Five things we learned about Pensions from the Edinburgh Fringe

After a week at the Edinburgh Fringe I thought I would share five things I learned about pensions from my time in Scotland’s capital.

Lesson 1 – Big advertising budgets and lots of noise don’t necessarily mean good quality

During August every roadside and fence in Edinburgh is covered by advertising banners and the city is full of people trying to put leaflets into your hands. Those performers with big budgets can make the most noise and make sure that you know about their event. Those performers usually play to full houses. However, such noise doesn’t guarantee quality. Some of the best shows are in small venues and play to tiny audiences.

The same is true of Pension Service Providers. The biggest and best known providers are not necessarily the best. We can all name the big providers because they spend a lot of money making sure that we recognise their name. However, theirs is not always the best show in town.

Lesson 2 – Great history doesn’t guarantee a great performance

I saw two university revues while I was in Edinburgh. One would assume that the Cambridge Footlights, with their history of launching the career of so many great comedians would be far better than the Durham University Revue. This wasn’t the case. The Durham Revue was one of the best shows I saw, well written, excellent performances and with great pace.

Those providers who have been providing service to pensions schemes for as many years as there have been schemes to advise are not necessarily better than the new, enthusiastic and flexible providers. There is no reason why the new kids on the block cannot be as good, or even better, than some of the established players.

Lesson 3 – there is more to life than just Comedy

The Fringe is known for its comedy. Comedy has come to mean Stand-Up. However, the Fringe is so much more. Sketch, Improvised and Alternative Comedy all have their place. There is also a strong programme of serious theatre, music, spoken word and circus acts to enjoy. Before you start you need to think about what you want to do. Do you want to see a range of acts, focus on one or two types or is there anything you really don’t want to see?

Pension service suppliers also come in various forms. There are tailored service providers, standard service providers, technology driven solutions, providers focused on the member experience and those focused on just meeting the legislative requirements. All have their place but you need to know what you want to see before you buy your ticket!

Lesson 4 – Free isn’t necessarily free (or indeed good)

There is a significant part of the Fringe, the “Free Fringe”, which is advertised as free. There is no charge to attend; but don’t be fooled. First, it is free for a reason; namely that they couldn’t charge for it! That doesn’t mean it is bad and indeed some of the best acts can be found in the “Free Fringe”. Secondly, it isn’t free. You have to be a brave person to escape the confines of a small room with the person who has (often literally) sweated over entertaining you for an hour without putting some folding money into the bucket he or she is holding.

The costs of Pension services have fallen over the past years. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. We are increasingly seeing dissatisfaction driven by the failure of the providers to invest in the development of the services they offer. They then look to charge for anything they can describe as “extras” – and there isn’t an option to ignore the bucket! 

Lesson 5 – When there are so many options it is difficult for good providers to make themselves known above the mediocre

The Fringe consists of over 3000 shows. The programme is half an inch thick with 430 pages. In seven days I saw 36 shows – less than 1.5%! How do you decide what to see? The answer comes down to research, having an open mind and knowing the market. Looking at reviews and talking to people in the know all helps to build the picture.

In pensions services it is the same. There are more providers and options out there than you might imagine. All of them will tell you what a great job they do and that they are “cost effective”, “customer focused” and “put the member at the heart of what we do”. All are very different. How do you know what is right for you? The answer is research, having an open mind and knowing the market. Ultimately talking to people who know the options will open your eyes to the alternatives available.

I made a decision, when going to Edinburgh, not to go to see the big names. Instead I went to see new acts, unusual acts and ones that we thought would be a bit different. As a result we had a great week.

When looking at the market for pensions service providers; administrators, consultants, actuaries lawyers etc, we would suggest that a similar approach is appropriate. Think about what you want. Don’t just focus on the names you or your colleagues have used in the past. If we have learned anything since 2008 it should be that the old saying that “no-one ever got sacked for buying IBM” is no longer true. The established players have their role and their place in the market, and they do provide an excellent service to many schemes. However, as is the case when spending time at the Edinburgh Fringe there is a lot to be said for having an open mind, looking at a few “alternatives” and seeing what the less well known acts offer.

John Reeve

Ian Bloxham