Why Client Data Is Gold


Originally published in Financial Advisor

By Mark Hurley

When wealth managers help clients tally up their most valuable assets, they often think of equities, bonds, real estate, commodities and personal assets like jewelry. But for some bizarre reason, they ignore one of their clients’ most valuable and sought-after assets: their data—who they are, and how and what they consume.

George Orwell was frighteningly prescient back in 1949 when he published his epic novel, 1984. In his nightmarish scenario, the government used electronic tools to monitor what people do and think. Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook are not government agencies, but they most certainly are trying to do this. In fact, their ability to monitor and predict customer behavior is a big source of their enterprise value.

Even the mighty Warren Buffett has conceded he failed to foresee the success of Google and other web companies because he didn’t understand how adept and important they would become as consumer data collectors. And these companies have used data to drive changes in commerce across the world based on consumer preferences and habits.

As I noted in an earlier article, wealth managers are going to have to become much more vigilant about protecting non-public, private client information in the face of growing cybercrime. Their core services will also expand to include a role in helping clients protect themselves from this new breed of criminals. And soon every large wealth management firm will have its own chief information security officer, or CISO, who in short order will be the least popular person in the organization.

But there is a completely different aspect to client data that virtually no wealth manager is yet focused on. Every day, people throughout the world give away large amounts of very personal and valuable information about themselves. How? They do a Google search, buy something from Amazon, surf Facebook or just turn their iPhones on.

This data is a highly sought-after commodity that is widely traded. The World Economic Forum has called aggregated personal data a “post-industrial opportunity” of unprecedented complexity, velocity and global reach.

Why should clients give this information away for free? And what about their privacy? Are they comfortable with the idea that some giant company is tracking everything they buy, the news they read, a lot of what they write and the websites that they visit? I doubt it.

However, most people aren’t fully aware of how far technology companies have already invaded their lives. But as they learn more, many over time will most certainly view protecting their privacy as a high priority.

As wealth management firms evolve and expand their service offerings in the future (in lieu of seeing their fees fall), data and privacy protection will likely become a core service every major firm offers. A big part of this will be educating clients on the various ways that these large companies gather and use information. Wealth managers are also going to help clients decide what information they want to share and what they don’t care about.

For the former, wealth managers will set up and manage dummy accounts and install software that will shield client identities from snooping technology companies. The outsiders will only be able to track the behavior of the wealth management firm in aggregate and not that of any of its individual clients. The challenge will be striking a balance between efficiency and privacy that works for each client.

For the latter, wealth managers will help clients get value—special discounts and deals—in exchange for providing information that the technology company can use. It will be similar to the way casinos currently comp high rollers with free rooms, meals, travel (as long as the gamblers let the casinos track their betting behaviors). But instead it will be for many different types of services and products that wealth management clients buy or use.

Granted, wealth managers will have to be much larger than they are today (with many thousands of clients and perhaps as much as $150 million to $200 million of annual revenues) to create this kind of buying power. However, we are less than a decade away from seeing firms of this size. Moreover, the aggregation of buying power is already something that wealth managers are very familiar with, having used it to first build their firms in the ’90s. Back then, offering access to institutional classes of shares (versus the client investing on its own) saved many clients what was almost the entire cost of their advisory fees.

Newly minted Nobel laureate and behavior economics guru Richard Thaler calls the process of individuals trading information about themselves for value as “smart disclosure.” He also recently opined that the use of personal data in this manner is an inevitable opportunity, as individuals and governments claim rights to online information from commerce providers.

So why are wealth managers going to be at the forefront of this tectonic shift in consumer behavior? Well, if not them, then who? Clients already share their most closely held secrets with advisors and rely on them to protect their assets and improve their lives. Taking on the responsibility for both guarding their privacy and capturing full and fair value for information will be just another step in the natural evolution of the wealth management industry.

Mark P. Hurley co-founded Fiduciary Network in 2006 and serves as its CEO.