Last week, a shock wave tore through the heart of FinTech after Sky News broke the story that UK challenger Atom Bank hired Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am to ‘act as a consultant and board adviser as it seeks to differentiate itself in an increasingly crowded sector.’ In 2017, is influencer marketing or celebrity consulting a viable strategy for a digital bank? Or is this a middle aged misstep by bank execs trying too hard to be cool?

I gotta feeling

I think hiring will.i.am as a consultant is a terrible idea. Spending all that money (he has allegedly been offered around 3.5 million shares at a price of 1.15GBP per share, but I am sure there are other payments involved) on what feels like little more than a PR stunt is more baffling than Atom’s circle-obsessed mobile app UI.

On his website, Mr i.am says, “as the Director of Creative Innovation for Intel, will.i.am conceptualizes the next frontier of interactive technology by acting as an idea generator.’ He has brought such products to market as the Puls smartwatch, which Ashley Feinberg of Gizmodo described as ‘So Bad I’m Actually Kind of Impressed’ and a $475 iPhone camera case that was described by Amanda Kooser of CNET as looking ‘like it was scraped off the bottom of Liberace’s shoe’.

Celebrity creative directors are not a new idea. Alicia Keys was laughably employed by Blackberry on the even more laughably titled #KeepMoving campaign. 12 months later it stopped moving. Lady Gaga plugged Kodak products for a brief period, but the relationship never fully developed.

I want to see banks like Atom challenge old banks where they cannot compete – and that is on product. This feels like an old fashioned bank move rather than a bright new FinTech star.

Let’s get it started

In return for his salary Sky News says, ‘he will be expected to engage in public relations activity for Atom, attend board meetings, and publish social media posts about the company.’ It is clear that he has been brought on board to introduce Atom to a whole new demographic. A millennial Voice-watching marketing wet dream demographic.

I am sure Will has got his Atom account opened and is earning 1.5% on his Atom Fixed Saver (although I am sure he will reach the £100k limit quite easily) and will be telling all and sundry about it on his social channels.

Where is the Love?

All mockery aside, I might be wrong. I am a middleaged metropolitan man who has no idea what demographic will.i.am truly appeals to. I would like to see someone of Atom’s supposed calibre take a different, less obvious route. I love Nationwide’s current advertising campaign featuring actual English young voices rather than a middleaged American who appears on The Voice. Maybe not comparing apples to apples but it feels far more now and, to me, far more relevant to see people of the age, I assume Atom is targeting, speaking in a way we do not often see on our screens.

Influencer marketing itself feels like an odd fit for the banking sector. In fact, it still feels like an odd fit full stop. Faris Yakob, of Genius/Steals, recently wrote a great piece on the subject. A stand out quote for me:

…authenticity is obviously disrupted when it is being paid for. Hence, buying influence negates its influence.

When Atom Bank’s own banking app is currently languishing on 2.5 stars in the iOS App Store with such comments as ‘Using animated graphics and scrolling down a screen five times when all the info could be shown on one screen is simply idiotic,’ offering some of those generous share options to some better product people would be a far wiser investment.

Atom should not have to buy influence at this stage of its life. The bank should be earning influence by launching great products and services. It feels like a marketing first move in a banking world that is fast becoming a product first world. Time will tell if i.am wrong.

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Aden Davies is Director of Portfolio Management at 11:FS.