Swimming with sharks and flying off a giant ramp on a motor bike are fairly extreme activities. But hiring an advisor who isn't a CFP? That's something even thrill-seekers won't -- or at least shouldn't -- do, argue new online and print advertisements rolled out by the CFP Board's Public Awareness Campaign. 

"The message of the [new] ads is simple: while some may enjoy the thrill of extreme hobbies, no one should take chances with their hard-earned money," CFP Board CEO Kevin Keller said in a statement announcing the new ads.

The board is rolling out the ads as a follow-up to last year's television spot, which featured a DJ posing as a financial advisor. According to the CFP Board's brand tracking study, total awareness of CFP certification among the campaign's target audience rose 4% last year.  According to a statement announcing the study's findings, "total awareness measures a person's knowledge after ... seeing or hearing something that prompted a response."


The campaign, now in its fifth year, is an attempt by the CFP Board to make the designation stand out amid other financial planning designations.

However, the Board's method of financing the ads -- with $145 of designees' annual $325 recertification fee earmarked for the campaign -- has been somewhat controversial among advisors.

"They've not quite doubled, but almost doubled the fee ... when CFP professionals were having a really bad time, they jacked up the fee for things that I didn't think were useful," says Mark Walton, a CFP and benefits plan consultant at Alvarez & Marsal. "If I wanted a marketing campaign, I would hire a marketing firm. To me, it doesn't do a lot of good."

Walton also says that the campaign isn't specific enough to his practice to bring in business. "Yeah, it's nice to push people towards CFPs," he says. "But I look to the CFP for the credentials, not to be a marketing firm. I would spend my own money if that was a concern."

In response, a statement from the CFP Board says the campaign was "initiated in 2011 at the request of CFP professionals and based on research that shows that it is widely supported by CFP professionals." The $145 from each recertification fee amounts to $12 a month per advisor "for a national advertising campaign that benefits CFP professionals by raising awareness of a certification that they worked so hard to obtain," the board says.


One financial services marketing expert suggests that some advisors' resistance to the campaign may be tied to a broader antipathy toward "marketing and advertising in general."

The campaign "is a good idea," says April Rudin, founder and president of the Rudin Group -- although, she adds, "I'm not surprised" that advisors haven't embraced it.

"They're under the impression their business is based on referrals," she explains. "But these things reinforce their brand and their designations -- and this is what they're paying fees for."

Rudin had some critiques for the campaign itself, however, faulting it for not saying enough about what being a "CFP Pro" means or what potential clients could expect from advisors holding the designation.

"It's one thing to say, 'CFP.' It's another thing to explain it," she says. "Just saying to people you should use a CFP isn't enough. The truth is, this campaign is an awareness campaign. Now it's beholden upon [advisors] to do more than just raise awareness."


Advisors still need their own individualized marketing strategies to help potential clients understand what sets CFP-designated advisors apart from other advisors, Rudin says.

"If you're marketing that and using those terms, you should understand ... that the public needs to understand what it is that they're buying," she says.

"It's beholden on the individual advisors to use marketing campaigns that are educational -- so that the public can gain awareness about what the CFP designation really means and how important it is. Just stating that you're a CFP isn't enough."

Jack Waymire -- founder of Paladin Research & Registry, an advisor screening company, and InvestorWatchdog.com -- agrees the onus is partly on advisors holding the designation to explain its meaning.

"I think you've really got to get the CFPs educating the public, more than just advertising," Waymire says. "The real key is the boots-on-the-ground strategy. CFPs need to make value for the CFP designation."

Yet Waymire argues that the ads themselves could go further, warning consumers of situations where "fake" financial plans are being used as tools to sell investment products.

"If you really wanted to attract attention, if you go and say who's a real planner and who's not a real planner, it's way stronger," Waymire says.  "The difference is a fake planner vs. a real planner. How does [an] investor tell the difference?"

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