

TSB demonstrate amazing cynicism – the assumption would appear to be that if the bank presents an informal down-to-earth persona then that will be sufficient. Yet the campaign gives no reason to truly believe that a few branches that Lloyds were forced to sell, which were then re-branded as TSB is anything other than A.N. Other Bank.

Calling your employees ‘Partner’ doesn’t make them any different; ‘we’re rewarded when we do as much as we can to actively help people’ – is this really the best the brand can come up with? Anyone would think that banking was a service industry; which of course for many years it hasn’t been – you were more likely to get divorced than change banks so there was no incentive for them to keep you happy.  But things are changing and a whole slew of new challengers are disrupting the status quo – so-called ‘Fin-Tech’ start-ups like Atom Bank, Mondo and, on the high street Metro Bank.

You can’t sucker your customers forever….and a change is coming.

For me this campaign fails because it lacks an authentic voice – I just don’t believe that TSB is like this.

My next post will be about an ad from the beauty industry that unexpectedly does find authenticity; and in the beauty industry that is quite an achievement. Stay tuned…

Insight is Dead

Friday, 8 April 2016

Here at Volante we’re bored with the word ‘insight’. Researchers should stop going on about it and start thinking instead about what businesses actually do with it.

Hands up if you think the word ‘insight’ is overused. It has become so prevalent that it has lost all sense of its real meaning. It’s like the word ‘luxury’ when applied to an Ikea bathroom suite or ‘executive’ for a motel bedroom.

For an industry obsessed with insight, the funny thing is that we’re not short of it. In fact quite the opposite – we’re tripping over it. Most professional, consumer-focused client companies have been commissioning research for decades. They’ve spent millions on it. They regularly segment their target audiences, then revise their segmentations to keep them up to date. They do innovation research and advertising research, they subscribe to the relevant industry reports and monitors. They probably have an agency on retainer to monitor web chatter about the brand. They may even have a Facebook group to get them closer to their peeps.

In fact, most organisations are now suffering from a serious case of insight indigestion. Insight managers now have so much information coming at them that insight itself has ceased to be the issue.

At the end of a successful project, the agency comes in, does their debrief and makes their recommendations. It’s at this point that one of a number of factors kicks in:

  • The debrief came too late and the end client has already made a decision
  • The debrief contradicts the last piece of work, so is met with doubt
  • The debrief gives bad news or contradicts an idea that was popular internally, so findings are ignored
  • The debrief gives good news and everything is hunky dory – so much so that everyone wonders why they bothered with the research in the first place

None of this is about the quality of insight, it’s about what happens to it once it has been unearthed. Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, once said that if he left IBM’s strategic plans on an airplane seat they would be useless to any competitor, because business success is not about grand designs, it’s all down to how you execute your plans.

The same holds true for market research – we all obsess about finding the breakthrough insight, the idea or the angle that no-one else has thought of and that will drive brand differentiation and desire. No-one, at least on the agencyside, seems to spend much time thinking how these insights are going to be executed and how the agency and insight manager are going to get the end-user of the research to actually use them.

“Insights have zero intrinsic value. They need to be applied to the business and used to change something before the value is realised”

Insights have zero intrinsic value. Knowing that your target consumers behave or think in a specific way is not immediately of commercial value to an organisation. The insights need to be applied to the business and used to change something before the value is realised. Too often, as researchers, we are guilty of sweating over a project and then, once we have come up with some smart consumer insights, we sit back. Job done, aren’t we clever. It still leaves the end client having to make sense of the research findings and work out how to apply them to their business.

Consumer insight managers face a constant challenge to engage with their end customers and demonstrate the power of research to the business. Finding killer insights isn’t the issue any more ( and anyway, if it’s a decent insight, you can bet that your competitors have also come across it ). The challenge is to find ways of enabling the insights to be immediately put to use.

Many clients can be somewhat cynical about attempts by agencies to ‘get closer’ to their business. Suggestions to run an ‘insight workshop’ instead of a conventional PowerPoint debrief are often rebuffed on the grounds that there is not enough time, or that it won’t add enough value. There is something comforting about the controlling environment of a debrief – debates are not opened up, there’s no risk of things that have already been agreed being discussed again and un-agreed.

