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The Narrative of Trust in Advisory Services with John Connors

Trust is the cornerstone of a successful advisor-client relationship. And earning that trust starts with empathy – the ability to have a complete understanding of clients’ situations and concerns. Having a clear understanding of what drives clients’ decisions allows advisors to develop and recommend solutions that align with their goals and preferences, laying the foundation for successful advisory platforms.

In today’s episode, Jack talks with John Connors, Founder and CEO of Boathouse. Prior to founding his own marketing agency in 2001, John held positions at companies such as Hill Holliday and Merrill Lynch, served as CEO of Zentropy Partners, and became part of the McCann World Group Management team. With the aim of bringing a new level of performance-mindedness to the agency business, John created Boathouse.

John talks with Jack about why narratives matter, why advisors deserve more attention and value, and how empathy can be key to building trust with clients.

What John has to say

“There’s so much emphasis on product platform and tech, and it’s striking to me how little emphasis is on the advisor and how management tends to commoditize the advisor rather than actually leverage the advisor.”

– John Connors, Founder & CEO, Boathouse

Read the full transcript

Jack Sharry: Hello, everyone. Thanks for joining us on this edition of WealthTech on Deck. Each week I have the privilege of speaking with industry leaders around issues that inform in advance financial advice, Wealth Management, retirement and technology. Talk to those who are leading the way as we seek to help advisors, clients, participants and firms enjoy better financial outcomes all around the confluence of digital and human advice. I’ve invited my friend John Connors back for another visit. John is the CEO of the Boathouse Group, a large digital marketing agency based in Boston, John stands out in a variety of ways. He’s six foot four. So certainly there’s that. And then, of course, of the 60 guests we’ve had on the podcast, he’s probably the least familiar to our audience. Yet he was the sixth most popular podcast over the past year, still can’t figure out why exactly, but the only thing I can come up with is that what he has to say resonates. All kidding aside, the reason I asked him to return is he knows as much as anyone about the power of narrative, he’s going to share some of that today. I also wanted him to talk about the total miracle story. For those that may not have been born at that point, or are unfamiliar, it was a game changing period and ad campaign in our business. And frankly, it’s the way our business is done today. And we’ll get into the details on that in a moment. So John, welcome back to WealthTech on Deck.

John Connors: Great to be with you. Thank you, Jack.

Jack Sharry: So John, you created The Total mural program with your client, Merrill Lynch back in 2003. It was a groundbreaking program that changed our industry for good and I do mean good. And it still resonates today. We’ll get into total Maryland a moment and examine what that might mean, as we are seeing all this change happening our industry round the trend, mostly the firms are pursuing that are building what I call comprehensive advice platforms. But let’s start a little before Total Merrill. John, I think though background would be useful for our audience. If you would, please describe the work you did with large firms like Merrill in building the first websites in our industry, and others that we’ll get into the total Merrill story, they seem to go hand in glove. So John, take it away.

John Connors: Thank you, Jack. So started working with the biggest agency in Boston Hill holiday biggest agency in New England, when they sold to Interpublic and went to work for the biggest agency in the world, McCann, Erickson, to your point working for large clients, the likes of Microsoft and GMs, and Coca Cola. And then a one came back and started my own firm called boathouse, sort of tired of the Bs in some of the big firms. And one of the variables, one of the opportunities we got early was on Merrill Lynch. And so we were working with the team down there, you know, sadly, when 911 happened, and if you remember, back, Wall Street closed down, and people were wondering what was going to happen with their money. And so we were part of the team. So that mobilized to talk to advisors about talking to their clients, that their money was safe. And you know, just buttressing people to know that everything was okay with their savings, or retirement savings or investment accounts, and getting advisors to sort of not just be quiet, it was a time when people didn’t want to talk to their clients about money, and making people comfortable that the clients wanted to hear from them than it was or not sort of an aggressive thing to talk about it. They were nervous about their money. And so from there, we got future opportunities over the next 15 years to work with Merrill, and some amazing people to sort of help them carry their narrative at different times.

Jack Sharry: So tell us about Total Merrill, off camera here. You had sent me the original ad, which was a 2003, which is a hoot to see. And if you describe the total mail program, what is it? How to get started? What were some of the results? Fill us in.

