Woodford Investment Management believes in a clear, central idea: investments belong to investors, not the money managers. But holding this belief is one thing. Conveying it to the public is quite another.
Since the company’s founding in 2014, this task has fallen to Mitchell Fraser-Jones, Woodford’s head of investment communications. Over the last three years, he has shaped one of the most engaging communications strategies in the investment industry, with timely, (sometimes uncomfortably) frank blog posts, and responsive social media accounts with tens of thousands of followers.
We sat down with Mitchell to discuss blogs, writing and achieving real trust with investors.
Q: What made you decide to join Woodford?
A: After starting work in the investment industry in 1995, I joined Invesco in June 2002 in a marketing role. I worked as a product director in the UK team there, which Neil (Woodford) headed. When he announced he was leaving in 2013, I immediately decided that I wanted to follow him. It was a bit tricky at the time, but I was convinced that I wanted to be part of the new business and confident that Neil would want me. I made contact with (Woodford CEO) Craig Newman and said, “Look, I want to be part of the new business.”
Craig said that he wanted me to join and basically run a blog about what Neil’s doing and explaining how things are going within funds. I was able to get stuck in early on, helping build the website and doing everything that’s required to set up a business from scratch in a heavily regulated industry. It’s a massive, massive job. It normally takes somewhere between 18 months and two years to get regulatory approval from the FCA but we managed it in six months. So having been doing a role at Invesco which was partly writing and partly presenting, I focused purely on the writing when I joined Woodford. Over the course of the last couple of years I think we’ve done some pretty cool things.
Q: The blog is clearly distinctive and forthright compared with others in the industry. How much resource does it require to keep the blog at that standard and what are you trying to achieve?
A: For a long time it was just me doing the writing with the help of Copylab. Last year I took on an investment writer to help me. I’m in the process of hiring for another role, which will be more data-oriented.
What’s important to us from the perspective of the blog and communications in general is that we want to recognise that the money that we manage is not ours, but the clients’. I think this is something that the fund management industry has forgotten, or tended to forget over the last 10 or 20 years. We really wanted to just cater to all investor needs by making it all open and transparent, disclosing the portfolio every month, giving a monthly update about what’s worked and what hasn’t, what’s changed in the portfolio, updating investors on our view. I think it’s easy to do when you’ve got a manager like Neil who’s very long-term, because the message remains very consistent.
We don’t distinguish between content for intermediaries and content for end investors. We think that if something’s important to one group of investors, it should be accessible to everybody. That’s something else very few fund managers do these days – generally, the level of information they provide to intermediaries is way, way more than what they will give to consumers.
Q: How do you decide what goes on the blog? Do you need to work closely on it with compliance?
A: We have a regular editorial committee with me, the head of brand, head of digital and a few other people who are involved with creating and shaping content for the website. We also have people from distribution and compliance, so compliance are involved all the way through, from the creation of an idea through to its ultimate delivery. As you know, compliance is frequently at the end of the chain and if they don’t like what you present to them, it’s back to square one.
Because most of what we’re doing is more about information and education than it is about promotion, we don’t often encounter any problems with compliance. They understand what we’re trying to do and why we’re trying to do it and as long as we use the right kind of disclaimers and aim to achieve the right sort of balance and fairness in the stuff that we’re writing, compliance is a relatively straightforward process normally.
Q: Your blog is exceptionally responsive among industry blogs, and you often reply in person. Isn’t is unusual to have a communications person respond rather than, say, a fund manager?
A: Well, I think it’s actually usual for fund management companies not to respond at all! But, again, an important thing for us has been about encouraging that engagement and actually giving people the opportunity to ask questions. We want to respond, we encourage people to ask questions, even awkward ones, but I think the fact that I’ve worked alongside Neil for so long means I am really well placed to speak on his behalf and don’t often need to run replies past him before they’re published.
Q: What are the big challenges in your role?
A: Generating new ideas can be exhausting. I think part of our strategy is we want to get the balance right between being confident enough to be quiet if we don’t have anything to say, but also coming up with ideas, new content, new ways of keeping people informed – and that’s quite demanding. But that is part of the culture of our business – there’s a constant desire to improve what you’re doing and to keep innovating.