But a two-hour meeting that consists of a researcher reading a deck of 80 PowerPoint charts and then fielding a few questions is a very poor way to turn research into decisions. Debriefs are like university lectures – someone stands up at the front and the audience sits and listens – it’s very ‘broadcast: receive’ and as such it actively discourages discussion. When done properly, a two or three hour workshop can be a more effective way of actually carrying ideas into the business and turning them into something that end clients can immediately use. If your clients are sceptical and you think they might drop the workshop in order to save some budget, offer to do it for no charge.

A good workshop helps to set the research within its wider context, both historical and forward looking. Key project stakeholders are invited ( it needs to be a small action-oriented group and not a wide audience of anyone who is vaguely connected to the project ). These key stakeholders can bring vital context to the findings. How do they compare to previous research findings? Do they fit with what the business believes to be the correct way forward, or do they challenge those beliefs? Has the business moved on since the research was conducted? Are all the insights still relevant?

The researcher’s job is to actively engage with the stakeholders, getting their input into the insight process. This can lead to arguments of course – while they know more about the brand or product than the researcher does, the researcher has come fresh from the insight coal face. These arguments are in fact a crucial part of the process – they make sure that any recommendations coming out of the research have been properly debated and understood. They not only reflect what the research said, but also the realities of the business.

At this point some of you will be throwing your arms up – the purity of the research has been corrupted by the evil client. Who cares? This is about using research as a conversation that enables the business to reach the correct decision. It isn’t about the researcher coming down from the mountain with ‘the truth’ and pointing the way that the client has to follow if they are to succeed.

This approach is not without its risks and it requires clientside insight managers as well agency researchers to stick their necks out a bit. But the benefits can be huge.

By allowing the discussion to encompass not only insights from the project but also a discussion that sets these within the context of the business, the research is able to see the bigger picture and take the business to a higher level.

“In any discussion the final and most important element must be a debate as to what the insights mean for the business. This is the part most researchers feel uneasy with”

In any discussion the final and most important element must be a debate ( sometimes heated ) as to what the insights mean for the business – what should the next steps be? This is the part most researchers feel uneasy with. The further away they get from the project insights, the more naked they feel. Yet despite the risk of saying something foolish or just plain wrong, this is where researchers need to go in order to really deliver.

Researchers get marginalised precisely because they refuse to engage with the realities of business. We need to move beyond insight if as an industry we are to demonstrate the value of research, value that comes from using insights to deliver sustainable competitive advantage to companies.

This isn’t just about engaging with the consumer, it’s about engaging with the end-user of research. This is where the battle should be in the 21st century. Insight is dead. Long live diffusion!

Last month someone said something so obnoxious in a group that half the respondents gasped.

Monday, 15 February 2016

What was really interesting was what happened next….

The group was discussing the work of a major Charity. Up to that point, the group had been tediously politically correct – everyone was ‘caring’ and ‘understanding’ and ‘empathetic’. Then one respondent said the exact opposite – they looked at the people that this charity helped and they felt disgust and horror; they wanted nothing to with ‘these people’. Everyone paused. This person had just said the precise thing no-one was supposed to say. People were a bit shocked. Then everyone piled in – “she was absolutely right”; they also thought that “these people didn’t deserve help”. It ended up being a hugely insightful group because the respondents finally told the truth.

So often people posture in research. They want to appear to be more informed than they really are; more rational and considered in their purchase decisions; less influenced by what others think etc. We’ve all been there haven’t we – those groups where you think to yourself “these guys are bull-shitting: they are buying this brand because they think it makes them look cool / they loved the ads so didn’t care about the product spec; they felt a bit intimidated so decided to play it safe etc. etc,”

Sometimes you need a respondent who just doesn’t care; someone who says:

  • “I never really considered product performance, I bought this brand because it was incredibly aspirational and I thought it would make me look cool”
  • “I don’t support this worthy charity because I have zero empathy with the people it helps”
  • “I felt intimidated when I walked into the store, I wasn’t confident enough to feel at home there”

People like this are Gold-Dust because they give everyone else permission to let their guard down a little bit. A skilled moderator can probe and challenge people to be more honest, but sometimes it takes ‘one of their own’ before the truth emerges.