John Connors: Yeah. So around 2002, we got brought in to that classic kind of briefing session where always remember Gorman was in the room. He was leading the group at that time and was all about asset gathering.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, if I could interrupt. So you’re referring to James Gorman, now chairman, CEO of Morgan Stanley, but at the time a senior exec at Merrill Lynch.

John Connors: Right, exactly. He’s an imposing character. So when he tells you what you’re going to do, you say, great, and you go figure out a way to do it. But it was an asset gathering strategy, and how to get their assets held away from the firm. And the woman that was running it at the time running marketing with Paula Pulido, who’s now vice chair at UBS. And Paula had come out of the news business and come out of the agency business. So she was a master at narrative intuitively, because she just knew how news sort of was managed. And so a couple things that happened. In the year prior, we tried to rationalize all the products and services that existed at Merrill. And we had created this really simple brochure for advisors to give to clients. And what we saw was there more advisors held on to that brochure and pinned it up in their offices so that they because it was still mostly there was no zoom. It was a phone-based business. So they could not embarrassingly look at the product chart that we had created. And what the product chart started to do was it rationalized all the mix of products and services. And so we had been given the charge to sort of, you know, move from stockbrokers to wealth managers, we had been given the charge to be asset gatherers, we had been given the charge to move from transaction to fees. Just in one of those happenstance kind of ways. Paul and team we started to see that this product organization that we had built of all the different product sets, and that became total Merrill that became how do we introduce investments and retirement and planning and banking and credit and lending. We had rationalized the product said, we took that product set, and what have you no further designed it in the total Merrill as a way to meet Gorman’s charge of gather assets move from fees to transaction, and then launched it as total Merrill. And then secondly, we did a really important piece, which was we brought the ball back ball had been sort of kicked off since the time the ball in the china shop, the famous sort of seven days piece. And what Paul intuitively understood was the importance of the fight the importance of the financial advisor. And so the thundering herd was not a you know, Kaminski, David Kaminski talked about it all the time. But the thundering herd had not been used as a marketing asset. And so when we brought back the bull, and we juxtapose that with Total Merrill, the magic really began because clients saw themselves in the ball, you know, and advisors saw themselves in the bowl. And so we were really able to sort of bring sort of really modern sort of product offering back into the world, with the advisors support with the client alignment. And I think you saw sort of the assets kind of grow from there.

Jack Sharry: Yeah. For listeners who may not have been tuned into Total Merrill time, I’ve mentioned it to a few folks along the way. And people kind of remember, but not really, this was the first time our industry talked about things in a comprehensive way up to that point, it was the shift, it was a turning point really shift from transactions to fees from individual securities to packaged programs like mutual funds and advisory programs, it was there was a significant shift, and move toward lending. All of that was brand new back at the time that we did, in fact, frankly, another guest on our podcast, John Thiel, who, at the time was a senior exec at Merrill. And his job was to get the advisors to like the new program, he said, we had to work at it. At first, a lot of advisors thought he was crazy, especially those that were, you know, higher producers that life was good things were good. They did a business a certain way. And then there’s this craziness about lending and financial planning and fees, and all this other stuff that didn’t fit to their way of doing business. So it wasn’t like it just didn’t write, certainly, I would expect, and you can comment on this, John, younger folks in the business kind of embraced it, they could see it coming. And that tends to be how that change tends to occur. But that was the first time again, for our listening audience to understand the first time in our industry that we really shifted to the way businesses done today. They capture that accurately, John.

John Connors: It was a precursor to sort of the UMHB unified household that everybody wants. Now, it did sort of live under that language. But that was no question the intent was to unify and capture all the assets held away.

