Friends Life Investment Bulletins

The Problem.


A bit like sports leagues, popular music charts or weather statistics, the financial markets generate a constant stream of numerical information that needs to be collated, analysed and presented in meaningful ways to a variety of audiences. At leading UK financial products and services provider Friends Life the task was to provide monthly investment bulletins to sales staff and independent financial advisers (IFAs).

The marketing department was producing a monthly 12-page bulletin whose 40,000 copy print run was almost all being sent to the firm’s 12 area offices. Keen to capitalise on the reach, immediacy and near-zero distribution costs of the Internet, Friends Provident entered in 2002 into an outsourcing arrangement with a third-party company to produce a Web friendly version of the bulletin.

The logistics of this arrangement meant that all the asset allocation splits and commentary had to be provided on a fixed date each month and seven days later the bulletin would be put onto the Web site. This system gave Friends Life no opportunity to proofread or make changes to the bulletin before it went live, and consequently any inaccuracies had to stay on the Web site for a month.

Further, the external production agreement only allowed changes to the Web document template once per quarter, and these were charged-for. Some changes, such as the removal of a page, took up to nine months to come into effect.

It wasn’t just this inflexibility with content that caused concern at Friends Provident, the look of the Web publication was not felt to be ideal either.

Because the company producing the Web bulletins were not graphic design specialists, the layout, fonts and general look of the bulletin often left a lot to be desired, and asking for changes caused anguish for both parties. And the cost was significant, considering that the finished article was never exactly what they wanted.

The difficulties didn’t stop there, either. There was still a requirement to print the Web bulletin but the format used wasn’t suitable for printers and much time was spent in meetings trying to overcome the difficulties that this posed.

The Solution

Clearly there had to be a more flexible, faster and more cost-effective way of doing things. A couple of alternatives were under consideration when an approach to Friends Provident by systems integrator Interlagos brought the latter’s Advanced Publishing System (APS) to the attention of Friends Life. APS provides a powerful but easy-to-use automated document composition.

We were encouraged by Interlagos’s demonstration of APS it seemed to be a product that Friends Life would have more control over, with increased flexibility and ease of use. The short set-up time and ability to make our own template changes as and when required was a definite plus point.

An important requirement for the system was that the Web documents it generated could be printed reliably, both on office printing devices and by commercial printing companies. The ability of the APS solution to generate various types of PDF or PostScript files for commercial printing, with complete visual fidelity between the two, ensured that this criterion was met.

Having decided that the APS combination would satisfy their requirements for both online and printed publishing, Friends Provident also decided that instead of having a single monthly bulletin containing everything, they would prefer to have a greater number of more precisely-targeted publications that would meet IFA and sales staff’s exact needs in a more flexible way. The monthly bulletin would be replaced by two new 20-page technical bulletins for the company’s bond ranges, plus 10 two- or three page bulletins with performance and asset allocations of different fund ranges.

The necessary document templates were designed in parallel with a corporate identity revamp and the APS system went live in September 2004. Marketing staff at Friends Life access the system via the corporate intranet, running a custom-developed Java applet in their usual Web browser, and select the type of document they want to produce. The necessary component files – Excel spreadsheets, Word documents, graphics and PDFs – are all placed in specific directories where APS can find them.

APS extracts numerical data from the spreadsheet files and drives the publishing engine to create a variety of chart types or tabular setting from these, as defined by the chosen template. Text from Word files is read and formatted according to the template’s specifications for font, size, alignment and justification. Graphics in a variety of formats are placed and scaled again as defined in the template and then a PDF file of the resulting document is generated. PDF ‘bookmarks’, hyperlinks that enable readers to jump directly to specified pages or positions in the text, are generated automatically as part of the template.

Once the source files are in place, the entire document composition process takes a few seconds, compared to the whole week it was taking with the outsourced service. The ability to make changes up to the last moment is a huge benefit and the speed of document composition makes it very easy for the marketing staff to make draft or test versions of document to check that all the required data is in place.

The APS templates not only reflect Friends Life’s new corporate identity but also ensure that professional design and layout are implemented in every publication. The use of PDF as an electronic format ensures complete fidelity between the bulletins and other printed materials. The PDFs can be printed to any office printer, making it a simple matter to produce printed versions for IFAs or customers who prefer to receive hard copies.

Friends Life delighted with the success of the system, especially since it has made possible the expansion in bulletin documents: They wouldn’t have even considered trying to do that under the old production arrangement, but now there is so much potential and we want to make the most of it. It’s really going to make a big difference.

If commercial printing of APS authored documents is required, it’s a simple matter of choosing PostScript file output or a high-end print-compatible type of PDF from the APS interface screen and handing-off the resulting file. Again, there will be complete fidelity between versions printed this way and those generated for Web and email use.

Since completing this project Interlagos have completed two more projects with Friends Life, developing a Pension Bulletin system and a Key Facts System.