It’s why I like the contrarian, the ‘pain in the ass’ respondent. Often they are excluded from groups because they disrupt group harmony, but on a difficult subject they can be catalysts, so consider hanging on to the weirdo in the corner; they just might make it a great group!

Suicide and Lamborghinis – researching the unresearchable

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

My head is full of stories.

I think of the time a respondent told me he’d spent £1m on his credit card over the last 12 months; I recall awkwardly sitting on the end of the bed in a home in San Francisco as the lady showed me her extensive collection of diamond jewellery.


I also think of the time I interviewed a former sergeant in the Coldstream Guards about his experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because nine men in his company were killed in one night. My mind lingers on the time I interviewed a man in the Tesco café in Newry, Northern Ireland as he described to me his unsuccessful attempt to take his own life.


The more I go over these particularly intense research ‘encounters’, the more I realise how much these seemingly disparate people have in common.


Interviewing people at the extremes of society – both super wealthy and super poor or disadvantaged, presents unique challenges. Over the last few years, our company have conducted a number of projects at the margins of society:

  • Talking to millionaires about their credit cards and spending habits
  • Ethnographic interviews with affluent women across America about their jewellery
  • Men who have attempted to take their own lives (to understand their ‘journey to suicide’)
  • Prisoners in a variety of jails across the country about depression
  • Former soldiers about their experience of PTSD
  • The list goes on….

They all displayed some atypical behaviour traits when being interviewed.

  1. All the respondents in these studies demonstrated an awareness that they were unusual, or at least that their life experiences were probably completely different to the moderator.

To get them to talk you need to prove that you can understand their life. Why should I tell you about being in Prison/Having a Taliban suicide bomber blow themselves up in-front of you/Running a multi-national business/Buying a Lamborghini? Their assumption is that you can’t imagine their life and it will be too much of an effort to explain it. It helps as a moderator if you can demonstrate some understanding (but not necessarily empathy – no-one wants to be pitied)

  1. They were all hard to recruit

When asked to participate in a research interview, similar questions run through their minds:

  • Is this legitimate research? (If it’s about your diamonds you may fear robbery; if it’s about your multiple attempts to kill yourself your fear is a more elemental one – the subject is too painful to talk about). To over-come this, you may need to provide much more background information on the purpose of the study; you may need to give your own contact details, to allow them to either talk to you beforehand or to look you up on the web
  • What is in it for me? (Here, the levers are very different – if you are unemployed then being paid an incentive is very motivating; if you are in prison then the prospect of getting out of your cell for an hour relieves boredom and co-operation may earn you greater priviledges; if you rich and successful, then the lure may be curiosity – in order to learn about people who are similar to you (where are you in the pecking order), or as a simple validation of your own ego (they want to talk to me!)

As a result, recruiting takes much longer, requires trust and confidence building beforehand, a willingness to endlessly re-schedule interviews and above all an understanding of what the triggers and barriers to participation might be

  1. Extreme wariness and unwillingness to open-up

The rich fear being judged just as much as the poor do. Admitting that you spent £20,000 on a holiday can be as difficult as saying that you spent six years in prison for dealing crack cocaine or that you are the victim of domestic violence. In both cases, the respondents fears judgment, that you the moderator won’t understand or will leap to conclusions. In the early stages of these interviews, respondents actively tested the moderator – cautiously probing to see what the reaction was. Only when they felt safe and not judged did they begin to really talk

  1. Conversely, respondents can seek to use their life experiences as a form of dominance over the moderator (again, ultimately a defence mechanism)

Interviewing a prisoner alone in a room in Belmarsh Prison, he sauntered over and as he closed the door said “It’s lucky that I’m only a burglar and not a murderer, otherwise I could kill you.” Sitting in the office of a City Broker, he tells me that he has just bought a new Ferrari using his credit card because he wanted to get the ¼ million loyalty points that would accrue from the purchase. Talking to a Grande Dame of the Upper East Side in New York, she informs me that the interview is having to take place in her spare apartment because she is having the main one completely re-decorated. In all cases, the intended message is the same – I’m richer/bigger/smarter/more successful/meaner/tougher/scarier than you. Yet at the same time, they are also simply being honest. As a moderator, the challenge remains the same – engage, listen, comment, but be neither impressed shocked or intimidated – it’s a test.