Jack Sharry: So fast forward a little bit, if we will to today. We are doing this podcast, late March. And I just saw news the other day yesterday that Goldman Sachs bought Next Capital earlier, they had bought folio investing and they bought United capitals, they’re combining retirement and wealth management. You look at a group like Morgan Stanley so shockingly, there’s James Gorman, again as chairman and CEO. And there they have built a robust, the most robust in my opinion, wealth management platform, they’ve bought a lot Solium a planet stock plan administrator they’ve built out their retirement business with deals with empower the now the second largest record keeper and behind fidelity in terms of the retirement side, they have deals with best well, so they’re really distribution deals in terms of making their those programs available. You’re seeing all this, they bought e trade to go direct to consumer, they bought advanced parametric to have some expanded product capabilities. So there’s Gorman, again, packaging up capabilities, putting it together all delivered through the advice platform. And I keep going with all the different ways JP Morgan and Orion and many others are starting to pull all this together. Again, I call it comprehensive advice platforms that’s clearly as the wave of the future. And now in the wake of more people retiring than at any point in history. The total Merrill strategy of 20 or so years ago, is now coming back as now this comprehensive advice platform. So John, I know you have some thoughts on this. Talk about what all this means, now that you’re seeing it History repeats itself only going deeper and faster, largely driven by the advances in technology.

John Connors: Yeah, I think the interesting piece to me now sort of with the historical view, and not my tip my cap to John Thiel, as well, just based on, there was nobody better with the advisors than John as well, like, Paula, just that mastery of the advisors. And I’ll connect back to that. I think what you see in investor presentation after investor presentation, and then sort of executive interview is it’s all product platform and tech, right, there’s so much emphasis on product platform and tech. And it’s striking to me having lived through the total Merrill example, about how little emphasis is on the advisor, and how management tends to commoditize, the advisor in a lot of ways neuter the advisor, rather than actually leverage the advisor, right? Because I think the team that wins is going to be the team that can actually leverage the advisor, plus the product, platform and technology. And we’ll see who can actually respect them.

Jack Sharry: So talk a little bit more about that. I like that you’re always provocative. So you’re basically challenging senior management to pay closer attention to the advisor, explain, explain why you think that is? And why you think that’s important.

John Connors: Yeah, my experience is, too many senior managers, I won’t put all tend to view that frontline piece as kind of the dirty part, right? Those are the unwashed masses of the advisors that they have to put up with on the process to asset gathering. And if they could do it their way, they would do it without the the advisor because it’s just but the reality is, is the front lines are complicated. And the interactions with clients are complicated. And again, back to total, Merrill. That’s the part that Paul understood that John Thiel understood, which is to the extent to put those people on a pedestal and leverage them and celebrate them and make them heroes, they’ll do heavy work for and I’m going to use a Ukraine metaphor on this one. Here we go. I think most people probably aren’t aware that the Russian military does not have noncommissioned officers, they don’t have Sergeant Sergeant Majors, corporals, all they have is generals and privates. Right. And part of the reason you see, so the operational weakness is because they don’t respect, they don’t have a leadership layer in the middle, right? I think similarly, to many financial services, firms now behave like the Russian military, they want the privates, they have the generals in the privates, they want the privates, just to execute the strategy just be robots. But without that adviser leadership level on the ground, the ground forces aren’t as powerful. And I believe, just like 20 years ago, you’ll see people beating their heads against the wall treating, but somebody will figure out how to light up the advisors, ignite the advisors, and sort of study their history a little bit on that one. And we’ll sort of really capture that comprehensive platform, because then when you have sort of the product mix in place, and you can look all the way across, you can look from tax to invest, you know, tax alpha to investment alpha, then you can really, if you have that Sergeant Major on the ground, now you can really win the battle. Otherwise, you’re just talking about the client.

Jack Sharry: So let me tie a couple things together on what you’re talking about, which they happen to subscribe to with where you go with all this, you’re as good as anyone I know. And I pay close attention to this stuff here as good as they want to on the topic of narrative. And you also know and it’s part of what I do day in and day out. Technology is, is changing the game, it’s getting more user friendly, it’s more seamless, it’s more intuitive, all that kind of stuff. And as we’ve heard from many of our guests, you need the technology just because stuff is so complex, when you start to pull the accounts together, and you got to figure out how to maximize your retirement income. There’s just a lot to it. A lot of moving parts, a lot of moving technologies, all that sort of stuff. So the industry is hell bent on bringing that together, which is all good. Talk a little bit about the importance of technology, and the importance of narrative. My sense is that on the narrative front, people want to talk to people and we talk in stories. That’s how we connect, it’s how we understand one another. It’s about family. It’s about hopes and dreams. It’s all that kind of stuff. That’s a narrative piece. And then the technology kind of need that because it’s stuff so complicated, maybe if you kind of throw in your hand grenade here, but see if you can put those two together for us.