Q: How do you come up with ideas? Is it very heavily data driven, intuitive or a bit of both?
A: It’s not particularly data driven. It’s more about just getting a sense from what’s happening in the market and why and that means doing a lot of reading. We also have two traders who implement the investment strategy. They’re kind of at the coalface, so they know what’s happening in the market and they’re quite good at posting interesting charts and commentary. We’re also big users of Slack. Basically anyone can post in our Slack channels but there’s one in particular which is dedicated to what’s going on in the market – the traders are very active in that channel because they’re in that kind of role which is interacting with the market all of the time.
We’re also trying to get a lot more automated about how we capture feedback from all sorts of sources like social media, comments on the website, and questions that the sales team are receiving. We’re building a model whereby all of those inputs get fed into a kind of content cloud that can then be used to set the editorial agenda.
Then, of course, Neil might say, “This has happened, I think we should write about it.” So it’s event driven as well, and when that happens you’ve got to move quickly or the moment’s passed.
Q: Your recent thread on healthcare investments provoked some quite robust responses. Do you feel this benefits Woodford? If so, how?
A: Neil has always tended to be quite a contrarian fund manager, so a lot of his biggest investment calls over the years have been controversial at the time. So we’re not really that surprised to be getting that sort of feedback from investors, because it reflects the fact that these opportunities are there in the first place.
How much does it benefit the Woodford brand? I think what it does is allow us to engage with investors in a way that very few people in this industry do. We know that people won’t always agree with us but we don’t want people to always agree with us either. We want them to have a way to ask us the difficult questions and for us to provide those answers.
If the starting point is you want investors to know that you’re not going to get everything right, you are going to make mistakes along the way and you’re actually going to talk to people and explain when things have gone badly, that generates a degree of understanding with the investor base. Obviously their loyalty doesn’t last forever, but I think it does buy you more time than would otherwise be the case. Clearly it’s helpful that Neil’s been proved right before when he’s taken big calls and when he’s had periods of underperformance.
Q: Automation is a big buzzword at the moment. What do you think its implications are for investment marketing?
A: Overall, it’s going to affect a lot of jobs and careers and pose a massive challenge to society. But what I don’t see being automated fully is creative roles. I mean, yes, there’s always room for productivity enhancements and making the process easier, but ultimately I think you’re still going to need people to do creative roles such as writing. So I’m not worried about my job just yet!
I’ve always thought that there probably is a way that fund reporting could be at least partly automated. But there’s always the risk that if it becomes automated it loses its emotion and soul and the ability to drive an argument home forcefully.
Q: What major challenges do you think the investment marketing industry faces?
A: Regulatory change could be a challenge. For example, a focus on ensuring that funds meet investor expectations and that fund managers are clear about what they’re trying to achieve for their investors, should demand a change to the way they articulate themselves. Despite the challenge involved, I think the direction of travel is positive.
Q: Do you have what you would call a social media strategy?
A: We use social media to provide another method through which people can engage with us and a way for us to promote our content. We do have some things we distribute purely on social channels but that’s more about striking a balance between channels. Really, social media forms part of our overall editorial strategy which is about engagement, openness, transparency, and giving investors what they need to understand what we’re doing and why. It’s just another channel.
Q: How about ROI for your marketing efforts? Are you focusing much attention on that?
A: It’s about the analytics really. We’ve never done traditional advertising, partly because it’s much more difficult to judge success or otherwise of any campaign. The advantage of digital is you can see the data in real time, so if something is really not getting the penetration that we want, we can adjust it accordingly.
The channels we use the most are Twitter ads, Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube when we’ve got video content. less successfully. Twitter has been a great way of serving up content, because you can target your own followers but also, if you’re writing about a particular subject like Brexit, you can look for people who have searched for Brexit on Twitter and really target it to them.
Q: What piece of your work are you particularly proud of?
A: I take pride in my work so I’ve been delighted with what we’ve achieved. I can’t take full credit for this obviously but I think generating and building a community online, where people actually do engage, has been very gratifying, because, I don’t think the industry as a whole is especially good at engaging with investors. So I think we stand out because we’ve broken the mould.
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