5 min read

No ordinary matter: Atom, will.i.am and the currency of trust

Geoff Whitehouse

David and Leda sat down with Atom bank and special guest, will.i.am, to discuss banking, AI and why the most important role at a bank will be the CTO: Chief Trust Officer.

Atom is one of the UK’s first challenger banks. But please don’t call it that. CEO Mark Mullen doesn’t care for ‘challenger’, ‘neobank’ or other industry semantics; he’s more concerned about his customers and delivering value to them.

It shows in how the bank has approached building a new banking proposition in the UK, the values it lives and the services it provides. As well as the people it brings in to advise it - but more on that later.

Unlike other new banking entities, Atom didn’t begin life as a prepaid card that users topped up. Instead, it started with a savings product and with a conscious aim: the notion of ‘sustainable investing’.

According to Mullen it all begins with wanting to make better banking service where users don’t feel trapped by and one they understand. This is part of the bank's values that consumers should actively choose the bank they bank with.

Mark Mullen, CEO, Atom Bank on earning a customer's trust

Free banking, as Mullen points out, is anything but. And banking is still business.

The alternative, charging a fee for a basic current account, won’t get any customers because the expectation is it comes ‘for free’.

He quips, “you can have a high moral conversation with yourself as you go bust”, or as he prefers, you can try and put pressure on the regulator and say the freemium / premium model “doesn’t work”, so long as the people actually paying are those in a debt trap.

Mark Mullen on building a product to match customer needs

A real influence(r): Atom and will.i.am

Atom prides itself on thinking differently and nowhere is that more apparent than in its choice of advisor.

Rather than ex-bankers with a resume stuffed full of ‘decades of experience in the city’, they plumped for a musician from Compton. Will joined as their first strategic advisor to provide the bank with an external perspective on culture, philanthropy and technology.

In the world of influencer marketing and paid promotions it’s easy to be cynical about these collaborations. Indeed, when it was first announced they were working together one typical response went: 'What? That guy from the Black Eyed Peas?!’

But as Atom and Will point out, it was always a meaningful and insightful interaction. That began the day Will first received an email pitch from Anthony Thomson, Atom’s founder, who he lovingly refers to as "Mr At". The pitch, which he describes as “unique” and “beautiful”, simply asked for a conversation to outline what Atom was building, why and how.

will.i.am: the inspirational meeting with Anthony Thomson

Value(s), data and the currency of trust

The idea of value, of what ‘trust’ means and how to create it returned throughout the conversation.

Mullen, Simon Brown, Head of Business Banking and Clare Framrose, Head of Personal Banking all highlighted how the notion of value has changed as has the value exchange - what we’re willing to provide in order to get something we perceived as ‘valuable’ in return.

This goes back to the notion of free and freely available. There is a new generation that doesn’t expect to pay for things as they’ve been taught by many digital services that begin as free until the figure out how to monetise it.

But what you end paying is information that is far more valuable to the providers: your data. And so much of it is being shared freely, and largely obliviously, by consumers who perceive little downside in allowing companies to capture information about them.

will.i.am: creating a platform built around people

This means in the banking, and digital future, trust will be the most valuable currency and commodity. Trust is exactly what banks worry about - traditionally they knew people were trusting them to be predictable, not necessarily good but predictably average.

Atom, however, is actively looking at how to meet the challenge of creating data-driven services that build consumers’ trust in their organisation rather than eroding it. They believe that trust has to be earned not simply given or assumed.

At some point if the future we may see how that data is used but we’re in that ‘disrupted’ phase where, as Will comments, firms are using that data before we realise what we’ve given away.

He took the notion still further. Tomorrow won’t be won through clever marketing, it will be won by those brands people trust and that means a new type of c-level role is required: the CTO. Chief Trust Officer.

It also comes with a stark implication. In a future when trust is the new currency, and individuals' own their data, there will be no room for the old banks.

will.i.am on the emergence of the data-driven bank

AI for good

Inevitably in a conversation about banking, data and the digital future, discussion turned to the role of AI. The fear of AI, the machines rising up and taking over is one that has dominated popular culture. But in banking the bigger problem is that the algorithms merely reflect the same attitudes as previous generations but in automated form.

will.i.am discusses human biases feeding AI models

“It's problematic that with machines making those decisions and AI taking human and societal bias in and therefore magnifying the problems of social and financial exclusion,” adds Mullen.

However, when the discussion turns to AI and its potential role in creating a better financial future, there are more positive connotations.

will.i.am on his cautious optimism around AI

Where AI can be hugely powerful is if it is used to help improve financial health and inclusion. As Framrose points out, even small steps taken to help people get on the property ladder are beneficial.

If it can also support people, for example, by using monthly rent to build a more accurate credit score, that further improves the availability of more services to more people.

You can listen to the entire conversation in this special episode Fintech Insider: Atom Takeover ft .will.i.am where you’ll hear more about data, trust and the challenges that brings in banking. You’ll also get a glimpse into Atom’s plans to use the notion of value exchange in its next wave of personal and SME banking services. To find out more about Atom bank, its services and products, visit the website.

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 Geoff Whitehouse
About the author

Geoff Whitehouse

Geoff oversees the teams that create content, generate demand and produce our industry-leading podcasts, with overall responsibility for maintaining the company brand.

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