Secret IFA: Reluctant advisers

Secret IFA

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and as I’ve recently rediscovered, there’s no such thing as free conference. This year the Personal Finance Society (PFS) slashed the ticket price for its annual conference to nothing. Yet when I say it was a sell-out I’m not talking about the number of attendees.

This was a conference that went searching for its roots – and found them in the Life Insurance Association (LIA). It was like walking onto the set of the 1980s TV series Howards’ Way. Everywhere you looked there were clones of ‘medallion man’ Ken Masters, or Jack Rolfe the grumpy old boatyard owner refusing to change his ways.

Ironically the conference was opened by a man in red braces, a siren call to the 80s when such attire was de rigueur for Yuppies. Then to make sure you were firmly planted ‘back in the day’, Paul Lewis of MoneyBox fame rounded on the industry and its apparent addiction to commission. If you’d thought we’d moved on, this all suggested otherwise. What an inspiring start.

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But I’d been up since the crack of dawn, endured a Virgin Trains breakfast, and was determined to find something to warrant a day out of the office. So with a notepad and pen at the ready I squeezed into as many seminars as I could (and for some sessions it literally was a squeeze). I wish I could report that I filled my notebook with thoughts and ideas, but sadly it remained empty – and I’m usually a voracious note taker.

Perhaps that’s what happens when you get providers paying for everything, they get to call too many shots. The problem is, they’re still in the product distribution business, and we’re in the advice business – though you wouldn’t know it listening to Lewis.

Between times I wandered round the exhibition area with the aim of grabbing a coffee and avoiding eye contact with any of the ‘Ken Masters’ look-a-like product provider reps. I deliberately didn’t take any business cards to avoid the temptation of selling my soul for the chance to win something – if you want an iPad, buy one; it’s cheaper.

The same goes for conferences and seminars. Whether it’s business development or self-development, it’s usually cheaper in the long run if you pay for it yourself. There’s another adage that springs to mind: ‘you get what you pay for’. And in a world of increasing professionalism where we expect clients to pay for advice, the PFS merely extends the notion that the product provider pays.

Perhaps Paul Lewis is right after all, we’re all still hooked on a system where the provider coughs up. Except as we’ve always known, it’s never their money they’re spending.