Few would argue that famed investment manager Ken Fisher isn’t one unique advisor: The contrarian investor perpetually challenges conventional wisdom; he vigorously busts myths; for 32 years, he penned Forbes’ “Portfolio Strategy” column; he founded an advisory firm 40 years ago that now has offices in about 15 U.S. cities and a dozen other countries.
And he advertises ubiquitously on air, in cyberspace and in print 24/7.
In an interview with ThinkAdvisor, Fisher, executive chair and co-chief investment officer of Fisher Investments, reveals his overarching marketing goal and the strategy behind his vast, nonstop advertising campaigns.
With $114 billion in AUM, the firm spends 6% of revenue on marketing and advertising, he says. Revenue reportedly totaled about $1 billion as of February 2019.
Fisher, 68, owes at least part of his marketing power to employing the technique of focus group interviews, wherein clients and prospects opine on potential ads presented to them.
Fisher’s focus groups, which he discusses in the interview, have revealed six “mental profiles” by which the firm has categorized folks relative to investing and saving.
He also explains why his image appears in much of the firm’s advertising and the company’s process of converting a call-in ad responder to, ideally, an FI client.
The goal of all the media presence is to gain market share, Fisher maintains. He pegs this number at near-zero. But, he says, “In the investment advice realm, nobody has had market share.” Fisher’s firm is large enough to try to go after it.
Still, he says, the company isn’t just a marketing machine, as is widely perceived. Essentially a vertically integrated company, it does more high-net-worth business in Europe than “about any American investment advisory firm extant,” Fisher stresses.
Further, FI invests heavily in technology and holds thousands of non-sales client events every year.
ThinkAdvisor recently interviewed Fisher by phone. He was speaking from company headquarters in Camas, Washington, which boasts its own broadcast facility. Fisher uses it, for example, for TV interviews, such as the one he was set to appear on with Fox Business soon after his chat with ThinkAdvisor.
Here are excerpts from our interview:
THINKADVISOR: Your firm is global and highly successful. So why do you continuously mount heavy marketing and advertising campaigns?
KEN FISHER: Our longer-term goal has been to keep gaining market share because we don’t have any. You could measure our share as something in the area of one-tenth of 1%. People who categorize market share would say that rounds to zero! In the investment-advice realm, nobody has had market share — and nobody really thinks much about it. But because we’re bigger, we do.
Why is that so important to you?
We don’t have any money: We’re $114 billion total AUM. That’s almost nothing relative to the size of the total markets. I know I’ll never see material market share in my lifetime — I’m 68. We may be the biggest grain of sand in the sandbox, but a grain of sand nonetheless, just one that’s a little bit fatter.
Approximately how much do you spend on marketing and advertising annually?
All together, about 6% of revenue. [As of February 2019, revenues reportedly were about $1 billion.] We pretty much don’t make a lot of money; nor have we ever because it’s never been our goal to pay taxes! Our goal is to improve the investment universe one account at a time — and we think there’s a lot of investment-bettering to do in the world.
To what do you attribute not making very much money?
We have fat gross operating profit margins and spend almost everything down to where we don’t make money to further grow the firm, which includes everything that doesn’t fall under the cost of production.
For years, you’ve conducted focus groups in which clients and prospects express their opinions about proposed ads. How much influence do these have on what and how you advertise?
So what’s the main benefit of doing focus groups?
There are very few people in the realm of investment advice that do focus groups. We think they’re a great way to get inside clients’ and prospects’ heads to understand how they’re different categorically. We use our own clients and prospects for the groups as well as people that are recruited by an outside firm.
What’s an example of something you’ve learned from focus groups?
We know that inside our client base are six different types of mental profiles. We aim different ads at different mental profiles because people are different as to how they think and feel about their retirement savings and investing. We’ve done a lot of work over a long time to break that down into categories, and we think about them when we do our ads, appealing to a [target] group out of the six that make up our legitimate client base.
Apart from those in a focus group that you’ve assembled, who else is in the room?
We have a moderator. There’s a one-way mirror, on the other side of which are our client service, marketing, sales, administration and management people watching, studying and taking notes. We film the group and move it around to our other major facilities. When [schedule permits], I watch in person. It’s better than seeing it on-screen because you can [experience] the people a little better.
How do you measure the responses?
After we show the groups the ads, we [receive] measured metric responses based on what the people think of one ad versus another — how they make them feel. We’ll use the same ads with slightly different profiles of people.
Any specific response you’d care to share?
Our culture says you’re supposed to [include] women [for diversity]. But in fact, the ads that work the best both among men and among women don’t have any women in them. It’s been true that it’s very hard to come up with an ad that includes women that pulls as well among either men or women as ads that are just of men.
That’s somewhat surprising.
If you run an ad with just men in it, women get very upset with us and presume all kinds of negative things about us. But it’s very hard for us to come up with an ad that includes women — as we’ve done with the four people in one of our “Comparison” ads — that pulls as well in terms of: “I would want to buy from that ad.”
Why is that?
We don’t know. One of the [things] that’s true about a lot of this stuff is that it’s hard to know “why.” [Research-population studies show] that “why” is the most important thing. But it’s also just about the hardest thing to get to the truth of.
Much of your TV, print and online advertising presents your image speaking to camera or depicted in a photo, drawing or caricature. Do you use that approach to communicate that the firm is you — you are the firm?
Yes and no. The TV ads comparing our company with brokerage firms — for which we spend the biggest [amount of] marketing money — never use my image at all.
But it appears on much of your other advertising. What’s the reason?
Generally, clients and prospective clients want to believe there’s somebody that gets up in the morning and gives a darn, that somebody truly cares. That’s why my image is used: Here’s Ken Fisher, 68, who’s still executive chairman and gets up in the morning and cares.
Any other financial firms that have gone that route?
There was a long history of Charles Schwab’s image associated with his firm [to show] that the founder cares. But now, when you think about the bigger firms, which is where most of the money is, it’s not so clear to people that anyone cares.
With Vanguard, people don’t know who’s there. With Merrill Lynch, they may have a suspicion that once there was a Mr. Merrill. But he’s been dead for a long time, and now [their perception is that] there’s just some nameless corporate blob out there.
What is at the core of your marketing and advertising strategy?
Marketing [needs] to be multi-tiered. So we have direct mail, direct email, print, TV [radio, online] advertising. Some of it [on TV, for instance] where we give an 800 call-in number, is trying to right away get people to respond directly to us for information. Some of that is aimed at trying to get them to request a premium [free guide].
What other type of TV advertising do you do?
Brand advertising to further stimulate that direct marketing, which gives us direct leads of people who might be interested in our services.
So the primary aim of your advertising is to get leads?
Both [types of ads] are all about generating leads. We do more of that by any standard, in my opinion, than anybody in the realm of [investment advice] has ever done. Traditionally, others think about lead generation as getting a referral from a third-party source or calling people they find on lists [etc.]. They don’t think about the bigger, broader world: How do we get people to call us?
How do you qualify people who call in?
When they call for a free report, we’ll ask them for some further information and contact them [later] based on that. Then we’ll send them other stuff. Eventually, our telephone sales people talk to them about setting up a meeting with one of our [account] people. After that meeting, they become clients.
So overall, does your marketing work?
I’m not a marketing expert, just to be clear. But I did attend a marketing meeting [we had] last week; and according to everything that I see and am told, yes, it works. We’re doing fine, thank you.
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