John Connors: Not a hand grenade at all. So I think when we reverse engineer sort of using some of the cool AI tools out there, sort of the most powerful companies, the Tesla’s and the apples, right? What you see really clearly jumps out is they all manage about five to seven narratives simultaneously. Right? So if you think of Elon Musk, you have the Mars rocket narrative, you have the self driving car narrative, you have the Elon Musk narrative, you have the production capability narrative when Wall Street was attacking him for not having production capacity. You have the pickup truck narrative, you know, there’s about five to seven narratives that the best companies in the world managed simultaneously So there’s no question that these financial services firms all need to manage a tech narrative on in terms of just like the supercharger narrative for Tesla, right? Like, you want to know that there’s Tesla’s and then you pull into the mall and see the chargers, like, it sort of reinforces the quality of buying a Tesla. But it can’t be the only narrative, right. And I think, always throughout history, everyone’s always believed that tech will solve everything. And you’re just seeing that behavior now that everyone believes it’s not about that. It’s about paying tribute to their part on the team. But at the same time, back to Total Merrill, we were messaging the advisors from outside to get them to do what we wanted to do, because they didn’t want to change the earlier point. But when we sort of message them from outside, they, they were afraid their clients were going to ask them, so they changed. They weren’t afraid of management, they were afraid that their clients, were going to ask them, right, right, right. You can put the adviser on a pedestal and challenge them externally. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive. And it goes back to that intuitive sense of managing five to seven narratives simultaneously. And so it’s not advisor versus product versus tech versus platform versus tax alpha versus investment Alpha. It’s actually how do you put those all together in a package. But there’s too many managers, in my opinion right now that want to win purely on tech, and not actually connecting all the dots? And that’s the opportunity, like a good portfolio?

Jack Sharry: Sure. Well, that’s one of things that, you know, talk a good bit about this, John. And I have the opportunity to get together from time to time and talk about how to be effective in terms of narrative and communication and all that good stuff. And you and I’ve talked about this, but we had a guest on just recently, podcast will be forthcoming shortly. And he’s head of planning at Raymond James, Frank McAleer great guy. And when he was talking about as tactically astute as he is, and he’s one of the more technically astute people, when I say tactic, I’m talking about the elements of a financial planning exercise, he knows that as well as anyone around states and longevity and all sorts of stuff. So I’m not talking about so much the technology side, and he knows that stuff, too. But it’s really about all the stuff that matters, particularly as people age, as people look to take retirement income, sell a business, all the stuff that really matters, fundamentally, to investors. And his point was, that it’s all about empathy. Yeah, he can teach you all about financial planning and state planning and all that stuff. But he says it’s about empathy. As you and I have talked about repeatedly, it’s about listening. It’s about understanding what the client is trying to achieve their hopes, fears, and dreams and getting it and then turning to all the tools and products and all the great stuff we have. So talk a little bit about that. How important that empathy, that connection, that listening, that understanding is in terms of driving a narrative, whether it’s called Total Merrill, or what we’re seeing now underway with all these firms, building and buying and developing comprehensive advice platforms?

John Connors: Then you and I are so aligned on this, one of the things we’ve been studying recently is trust is the concept of trust, and what are the building blocks of trust? And, you know, a lot of the management science around it is there’s three building blocks to trust. One is technical skills. One is relational skills, and one is institutional trust. Right? And I think what you see today, in our opinion, too much, is everyone trying to build trust purely on technical skills. Yeah. And they’re saying, No, it’s better, it’s faster, don’t you see, like you should, better faster, and actually not spending, they’re spending too little time on relational trust. And so I’ll keep sort of put them in the same point. But the financial visors are pretty smart people, they can tell if there’s relational trust in the organization, if there’s institutional trust, or they’re just trying to be replaced with technical trust, right, it’s the same thing we’re seeing with CMOs and CEOs, which is, there’s simply not enough trust in that relationship. The CMO wants to be left alone. But CEOs are under more pressure now than they ever have been more issues more audiences competing for their time, they’ll tell you that at 90% levels, that it’s more complex than it’s ever been. Yep. If you can’t walk in, and build that empathy based on understanding those issues, and those audiences build that trust, you’re dead. And it goes both ways. It’s down bottom up with your team and top down from the management team.

