"Do you know the single worst thing about the coverage of St James's Place in the Sunday Times?" asked the chairman of the improbably-sized investment company Prandeamus Asset Management.
Mortifyingly, he had insisted we eat lunch in the window of a restaurant by Lloyd's of London and, having piled the table with more wine than even he could finish, was now waving and laughing at anyone he thought might work in insurance.
"Is it the damage it risks doing to the wider advice profession in the eyes of the public?" I suggested. "It does rather feel as if we have gone back in time a few years - and that can't be good." "No it can't," the chairman agreed as he spotted a miserable-looking group of men walking past the window and started pretending to drink straight from a bottle of wine. "But I asked you for the worst thing about this unpleasantness, so try again."
"OK," I sighed, knowing I never win this game. "Well, I suppose one thing that struck me as odd was the verbal contortions the SJP top brass went through to rebut the idea the firm was somehow paying commission - something about contingency and a random reference to John Lewis, wasn't it? You've got the latest article there - what does it say?"
"Ah … it's the boss-man explaining the firm has a ‘contingent system' and emphasising it is selling ‘relationship' not ‘product'," the chairman read. "He goes on to say: ‘If I go into John Lewis and look around the shop, they don't charge me. If I buy something, they make some money. That's what I call a contingent fee. It's the way the world works'."
"There you go," I said. "What's that all about?" "No idea," shrugged the chairman. "Brilliant, isn't it? I must remember to use the line myself some time. Still, that's not the really bad thing I was after - one last try." "Only if you stop doing that," I said rolling my eyes at the chairman, who was now holding two bottles up to his mouth, one in each hand.
"Thank you. Now, is it the point I have made before - that this episode has somehow allowed an MP to feel comfortable taking the moral high ground on matters of remuneration? I mean, something has to be seriously amiss when a high-profile financial services business is having the MPs' Register of Interests - that symbol of moats, duck-houses and other murky behaviour - waved in its face."
"That's true," the chairman agreed, as he put his arms around the dozen or so bottles on our table and gave them an exaggerated hug. "Please stop," I pleaded, looking nervously at the crowd of sober but decidedly grumpy people steadily growing on the other side of the window. "The natives are getting restless and I'm beginning to feel like a survivor in a zombie movie. So OK - what's your answer?"
"Isn't it obvious?" he snorted. "The single worst thing about the coverage of St James's Place in the Sunday Times is the mention of those diamond-encrusted cufflinks from that little shop on New Bond Street." "Asprey?" I offered helpfully. "That's the one," the chairman nodded. "I mean, they do make a lovely cufflink, of course, and those diamond ones are well worth the eight grand and change but …"
"There's a ‘but' to that sentence?" I asked. "Of course there is," the chairman nodded. "And it is that the cufflinks are very nice buu-uuttttt … the absolute number-one rule of financial services PR is that you never ever put yourself in a situation where a journalist gets to use phrases such as ‘diamond-encrusted' in a story about your business.
"It makes you sound like you have all the aesthetic judgement of a professional footballer or third-world dictator or, worse …" "Donald Trump?" I interrupted. "Precisely," the chairman nodded. "And once the punters start to question your taste, it's but a short step to their questioning your judgement in other matters. And speaking of judgement, I think you might be right … that Lloyd's crowd outside are beginning to look nasty.
"We should probably check if this place has a backdoor." "What this ‘we' business?" I replied.
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