Pity the stockbroker. As depicted in a recent TV commercial for the upstart online brokerage E-Trade, he's a schlub in a spectacularly bad haircut who rises at 4:41 a.m., slogs through throngs of commuters to get to work, then cold-calls strangers to offer--insert nasal whine here--"some wonderful opportunities in the stock market. . . ." Click. After which E-Trade taunts, "If your broker's so great, how come he still has to work?"
It's "a little low-ball, a cheap shot," Rich Silverstein of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, the agency that creates E-Trade Group Inc.'s sardonic advertising, concedes genially. "But y'know, brokers don't have all the answers."
Bad enough that today's brokers have to sweat shrinking commissions, defecting customers who open online trading accounts, and a crazed bull market that makes amateurs look brilliant and professionals feel queasy. Now brokers, fund managers and investment professionals in general are dolefully fending off assaults by Madison Avenue, too.
As investment firms, both dot-com newcomers and their more-established competitors, pour staggering sums into advertising this year--more than $760 million in the first three quarters, according to New York-based Competitive Media Reporting, with E-Trade leading the pack and topping all dot-com advertisers at $89 million--the traditional Wall Streeter has become a favorite target. And some Wall Streeters are fighting back, not only with their own pointed ad campaigns, but with complaints to industry monitors and government regulators. They don't appreciate being the butt of this particular joke.
Consider E-Trade's current TV spots, known to make portfolio managers guffaw even as they're declaring them completely wrongheaded. Having introduced the broker as loser, the campaign has moved on to the fund manager as smug fat cat, in a spot where a large-cap fund manager gets stopped for speeding in his silvery Porsche roadster. The cop recognizes the name on the registration, notices the golf bag in the car, reminds the guy that he has made the Top 10 but not the Top 5 and prods, "Let's put the clubs away and get back to the office."
In another E-Trade spot, a pizza maker tracks down a fund manager's wayward dinner order. It was sent by mistake to the guy's office--where, the pizza man caustically notes, "an emerging market manager barely in the Top 20 percent" should have been.
Perhaps the unkindest cut, however, is Datek Online Brokerage Services' nearly $2 million mini-epic suggesting that the professionals are not lazy so much as simply in the way. It shows investors storming the Stock Exchange, knocking down the metal doors, streaming inside to push against the glass that separates spectators from the action on the floor below. "The rules are changing," a voice intones as the glass (in fact, harmless silicone rubber) shatters and rains down upon a crowd of hapless traders.
"As a culture, we're deeply ambivalent about this right now," Adweek critic Barbara Lippert said. "Making money has none of the stigma it used to have. People are obsessed with it. But we're also very anti-institutional and anti-corporate."
The pros aren't about to concede their turf, naturally. In an advertising counter-trend, big players have begun to take pokes at the online firms while depicting their own people as safe ports in a confusing financial storm.
Fidelity Investments decided last year to make its vice chairman and former Magellan Fund manager, Peter Lynch, its advertising star. He is meant to be to investing what Frank Perdue was to chicken--a recognizable human in a faceless market. In his silver Phil Donahue hair and wire-rim glasses, Lynch exudes maturity and experience; his every fourth word, almost, is responsibility. "As it gets more frenetic, using Peter Lynch becomes more important," said Steve Cone, Fidelity's retail marketing chief. "People will want to latch onto something that's reassuring."
And the financial consultant in a current Merrill Lynch & Co. spot is so reassuring, as she patiently quells a customer's fears about various online services, that she sounds like a kindergarten teacher: "Nelson, I'm not . . . going . . . away."
This tussle over the image of the investment pro isn't about online vs. offline; most established firms have scrambled to offer their customers electronic research, account management and trading, too. At 53-year-old Fidelity Investment, for example, the proportion of trades that clients make online has climbed to 70 percent from 11 percent in just three years.
The "boot-your-broker" spots reflect, instead, a roiling marketplace in which brash new companies are spending furiously to establish their brands, while veteran brokerage firms are spending almost as furiously to defend theirs. "You have the scorch-and-burn people who come in and lob grenades," a marketer for a leading brokerage firm said. "It's classic for any newcomer: When you're David, the way to go is to throw rocks at Goliath."
It's a brawl that will spill over into that annual advertising showcase, the Super Bowl broadcast. Dot-com companies, including financial services firms, have bought a substantial chunk of the game's television commercial time, pushing ABC's prices past $2 million for a 30-second spot, an unprecedented figure, and sending some traditional advertisers fleeing to the less exorbitant pre-game show.
E-Trade will sponsor the halftime show for a reported $3.8 million. "Creating a brand like Miller Light or Pepsi can take years," said its adman, Jeff Silverstein. "Now people want it in months, so they'll still be standing next year."