Jack Sharry: You tend to draw this out of me, but my give a little secret. I’ve been around for a while, as you know, pretty coming up on four decades in this business. And here’s what I do each day, I talked to the C suite level people every single day, they’re my clients, they’re the people I do business with, and, and so on. And I was having a conversation with a CEO of a substantial company recently. And we were catching up. We hadn’t talked in a while. And as we were kind of catching up on family and had no this particular executive for probably 2025 30 years, but maybe not all of it, but a long time as we’re chatting thing I would just saying, you know, what I do each day is I have conversations with people, I tried to shut up and try to listen, try to learn something. And so what ends up happening, I probably know more about what’s going on in our industry than anyone. I don’t say that to brag, I just because I shut up enough that I listen, like I get it, then when I do talk to people, I try to make sure that whatever I have to say, is on point to their issue or concern, and that it’s useful that it advances the class, you know, this, we’ve talked about this often. And then guess what happens? They like me, they want to do business with me. It’s magic. It’s, here’s my secret sauce. And she points out then to your earlier point, John, she says, Well, they trust you. I know that. That is what I’m ultimately seeking, not as some goal, but rather, if I do that, then the rest follows. I don’t you know, why wouldn’t you, you know, if you’re talking to friends, and you’re trying to help them, fix their problems, or address their issues, or advance against the competition, whatever their issue might be, as you do that, as you listen, get it empathize. I always make sure when I’m talking about feeling one, I’m interested, but two, it matters to them. I talked about what matters to them. But talk a little bit, if you would, because you know this as well as anybody in the realm of narrative in the realm of trust. How important is this empathy thing? By the way, I represent a technology company, we spent a lot of time proving how smart we are. Yeah, we’re that I have to remind my colleagues that it’s not just about how smart we are. It’s about understanding what our customers are trying to achieve and help them achieve it. But maybe weigh in on that, because I knew you were birds of a feather in that regard.

John Connors: Yeah, no, I mean, I was taught trained, that you always start the conversation with how can I help you? Right. And I think too many conversations now. And that is an empathy building question, right? That is a it’s I’m not here for me. I’m here for you. Sure. Question. And too many meetings now, too many conversations at political levels at business levels at personal levels and charitable levels. Start with what I’m here for? And what I want from this conversation. And they don’t start with how can I help? And I think, to me, the magic is, you know, people like you have have sort of taught people like me and taught others just intuitively how that happens, you know, just based on scar tissue, and having learned it. I did learn it the hard way. I will admit, I think the interesting piece now is if we can make it sort of digestible for people to learn that by breaking it into some really simple pieces so that they can observe themselves really quickly. And see, am I trying to operate only at this level? Or am I integrating this level? Like, am I trying to win it purely based on technical smarts, versus actually relationship variables? And that’s what you see mostly is really smart people trying to win people over by Don’t you see how smart I am? Don’t you want to give me all the responsibility? Because I am so smart. And they haven’t even asked, How can I help you?

Jack Sharry: Yeah, yeah, I think it’s spot on. So lesson for today, those listening in that are building comprehensive advice platforms, or participating in them as a vendor or product provider, whatever all else is, make sure whoever’s on the other side of the table to try to find out what’s trying to accomplish and help them accomplish that. Build trust. Listen, all that seems so simple. Of course, it only took me many decades to figure it out. But as our industry goes ahead, it’s not just about having the technology and the capability. But it’s really as you listen to your customers, your constituents, your partners, your colleagues, and then from there drive it forward to for a win-win. So enough pontification for me from now. So John, we’re winding up here, what are the three key points you’d like to leave our audience as we start to wind down our conversation?

