“The numbers speak for themselves.”
What asset manager with great numbers hasn’t wanted to toss a pitch book down on the table, utter those words, and wait for questions (only to return to the phrase over and over again in response to them)?
There are a few who have adopted that strategy (Bernard Madoff, for one, and some take-it-or-leave-it hedge fund managers), but for the most part it doesn’t fly for firms trying to win new institutional clients, even when the numbers are outstanding.
Therefore, an asset management firm must have a good communications strategy (and stick to it) if it is to succeed over time. The best practices for doing so were the topic of a recent presentation to CFA Society Minnesota by Judith McKinney and Gordon Dickinson of Callan Associates.
The presenters stressed the importance of a thorough communications strategy that is consistently applied. That’s a challenge, given that individuals have different styles and portfolio managers would prefer to be back at their desks evaluating ideas rather than answering questions about how they do what they do.
Large firms can marshal the brute force of their resources to hone such a strategy and to produce outstanding materials, but their presentations can lack the personality and display of camaraderie that are second nature for those at a small firm that are used to working closely together.
Each element of the communications chain needs attention, including requests for proposals, presentations for new business (and for review meetings), newsletters, white papers, websites, meetings with consultants, and whatever other opportunities exist to reinforce a firm’s message.
Through it all, there needs to be an ethos of quality, accuracy, integrity, and honesty. Superior materials and presentations provide a platform from which to convey the key messages that the manager wants to deliver.
The dynamics of a presentation for new business are critically important. The pitch book (whether in hard copy or on a screen) can be an effective vehicle through which the proper message is conveyed or a framework for failure, so the speakers from Callan spent a good deal of time reviewing its construction and delivery.
They said that “95% of the decks are pretty good” in following the four Ps – philosophy, people, process, and performance. A common problem is getting “bogged down in too many details” rather than concentrating on delivering a compelling narrative; they stress that “the appendix is your best friend.” Put the minutiae there.
In fact, “the best presenters don’t use the book very much.” They make eye contact, they connect with the audience, and they tell their story.
The flow of a presentation probably seems unimportant in the scheme of things, but several times the speakers from Callan talked about the quality of the transitions from one member of a presenting team to another. The little things matter, which is why practice is critical and thorough preparation often separates the managers that “show well” from those that don’t.
The most spirited interaction between members of the audience and the presenters from Callan revolved around the degree to which consulting firms are pro-cyclical in their approach to the recommendation of strategies and the selection of managers – going with recent winners rather than seeking out good managers who have been struggling. The discussion was prompted by a statement in the presentation deck that when meeting with consultants, managers should “focus on an investment product/strategy that is doing well; underperforming strategies may be non-actionable for the consultant.”
So, the numbers may not speak for themselves completely, but they speak very, very loudly. In the mutual fund world, “a five-star rating is the trigger for acceptance” (even though it is based upon past performance) and for an institutional mandate, “if you’re in the finals you don’t even have to talk about performance; you wouldn’t be there without performance.”
Therefore, the biggest hurdle to be jumped over in order to be hired is good performance. On the flip side, many good firms are fired because of a spot of poor performance. The representatives from Callan said that a big part of their job is trying to talk clients out of firing managers, but they stressed how behaviorally difficult it is for those clients – and for themselves – to go against the flow. They could cite just one situation where Callan recommended a firm that had subpar performance over the past few years but what they felt was the foundation for good performance going forward. (It turned out very well.)
The meeting featured much good information for asset managers looking to improve their communications practices – and I would not minimize the importance of the recommendations. But it is disheartening to be reminded that at its roots, this is a business of herding, and numbers, for the most part, speak louder than words, even if experience shows that they can be deceiving.