  1. Unexpectedly, many respondents in these disparate groups also displayed signs of similar levels of depression, anxiety and stress

The unrelenting pressure of either trying to survive on a daily basis, or keep-up with a hyper competitive and affluent peer group can mean that the long-term unemployed and rich City executives experience their lives in similar ways. In the words of one lawyer: “You can’t play the ‘keeping-up’ game in this town – there’s always someone richer than you.” Stress is stress, regardless of the cause. As a result, an interview can be very cathartic. Once a respondent feels they can trust you they will often wish to talk and talk. A one hour depth an rapidly become a two hour one.



Volante Research specialises in hard to research audiences; as I hope you can see, the process is an intense, challenging and ultimately fascinating one

Space is the ultimate luxury

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Volante have just finished a piece of self-funded research that explored what are the key factors that make a store feel premium of luxury. It was quite a robust piece of work, with Qual and Quant across the US, China, Germany and the UK and the findings were surprising.

Get in touch if you’d like to find out why having a spacious store is more important than investing in designer decor and how staff can make or break your luxury proposition.

The road less travelled

Monday, 19 October 2015

Volante specialises in hard to research topics and hard to research audiences. We’re currently in the planning stages of two projects – one will be persuading jewellers across the US to talk about their profit margins and commercial terms, the other is talking to people with Learning Disabilities and their carers/families about their lives and their perceptions of different charities.

The only thing that links these two projects is that they are both complex topics with audiences who are hard to find and not straightforward to interview.

They’re also the kind of projects that we love – complex, challenging and with the potential to have a real impact on our clients’ organisations

We’ve been busy!

Thursday, 31 October 2013

We’ve been busy bees down at Volante so haven’t posted for a while.  This is a taster of what we have been up to over the last few months:

– we’ve gone into the homes of affluent American ladies in New Jersey, Minneappolis, and San Francisco and got them to show us their collection of diamonds

– we’ve interviewed the newly rich of China in the far west of the country in Chongqing (a city with a larger population than Australia)

– we’ve talked to former soldiers about the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

– we’ve talked to charity donors about giving to a charity in a recession

– we’ve helped a charity to develop their social media and App strategy

– we’ve interviewed jewellers around Europe to understand what they want from jewellery brands


Never a dull moment!  More to come soon ….but in the meantime, here are a couple of photos of Chongqing.




Lies, damned lies and Olympics

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Now that the Olympics are over and we have a brief lull before the Paralympics begin, Volante Research felt it appropriate to add its congratulations to the many already given to Team GB for their storming performance in finshing 3rd in the medal tables


However, we feel it only fair to point out that the UK is the odd one oout in the way that it calculates these things. Rather than base rankings only on the number of Gold medals won, every other nation prefers to count up the total number of medals (of any hue) achieved by a team – a method of calculation that sees us nudged down into fourth place by the pesky Russians.

…so who is correct then? It struck us that neither way of counting seems to be a fair way to recognise the efforts of our Olympians.  It seems unfair to totally ignore Silver and Bronze medals, yet at the same time too simplistic to count Gold, Silver and Bronze as equal (a point that surely Mr Bolt would agree with us on).

Volante therefore propose a radical new way of calculating which nation demonstrates the greatest sporting virility: For every Gold medal won, we award 10 points, for every Silver we award 5 points and for every Bronze a more modest 2 points.  The country with the highest points tally wins.