In questioning the need for conventional money men ("It's like a political debate--you find someone's weakness," Silverstein said), the new advertisers are tapping into public suspicions that predate the current warfare.
The most recent Harris Poll of attitudes toward Wall Street, for example, shows that the great majority of the public thinks large financial institutions benefit the country. But a majority also thinks Wall Street is "dominated by greed and selfishness" and "only cares about making money and absolutely nothing else." Sixty percent of those surveyed last fall thought the people who work on Wall Street would break the law if they thought they could make a lot of money and get away with it, numbers that haven't changed dramatically in four years. Maybe audiences cheer when a preppy fund manager gets his comeuppance from a pizza man.
Wall Streeters, on the other hand, are not cheering. Mike Zucker, a stockbroker since 1968, was so outraged by an Ameritrade Inc. spot he saw last spring--a guy simultaneously washes his boat and berates his clueless former broker--that he peppered the company, federal regulatory agencies and the securities industry's regulatory division with letters, phone calls and e-mail. Actually, first he had a heart attack and underwent quadruple bypass surgery, and then he sounded off. Zucker, who is with Brookstreet Securities in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., knows he can't quite blame his occluded arteries on snarky advertising, but he still is mad. "The implication was that stockbrokers are a heinous class of beings, and I felt personally offended and maligned," he said.
"I've been doing this for 20 years," adds Jeff Tyler, portfolio manager of the American Century Equity Growth Fund in Mountain View, Calif., sounding miffed. "I have an MBA in finance, I take continuing education to stay on the forefront of what's happening in the field. I spend all my time trying to figure out why securities do what they do. I hope that all gives me a little advantage" over do-it-yourselfers.
Peter Adolph, managing director at Adolph Komorsky Investments in New York, has a good chuckle over the boot-your-broker spots, then decries them as misleading. "It's patently absurd to believe that if you go online and punch up information and trade for $5 or $8, you'll do substantially better than people who've been doing it for 20, 30, 40 years," he harrumphs. "This is a tough business."
A rumble of complaints about some of the online brokerage campaigns surfaced last spring, when Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt observed that certain ads "more closely resemble commercials for the lottery than anything else."
NASD Regulation, the security industry's self-policing organization--whose president has bemoaned such characters as Al, the island-owning tow truck driver--convened a series of discussions about online brokerage ads last summer. The organization said it had requested that members alter certain TV commercials or withdraw them, though it declined to name names.
Still dissatisfied, however, the National Association of Investment Professionals (NAIP), a nonprofit organization based in Minnesota, earlier this month petitioned the Federal Trade Commission to review brokerage advertising, particularly potentially misleading online campaigns. Washington attorney William MacLeod drafted and filed the petition.
"Full-service brokers are not the [Yiddish vulgarism deleted] we've been made out to be" is NAIP President Thomas O'Keefe's plaintive explanation.
Still, the investor icon of the future may not be Peter Lynch, Charles Schwab (whom BBDO New York recently resurrected as that firm's front man after several years' absence from advertising) or any other seasoned veteran; it may be . . . Stuart.
Stuart, Ameritrade's hilarious geek office boy, made his debut in March, instructing his stuffpot boss Mr. P on trading online. It was a memorable spot, by an Ogilvy & Mather division: "Awright, click it in there. Feel the excitement! . . . Riding the wave of the future, my man," yelps the kid with the multilevel, multihued hair as Mr. P buys 100 shares of Kmart Corp. "Happy Trading. Rock on." Competing ad executives tip their hats admiringly; young traders, the Wall Street Journal reported recently, have adopted certain Stuartisms like, "Let's light this candle!"
Now there's a sequel, in which Our Hero meets his girlfriend's dad--who is, of course, a condescending stockbroker. On the face of it, "Stuart II" hardly qualifies as a boot-your-broker ad: It's the dad who owns the mansion with a pool and can afford a maid and a gardener, while Stuart, sporting an "Ole" tattoo, apparently can't afford a decent haircut. Still, after a feverish rant about online trading, Stuart's girlfriend is burbling about having his baby and the maid wants his advice on utility stocks.
It's enough to make a grown broker weep, or at least do a bit of research. Kmart Corp., points out portfolio manager Tyler, is not a stock Mr. P can retire on. Tyler punches in the retailer's numbers on a recent afternoon. Kmart is down about 27 percent for the year. "Not a great idea, Stuart," he announces dryly. "But thanks."
CAPTION: E-Trade ad's golf-playing fund manager gets a warning.
CAPTION: Merrill Lynch's ad offers a reassuring adviser, right.