Everything you always wanted to know about finance, but were afraid to ask

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Joe Clift examines the importance of communicators working in finance to fully understand their terminology

It’s no secret that to succeed in today’s global economy, professionals need a global skill set. This is especially true for those who work in the financial services industry – not only the individuals making the investment decisions, but also people like us helping firms achieve their business objectives.

It is estimated that for every client-facing investment professional there are 9 other functions who play key supporting roles in the industry, be they PR managers, lawyers, accountants, recruiters or marketers, all working to drive success in the sector.

These individuals have seen first hand that global convergence is an on-the-ground reality, evident in everything from the harmonization of international regulations to cross-border currency trading. The other reality facing the financial industry today is the need to rebuild trust in a sector that, quite frankly, doesn’t have the strongest track record of transparency or ethical behaviour.

I have been working in comms and marketing in the financial services field for more than a decade now, and was appointed CMO of CFA Institute in 2013. In that time, I have seen the industry struggle with the issue of trust. Whether it is the trust of the media, the general public, investors, regulatory authorities or government, countless polls show that the bonds have been broken and faith has yet to be restored following the financial crisis.

Last year CFA Institute commissioned a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit titled Crisis of Culture which found that whilst the vast majority of c-suite investment professionals who participated in the research agreed that ethical standards were important,  a worrying 53% said that in order to have a successful career in the industry, you need to have a “flexible” approach towards observing those standards.

Reading headlines like this are of course shocking and perhaps unsurprising to many, but let’s turn that question on ourselves and our own approach to our role as communicators. Do marketing and communications executives within firms challenge the work of their investment colleagues and apply rigorous ethical tests to their work? Do agency leads question briefs they receive or information given to them by clients to communicate externally, or do they instead assume that ‘the customer is always right?’

I, like many in the communications industry, studied an arts degree (Modern Languages, if you were wondering) and was drawn to the game by a passion for telling stories and strong skills in areas such as writing, use of language and interpreting information. I joined the financial services industry after 15 years in communications agencies working  across a wide range of clients in different sectors, and so have very much had to get to grips with the ins and outs of the industry ‘on the job’ working alongside leading experts in their field.

It is often the role of our industry to process complex, sometimes jargon-filled information and translate it in to messaging that resonates with specific audiences. But for those of us who do not have academic background in economics and finance, how can we be sure that have fully understood and correctly communicated those messages? On this matter, alas,Sartre and Goethe have served me less well.

Informed and responsible

At CFA Institute one of our fundamental premises is that an educated and ethical investment industry workforce will enable more informed and responsible decision making for the benefit of investors, and ultimately society as a whole. We’ve spent the past two years researching how best to implement this belief and in the process have had conversations with dozens of organizations and hundreds of industry leaders across Asia, Europe and the Americas.

What was one of the main things we consistently heard? That there is a strong demand for a universal standard of education for professionals working in the investment industry today in functions which support the front-line investment managers. Not just another training course, but a thorough educational program, universally applicable to a globally mobile workforce. In response to this feedback, and as a result of our discussions with industry leaders, government officials, journalists, and others, we created the Claritas® Investment Certificate.

We named it ‘Claritas’ using the Latin for clarity to demonstrate the focus on delivering a clear understanding of the industry, the roles, the language and professional responsibilities it carries,demystifying the terminology and processes used in the financial world. We aim to live by that brand promise in all the materials associated with the course, to ensure the Claritasprogramme gives our candidates a sense of confidence and clear purpose.

Designed to engage, educate and empower individuals,this program provides both a framework and a contextual view of the investment industry, aimed at increasing levels of knowledge and understanding for the many professional disciplines within financial services outside of direct investment roles. Those completing the certificate will emerge with a clear understanding of the investment industry fundamentals and their professional responsibilities within it.By raising standards within all professional disciplines across the financial services sector, we believe a stronger and more effective industry will result.

Speak and understand

Marketing and communications professionals working in the financial services sector, as well as journalists reporting on it, know that they must be able to speak and understand industry language. At a time when the industry is seeking to restore faith in itself, it is crucial that financial directors and marketers appreciate each other’s roles in order to appropriately communicate to customers and stakeholders.

Specialist education will help them build a better understanding of the processes, functions, roles and responsibilities of the various financial industry sectors and participants. In turn professionals both in-house and at agencies can develop a specialism and expertise that can improve career prospects and give them a competitive edge.  This foundation of knowledge will allow communications and marketing professionals to clearly articulate the messages of their clients and organizations while also ensuring that marketing has a greater role when it comes to business decisions.

Fundamentally, it is part of the mission of CFA Institute to promote an ‘it starts with you’ culture that means we do not roll our eyes and turn the page when we read about yet another industry tale of ethical woe, but appreciate our own role as a participant in that industry and ability to take action which helps to reverse the spiral of mistrust and disillusionment. We include ourselves in the ‘it starts with you’ call to action and members of our own global communications team, both in-house and at our agency, have taken the Claritasprogramme.

I believe that acknowledging and addressing the knowledge gap in our own profession is a first step in achieving the goal we are all trying to promote for our colleagues and clients of demonstrating to the public that the investment industry can be a force for good.

Joe Clift is the chief marketing officer  for the CFA Institute, which is the global association of investment professionals that sets the standard for professional excellence and credentials.

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