On this basis, the medal tables look rather different:

…so we were beaten by the Russians afterall, curses!…still at least Australia can feel happier – they came 8th not 10th, unlike poor old South Korea who tumbled down to 7th. Ah-well, plenty of time to practice before Rio


Friday, 6 July 2012

I’ve recently returned from doing research groups in New York and was struck once again by how similar NYC is to London.  In fact so similar are they that their likeness has coined a phrase – NY-LON.

It describes a certain urban, open-minded, global outlook that doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the country.

If you’re a NY-LONer you almost certainly know three people who were born at least 1,000 miles away. You’re not freaked out when you’re on a bus, look around and realise you’re the only person who speaks fluent English.  You’re surprised when you find your mini-cab driver does speak fluent English. You have an opinion on which is better cuisine Ethiopian or Eritrean. You are blase about a 6’4″ transvestite sitting beside you on the train. You regard the person in front of you not having their Oyster /subway ticket to hand as they approach the ticket gate as an inexcuseable waste of 2 seconds of your precious time. You’re not worried by crazies coming up to you on the street and trying to talk to you. Whilst you equally regard ANY stranger who does engage you in conversation as probably mad, you’re always pleased when a tourist asks you for directions and you know where to direct them. You assume that everyone is as career obsessed as you are and struggle to hide your instinctive disapproval of ‘drifters’. You earn way more than your out of town friends and your place is at least twice as expensive…yet it’s also smaller. You no longer bother to look up when walking past Big Ben or the Empire State Building, but deep down you still think it’s pretty cool that you do walk past them everyday. You know that people in smaller towns and cities regard all NY-LONers as unfriendly and impatient, but you know this is just a sign of them being hics and nothing to do with how you really are. Whenever you leave the city and get out into something approximating greenery you mutter about how much nicer life would be if you got out of town, even as you find yourself smirking about the lack of decent Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants (delete as appropriate)….and last but not least, if you live in NYC or London you probably think the other is a city of like-minded misfits too.






We’re all shiny happy people on Facebook

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Hands-up who has EVER posted a down-beat status update on either Facebook or LinkedIn.  Have any of you ever said ‘feeling a bit down today’ or ‘just lost my job and debts are mounting up’ or ‘really worried about my son, I think he’s being bullied’?

No, thought not.

The land of social media is a prozac land of high-achieving, happy, creative children, people excited about the band they are seeing tonight and an endless regurgitation of second-hand articles from other web-sites, endlessly recycled between like-minded Face-bookers all clicking ‘Like’ in a socially Pavlonian way.

No-one is ever unhappy or lonely on Facebook and no-one is ever unemployed on LinkedIn – they’re always a ‘Consultant’ and a ‘highly effective manager experienced in delivering customer-oriented business solutions’

Both sites are fundamentally in-authentic.

Not a Problem…

Thursday, 26 April 2012

I’ve recently returned from a round Britain trip, interviewing people all over Northern Ireland, Scotland and England. It was one of the harder projects we’ve been asked to do –  talking to people who had tried to take their own lives and understanding what led them to make an attempt on their life.

But this blog post isn’t about interviewing suicide survivors (I’ll save that one for another day)   This post is about the phrase ‘Not a problem’….

My travels necessitated lots of staying in hotels.  Wherever I went and what ever question I asked, the response was always the same ‘Not a problem‘.

can I check into my room?’ – ‘not a problem’

‘ can I have the bill?’ – ‘not a problem’

‘No, I’m fine, I won’t have dessert’ – ‘not a problem’

It got me thinking, why should any of these be a problem in the first place? Why even mention the ‘p’ word? Why not just say ‘yes of course‘, or ‘coming right up‘, or anything that is more vaguely positive than ‘not a problem‘!?

It’s interesting how the way we speak betrays the way we think and even our outlook on life.  To mention the ‘p’ word is a bit of linguistic ‘seepage’ – it’s a sign of someone who fundamentally believes that there is a problem – a huge big one – namely their life.  Being stuck serving in a restaurant or working at some un-Godly hour on a check-in desk is the ‘problem’. They can’t say that of course, but it creeps into their language without them even realising.

