The Atom... making waves

Katy Ringsdore, head of PR and internal communications at Atom Bank, discusses a new way of banking

Fluffy handcuffs. Women brandishing whips. Drag queens. They are all in a day’s work for Katy Ringsdore, head of PR and internal communications for Atom Bank. Yes: a bank. While it’s been a long time since the Captain Mainwaring-type manager personified banking, the images used by Britain’s newest bank – it has only just started offering accounts to the general public – to publicise its services are really off the wall.

But then, Atom Bank customers are far too cool to have to worry about branches, cheque books and the like. They are even too hip for PINs or passwords: instead, most choose to operate their accounts via face recognition – in other words, they take a selfie. Or there’s voice recognition: customers can instead record their own phrase (within reason). And real shrinking violets can go for passwords if they wish.

Ringsdore, 32, is probably just the type of age group and demographic Atom Bank, the app-only bank, is after. But Ringsdore insists that there is no particular age group or social class Atom is after, pointing out that her 85 year old grandfather is a whizz with a smart phone and therefore would meet the criteria of an Atom customer.

I don’t like to ask what granddad thinks of the whip-wielders or the restraints. These are images that Atom uses to publicise itself through social media. The handcuffs are accompanied by the tag with the entreaty for customers to Boss us around: we like it. The drag queen picture says It’s natural to be curious. You get the drift: never say bank – we are far too cool for that. It’s the new 21st face of banking, the latest episode in a revolution born after the 2008 crisis ruined the image of traditional banks and opened up the market to ‘challenger’ banks of which Atom is the latest.

Other challengers include Metro Bank, which was launched by Atom’s founder Anthony Thomson in 2010, Shawbrook and Aldermore, all of which have helped to breathe new life into the banking and savings market. And then there is German-owned Fidor Bank which launched in the UK this year and is offering current and savings accounts on the Internet and with apps. And like Atom, Fidor is trying to ditch the boring bank image: its tag is that with Fidor, you are Banking with Friends. Atom is different from Fidor in that it is app only. There’s no Internet banking (but there is a website); no phone banking (but there is a telephone inquiry line); no branches (hipsters don’t do high streets) and the headquarters is in… Durham, not yet the North East’s answer to Hoxton but just give it time.

And while Atom is all new, it has some real establishment figures behind it – from the uncool banking giants at Spanish bank BBVA – which owns around 29 per cent of Atom. It’s also backed by the well-regarded fund manager Neil Woodford and venture capitalist John Moulton.

Atom’s boss is Mark Mullen, the former chief executive of First Direct. Its head of marketing is Lisa Wood, former head of marketing at First Direct. As for Ringsdore? She spent six years at HSBC – and of course, HSBC owns First Direct.

Perhaps I’m being unfair calling Atom Second Direct but Ringsdore doesn’t blink. ‘First Direct has a really great reputation for customer service and is totally customer focussed but we are different: we are customer obsessed,’ she says. This obsession focusses around the idea that banks are unpopular and seen as boring. With Atom this means that customers don’t even need to be reminded they are Atom customers. If you sign up, then the app appears as your bank – and your statement will come through marked as such – so, in my case, it would be Charlotte’s Bank. And even the logo of your own ‘bank’ is unique: the colours are different for every customer and there are apparently enough variations to cover many hundreds of thousands of customers.

 Terms and conditions have also been radically reformed. ‘No one really ever reads them,’ says Ringsdore. ‘So we have radically rewritten them – while staying legally correct – so that actually, people read our T&Cs because they can understand them.’

 Of course, it’s a long way to go before Atom has a large customer base. At the moment, it only has two savings accounts – both fixed rates which are close to the top of the best-buy tables. In the future there will be residential mortgages though these will be sold through intermediaries, not apps.

Current account and credit cards will come later: indeed Atom’s chief executive has predicted it will have five per cent of the UK current account market within five years. More than 40,000 Britons had pre-registered their interest in Atom before its launch.

 All that sounds pretty conventional but Ringsdore says that it has no plans to be ‘core’. ‘We know we won’t appeal to everyone,’ she says.

For Ringsdore, coming from a career in corporate communications at industry stalwarts such as GlaxoSmithKline and HSBC, it took a leap of faith to jump for a new start up. She was born and brought up on the island of Jersey and was a promising trumpet player, considering music as a career. But after taking a gap year she decided not to go into further education. Instead she worked as a TV journalist for the Channel Islands ITV channel, and then moved to the island’s commercial radio station. This led her into communications, firstly at HSBC in Jersey and then on the mainland.

At HSBC she worked for Lisa Wood and ‘kind of stalked her’ after Wood left to join First Direct. Then came the phone call asking her if she’d like to head up communications for a new kind of bank, working under Wood. She jumped at the chance – even though it means she has a near-300 mile commute from the home she shares in Bristol with her scientist partner Lauren to the North East. She flies up on Monday, staying during the week with Wood – ‘we’re like two old ladies, sitting watching Bake Off together’ – and then returning home for the weekend.

While Atom might be at the cutting edge of modern technology as far as customers are concerned, for Ringsdore the communications role is just as much about traditional PR as it is using social media. ‘I strongly believe there will always be a place for the traditional communications role,’ she says. ‘While a lot of my role is communicating through Twitter, Facebook and other social media, I still write conventional press releases. Social media hasn’t killed off the established ways of communicating with the press. I still have to build relationships with journalists; I spend a week every month in London having meetings with the financial media and other press. My role is to get across who we are and what is different about us, and I need to communicate that to the public and the press.’

Atom attracted her because it was ‘fresh’ and she liked the message that it is all about the customer, not the accounts, loans, interest rates or whatever. And having no legacy issues means Atom can reinvent the way it runs its business as well as the way it communicates with them.

 ‘The message I am trying to get across is that Atom is starting from fresh: we don’t have a back book of accounts from elsewhere. We have no high street presence, which means we can offer our customers the best deals around. We are transparent: and we are going to be transparent in the way we handle our communications too. For me, honesty is the most important thing about PR: I am not going to spin a story: that is so not the way I work.’

Atom’s presence on Twitter is about engaging would-be customers to understand its way of doing business. ‘We are letting people know who we are through Twitter,’ she says. ‘We try never to talk about products: that is too boring. We have a very cool team and we want to have a bit of fun. At the same time as showing people we are a trustworthy bank with a strong, experienced team at the helm. We want people to see how we are different, and that can mean going close to the edge sometimes. Not everyone will engage with fluffy handcuffs and an entreaty to Boss us around, we like it but we don’t want to be core – we are not going to appeal to everyone and that’s the way we like it.’