• Tracey Gordon

The woes of active managers needn’t be this bad

If you’re the CMO or media head of an active manager, these are not easy times.

Your assets are moving to passive advisors, marketing dollars don’t have the ROI they used to, the PR firm you’re paying $20,000 p/m may get your experts quoted on market trends, an appearance on CNBC, even a profile or two, but none stand out in a tsunami of 24x7 coverage where everyone sounds or says the same.

But however difficult things are, active funds are still being bought, even though they’re harder to sell, and there are still ways -- many ways -- to tell a story that attracts attention…and investors.

I started my communications career at Fidelity Investments where I developed a new strategy that told a story about the different investment groups, funds and managers that was compelling, interesting and drew the attention of media and investors. Billions of dollars in inflows resulted from that coverage. I did the same at Morgan Stanley, Schwab and ING.

Granted a different time, when passive was not the dominant factor it is now, coverage was sticky and memorable and generated inflows, portfolio managers could achieve rock star status.

But, here’s the lesson from years past that still applies to the present. At each company there were significant challenges before the strategy was put in place and kicked in. Fidelity was not the #1 manager and no one looked beyond Magellan to it’s very deep bench, Morgan Stanley still had its partnership culture that didn’t recognize the power of a marketing/PR approach to building its business, Schwab was just a west coast discount broker that wasn’t getting national press attention for its Fund Marketplace or its ability to be an alternative to Wall Street, ING had a fixed income group that was a top performer that no one had heard of and flat assets.

Each time a new strategy was developed for vastly different market conditions, different business objectives, different customers, different competitors. Each time the new strategy resulted in a compelling storyline that boosted the company’s visibility, left competitors far – very far - behind and generated significant achievements in brand expansion and revenue growth.

The same exists today. Things are always challenging in financial services, nothing in our industry ever stays the same…ever. Ours is an industry that has always encountered change and bumpy times.

And there is a way to tell your story now. Just because passive is winning customers, doesn’t mean active managers should be passive in telling their story. Unfortunately, so many are doing PR the way it has always been done. There was a time - in fact at the start of my career - when coverage of a top fund could generate billions in flows, individuals would read the piece in the WSJ or Forbes, call and invest.

Today, any coverage you get - and it could be an amazing profile -- is for nought if the gatekeepers of the advisor or pension world don’t have you on their list.

So how do good managers - and there are hundreds of them - not just get their name out there, but attract sustainable interest and inflows as well.

Obviously, different firms may require different approaches, but here are some things to think about.

1. Focus on the firm and its DNA. You have story, everyone has. You just may not be able to see it.

2. Focus on your managers who are not just beating the market now, but have consistently done so through changing markets, who are right on trends before the world recognizes them, and most importantly are not obscenely expensive.

3. Your comms team must partner more than ever before with marketing and distribution - both on the RIA channel and institutional side. They should be already, but if they’re not doing it, that really has to start.

4. Hire a good outside thinker to do strategic communications offense. They should really know your industry, how today’s content and messaging delivery works (it’s no longer enough to rely on media). Your in-house people know the key reporters, but they’ve got a full-time job handling daily press calls and don’t always have the time to think macro strategically and micro on storytelling.

We’re in a new, much more challenging world for active money managers. It’s time to reboot how you think about PR. Your world has changed, so has the media landscape and so has what drives flows. Time to think like a marketer when you’re doing PR.

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