We all do it, even when we put our glossiest face on for the world we betray how we really feel by the way we speak.


Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief

Thursday, 19 January 2012

We’ve recently been working on three very different projects:

– interviewing long-term unemployed men for a suicide prevention campaign

– interviewing prisoners (again for a suicide prevention campaign)

– interviewing millionaires (most of whom seem to work in the City) for a major financial institution

When interviewing people at the extreme margins of society (both high and low) some weird similarities emerge:
Prisoners and millionaires are both quite wary at first. Perhaps this is down to a suspicion that they will be judged (and maybe disliked) on the basis of what they are not who they are (‘you’re a crack dealer so I disapprove of you’; ‘you’re a Hedge Fund dealer so I disapprove of you’).  It takes time to build a rapport, to get them relax and to be honest with you

The long-term unemployed, prisoners and millionaires also share a mutual aversion to reading lengthy texts
– in one case this is often down to poor reading skills, in the other due to an advanced form of attention deficit disorder that seems prevalent amongst very busy rich people.

What is striking is that, if you take the time to get to know them first, BEFORE you start bombarding them with questions, all three groups really open up.  It turns out many desperately want to share their story – be it one of triumph or tragedy.

Market research in general could learn something from this – too often we are overly quick to jump into whatever we want to interview people about…without taking any real time to ever understand who they are.

Brand Suicide

Thursday, 19 January 2012

When I worked at JWT as a planner, one of the techniques that we used to use to evaluate new brand ideas was called ‘Brand Suicide’ – the idea was simple: pick a brand and then come up with NPD ideas that superficially fit the brand but would ultimatley be destructive (the idea being that, by understanding what the brand couldn’t do you would have a much clearer picture of what it could do).  The example that was always used to explain how it worked was to imagine that After 8 mints had just launched a chewing gum.  Both are mint flavoured so superficially there is a fit….although on further reflection the aspirational qualities of the brand are at total odds with gum so it would be hugely destructive to the brand’s core values of accessible aspiration.

…so imagine my delight when I saw this:

The After8 McFlurry, available only at McDonalds…love it.

Think Like An Entrepreneur – Talk Like A CFO

Friday, 6 January 2012


Bring back suits!

Monday, 5 December 2011

I was sitting with a client last week.  He had a beard and was wearing jeans and a leather jacket.  Typical early 21st Century casual business attire.

The odd thing was that he said he missed wearing suits.  Apparently he has quite a wardrobe of them and no longer feels able to wear them.  Whenever he does wear a suit to the office everyone assumes he is going for a job interview.

He isn’t the only person I’ve spoken to recently that misses wearing smart attire.  Turning up to work in flip-flops and shorts can be liberating, but after a while it begins to feel as much a uniform as a pinstripe suit and tie.  The casual look has become a uniform – if you don’t wear it people look at you oddly – you’re breaking the rules.

I’ve taken to wearing suits again.  Partially because, like my client I have tons of them just sitting in a wardrobe.  Partially because I feel good in a suit.  I feel like I’m making an effort.  ….of course, now that suit wearing has become a statement, the pressure is on to only wear good stuff (think Mad Men not Next for Men)

Come on guys, who would you rather be – Cary Grant






  ...or Seth Rogen

I am not a number. I’m a customer!

Monday, 5 December 2011

I’ll come out and say it up-front, I hate our bank

They have been our corporate bankers for the last 2 years now.  My loathing is driven by their inability to treat us like a customer.  As a brand research agency we conduct much of our work outside the UK.

This means regularly having to get Dollars, Euros, Yen and Remnimbi.  It also means regularly having to pay suppliers in other countries.

We have recently moved all our foreign currency transactions out of our bank and into a company called Caxton FX, this is why:
Our bank website doesn’t allow us to see what transactions have gone in and out of our Euro account (it only shows the balance)
– Caxton have a simple on-line dashboard that shows you your balance and recent transactions
– Caxton even ring you up when funds arrive in your account!