John Connors: I think the piece number one is narratives matter, right? And but it doesn’t have to be one, it can, it should be five to seven. And if you can think of it that way, I think you’ll be much more in tune with the business, I think, to reinforce that advisors matter. And don’t, you know, back to your point about trust and empathy, they can tell if you’re not building trust and empathy. And if you view them as a sort of a pain in the butt, and it doesn’t mean you have to kowtow to them. But I think the winners in kind of capturing the comprehensive platform will be one to figure out how to dial up the advisors. And then I think three is what we talked a little bit about, which was sort of that messaging outside in, you’re not gonna win over your internal teams by shouting at them louder, bringing them together more often and shouting at them louder. You’re gonna get them in by motivating them through their sort of the marketplace, and they’re concerned that they’re their customers, their clients are going to ask them, and that’s the way to change behavior.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, just a one of our guests recently been Hanukkiah, who heads up the platform at Morgan Stanley. We had about 100 guests, but he was talking about as the fact they, as they’re building technology, it’s really to empower the adviser to deal with four or five, six times as many as much in the way of assets. Just because that’s the way the world is going. Advisors raging. They’re not being read placed at nearly the same rate, they’re just gonna have to have bigger books. And so they’re gonna have to use technology. So the message there is, the technology is here to help you, it’s here to help you, you know, be more efficient, more effective when they’re sharing. And, as I heard James Gorman say up there earnings call for 2021 during the recap, they had almost three times as much in the way of net new assets in 2021, which was like three times as much as any single period. Before that. He called it a freakish amount of net new assets. Basically, what they did is they built technology to enable the advisor I also noticed another stat, that Morgan Stanley has one of the lowest turnover rates is in terms of advisors leaving, they just aren’t leaving. Now, there’s a bunch of reasons for that, but they kind of go hand in hand, the advisors aren’t leaving, leaving because they’re getting more assets, they’re getting more assets, because they have great technology. But there isn’t empowerment I observed that’s going on at Morgan Stanley around the advisor, which it’s a win, you know, to invariably win for the client, win for the advisor win for the firm.

John Connors: And I think you’ll see that if you go out and just do a simple search of Morgan Stanley, financial advisor, Merrill Lynch, financial advisor, Wells Fargo financial advisor, you know, and look at who’s populating content around that. It’s a pretty, really simple test about who cares and who doesn’t care. Right. It’s a good test for who thinks there, and I think you’ll see your point on Morgan Stanley.

Jack Sharry: Yeah, yeah. So one final question. I know you’ve been on before, so you’re gonna have to cook up a new one. But as we do each week on our podcast, we’d like to ask the question of what you do that’s interesting, or unique outside of work that people might find interesting or surprising. What do you got for this time?

John Connors: I had a cheat and sort of do one that’s kind of work and kind of quasi work and quasi, not work. So last week, what I’m fascinated by is how you build culture and a non office based environment. Yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah. And so last week, we brought together sort of one civil rights icon, we had Ernie Green, who was part of the Little Rock Nine, and he spoke to the team about what it was like to cross the line, you know, back when they were integrating schools. We then had a general from Iraq and Afghanistan, talking about what it was like to build culture in that environment. And then we had a museum CEO, talking about it. And it’s just, it’s such an interesting. So again, just on the geeky side of me, I’m fascinated by this challenge about how you build culture. We’re in a mindset driven environment versus a physical based environment to what your assessment how that worked.

Jack Sharry: I love it.

John Connors: But I heard, it was amazing to see three civil rights leader, military leader and an arts leader all next to each other every two hours, and how consistent their advice was about people who sit on the sidelines versus people who jump in the game interests and sort of the inspiration about, you know, some people are built to sort of be employees and some feel people are built to be leaders. And their advice was you never know when that moments coming? You got to jump in because everyone, Ernie Green had this great line about how many people from his high school in Little Rock came up to him late years later and said, I was almost going to do that too, you know, or I almost was going to do that.

Jack Sharry: Yeah. That’s great. I’m not surprised that you did that. And I will add, for those of you who are listening in, as you probably can pick up on John and I are our friends and we talk about this stuff. When we’re not on a podcast. I would be remiss if I did not mention if you want to develop a narrative in our business, I would call the Boathouse Group, and I would call John Connors, no one that knows it better. So my commercial message for the moment. So thank you, John, for for joining us on the podcast for this discussion. For our guests. If you’ve enjoyed our podcast, please rate review, subscribe and or share what we’re doing here at WealthTech. on Deck. We’re available wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you again, John. It’s been a real pleasure. And I look forward to the next conversation.

John Connors: Thanks for the time Jack, really appreciate it.