Interview: Mark Polson

‘We play with live ammunition. The jeopardy level is high’

Mark Polson grinning cat 2

Mark Polson: ‘there’s a functionality arms race’ (pix: Terry Murden)

It all began with a song and a desire to be a little different. Mark Polson was looking for a name for his fledgling business and turned to a favourite musician for inspiration.

James Yorkston, the Fife folk singer-songwriter, had written an album entitled Lang Cat, Crooked Cat, Spider Cat based on three cats he heard fighting outside his home. Polson recalls going to one of his gigs.

“He was playing at the Pleasance [in Edinburgh] and I told him I’d named my company after the Lang Cat,” he explains. “He’s a bit left wing, I think, and must have hoped we were into ethical investing, that sort of thing. He hid his disappointment very well! Anyway, last year he sold the guitar he used to write the songs, and I bought it.”

Polson’s company not only has an unusual name, it is also an unusual business.

“In our space we see no one else doing this,” he says. “This” refers to the business of helping financial services companies provide the products the public wants and how to market them properly.

“Yes, it’s a consultancy, but we pride ourselves on sometimes having to say what people don’t want to hear. Sometimes consultants provide advice that is just as complex as the problem they’re advising on, and no one is any wiser. A lot of good money is thrown after bad.”

Polson, although only 41, is a bit of an industry veteran, having done what he calls ‘the tour’ of Scotland’s big institutions, including Widows, Scottish Life and Standard Life. “I would have got the ‘jacket’ if I’d also worked at Aegon,” he jokes.

He learned a lot from his time in corporate life, but developed a passion for improving on what he came across, mostly a failure to  see that some products just won’t work and that some are badly communicated.

He left and set up on his own, working from a cupboard in a friend’s office in the New Town. Surely he exaggerates? Wasn’t it just a small room?

“No, it was a cupboard which I shared with a lot of boxes. I only paid £50 a month. I did that for year, eighteen months.”

In the last couple of years he has built a team of 12, mainly technical analysts, and a marketing operation led by Mark Locke. The Lang Cat now counts the big institutions among its clients, providing analysis on products and telling the world about them. Turnover has just hit £1 million for the first time which he sees as proof that it must be doing something right.

Mark Polson Lang Cat 1 replace

“There is a lot of stuff in the industry I don’t like and when we see it we call it. I think our clients appreciate that.”

He refers to a “functionality arms race” led by those who believe the solution lies in ever more complex kit to make things work.

“It is not usually the case,” he says. “If I cannot explain the product or strategy quickly then I get bored.”

He describes himself as having a “butterfly mind”, always moving from one issue to the next, and says he doesn’t “suffer fools gladly”.

However, he believes in a collegiate approach to work, encouraging staff to chip in and tell him when he’s wrong and how things could be done better.

Dressed casually in t-shirt and jeans, he believes financial services “doesn’t have to be boring” and wants to develop a modern working environment alongside modern ways of working.

He dislikes the way it is obsessed with complex language and internal sniping which overlook the important cog in the process – the customer.

“We bitch and moan that individuals do not engage with the business, and then we churn out impenetrable bullshit that no one understands.

“Yes, the industry is very regulated and there is a lot of complexity to deal with. Unlike, say, the telecoms industry, where the customer may end up with the wrong mobile phone deal, we are playing with live ammunition. The jeopardy level is high. If the industry gets it wrong it can have massive long-term implications for entire families.

“That said, there is a way of making it more relevant to the customer.”

The company has just moved to an office on Leith quayside formerly occupied by the Lewis agency. On the day of this interview the brass plaques were being changed. Its new headquarters is a source of pride for Polson who says its location is a symbol of how he sees its place in the industry.

“We like being based in Edinburgh and in Leith, but we are not in the thick of it. We could have been based in the financial services district, but it is important to me not to be sucked into the belly of the beast. I prefer to throw rocks at it.”

Mark Polson portrait


Birthplace: Edinburgh

Age: 41

Education: Stewarts Melville, Aberdeen University (English Lit)

Career highlights: Scottish Widows (started as customer desk representative), Virgin Money, Scottish Life, Standard Life

What are your chief dislikes?

Bland music, bad writing, poor communication, laziness

What is your weakness?

Having a butterfly mind, and I swear too much.

How do you see your role in the business?

I am a story teller

Has success surprised you?

Massively. I am so delighted that so many good people have given up good jobs, with good salaries and good pensions to come and work for me.

Photos: by Terry Murden (copyright)

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