Our bank requires any foreign currency transaction over about £3,000 to be done in person in a branch (you can’t use the phone or web)
– Caxton let you do anything up to I think £100k over the web, they also let you email instructions and ring them

After 2 years someone from our bank rang to say that we were big enough to warrant a relationship manager.  They said they be in touch to arrange a meeting to get to know us better.  They never rang.  Someone else from the bank rang to ‘see how things were going’, having been blasted by me they said they’d get ‘our’ relationship manager to ring.  They never did
– Caxton give every customer a relationship manager automatically (they even have a direct line and email…and they respond!)

No-one at our bank seems to be empowered to solve problems – it is always handed on to someone in a processing centre somewhere
– the person you speak to at Caxton is generally the person who can resolve any problem you have.

Our bank give REALLY uncompetitive FX spreads and charge £30 per transaction
– Caxton make no charge and the rates they quote are light years better than high street banks

…oh and Caxton also sent me a bottle of wine at Christmas. We’re not a massive client of theirs and it wasn’t a vintage Bordeaux, but it’s the first time ANY financial institution has treated me like a valued customer rather than a commodity.

Come on guys, it isn’t rocket science – its called the Financial SERVICE industry for a reason

(…and in case you’re wondering Caxton FX didn’t put me up to this)

Porridge or the Shawshank Redemption

Monday, 5 December 2011


My image of prisons used to be based on a combination of the TV series Porridge and the film Shawshank Redemption.

Prisons are like oil rigs, we all know they exist but we have no idea what really goes on inside them or what kind of person really goes there.

We’ve recently been doing some work for Samaritans, exploring how to encourage prison inmates to get over the stigma associated with talking about their feelings (prisons are supremely macho environments). Suicide, self-harm, bullying and drug use are endemic in UK prisons, so the service Samaritans provides is sorely needed.

Part of the work has involved interviewing prisoners, both in adult prisons and Young Offenders Institutions). We’ve talked to those in for GBH, ABH, crack and heroin dealing, robbery and burglary.

The interviews have been profoundly depressing and I thought I’d share some insights into what is a closed world to most of us:

First off, a few of statistics:
– 65% of adult male prisoners have a reading age of less than 8
– 55% of women in prison have a child under 16, 33% a child under 5 and 20% are lone parents (think about that last one for a minute and what it implies)
– 58% of all prisoners re-offend within in 24 months of release and for those aged 15-18 the figure is 88%.

The younger you are when you go to prison the more likely you are to re-offend: For many, their prison ‘career’ begins at a young age (12-15yrs). Some have been convicted of robbery or burglary or a minor drugs offence.  It can be a hard cycle to break – if you are in a gang, they will be there for you upon your release, expecting you to get involved in their activities again.  This is one of the reasons why young boys who are determined not to re-offend end up by doing exactly that – they have no-where else to go.

Prison can be a violent, frightning place:
Many prisons are designed to recieve inmates from local courts.  This means they spend their sentence closer to where their families live, thereby making it easier for them the visit.  The downside is that it also means it is more likely that you will meet people on the inside that you had problems with on the outside (“I recognise you, you stabbed by cousin”).  This can lead to considerable violence, including being ‘kettled’ (take one kettle of boiling water, add one bag of sugar, tip over your target = the boiling water sticks to the skin and causes permanent scarring).

For some, the prospect of being released is as frightening as that of being arrested
– some may have been disowned by their family or may have lost their council home, leaving them with literally no-where to live
– others fear meeting their enemies and rivals again
– for many there is simply a fear of ‘will I be able to cope with the outside world?’

…and yet for others people, Prison is no longer a deterrent
Having been imprisoned a few times, some inmates know what to expect and regard it as an ‘occupational hazard’ – boring but not a deterrent to re-offending

...however, there are signs of hope:
– whilst inside, some manage to gain additional qualifications (or even learn to read for the first time)
– Samaritans run a scheme called the ‘Listeners’ scheme, whereby they train volunteer prisoners to be Samaritans inside prisons. These inmates are on call 24 hours a day to be with a fellow prisoner and to listen to what they may have to say.

My top tip to you all – keep your nose clean – going to prison…it ain’t worth it!