It’s hard to tell what really goes on inside a bank. Contrary to what they would have you believe — that they’re breaking down silos and collaborating more externally — they’re still staunch guardians of their IP.
That’s where the PR comes in: If they’re to be believed, banks are hiring digital and tech talent and moving them all into the C-suite, they’re investing in startups, partnering with startups, testing new technologies, thinking about blockchains, opening APIs to third party financial firms, opening innovation labs.
In this installment of Confessions, in which we trade anonymity in exchange for honesty, we spoke with a PR professional whose agency handles communications for some of the largest and most recognized financial services brands.
What has your job taught you about financial technology?
Nearly every relevant firm believes they’re a fintech player — whether they are or not. Every client in finance wants to chat about what a tech player they are: how their tech is more advanced or more integrated or more seamless. In truth, they’ve adopted the bare minimum amount of technology in order to keep their business running. There’s a massive difference between paving a new path in finance using technology to the fullest extent of its capabilities and continuing “business as usual” with the same processes as before — only digital.
Almost every bank has an “innovation lab,” a lot of them like to talk about design thinking now. Do you buy any of this?
Banks are looking for ways to “act like startups” but aren’t actually doing anything new or different — they’re misunderstanding what makes a startup a startup. Fintech startups are trying to make something cool that works, drives people to adopt it and often fundamentally shifts the way they experience their money. Banks are trying to look cool without backing it up with anything deliverable, actionable or habit-changing.
Banks and startups embrace collaboration or “partnerships” now. Are startups a little short sighted or optimistic about the end game here?
Startups don’t understand the actual ramifications of being responsible to shareholders and what that does to your business and your focuses. The freedom of the startup mentality is huge. It’s just like Silicon Valley [the TV show], as cheesy as that sounds: once you get acquired, you’re no longer able to innovate in the same way, because you’re no longer the boss even if you’re the CEO. Your shareholders become the boss.
How often do you have to spin something for a client that you just don’t find believable?
Regularly. Particularly when clients are convinced that what they’re doing is “brand new” or “cutting edge.” While it may be cutting edge within their competitor set, they’re rarely doing anything that is actually new or exciting. Then they come to me to look for conversations with top tech folks, when really that isn’t the place they should be going. Finance companies are almost entirely legacy brands that have been around for decades — some for centuries. They move slowly and cautiously. Startups have more luxury of being scrappy, weird and no holds barred, though obviously we see that lead to disaster in environments like Uber.
Where should they be going instead?
To people who care about the shifts they’re making — finance folks who write about tech, not tech folks. Fintech is a tricky space to navigate, but they should be focusing on the “fin” targets and less on the “tech” portion when it comes to media — because that’s where their message will resonate.
There’s a lot of crap to cut through in this industry. Tell me something real.
Finance companies are trying. They really are. But the truth is that most of these companies are led by old white men who are not tech-savvy and aren’t ever going to be. If you want to be a digital player, bring in digital natives. Bring in people who will push the envelope. And then listen to them. You can’t just hire a chief innovation officer who sold a startup at 18 and expect that to turn your business around if they’re treated like a token millennial.
Banks these days are all about putting customers at the center of everything and showing they’re more than just an account. To what extent is that true?
If you’re a customer of a publicly traded bank, you’re just a note on their bottom line in the long run. Putting the customer before everything is great as long as it’s good for the bottom line. It’s mostly just noise.