Adviser or advisor? The debate rages on

Battle lines are drawn between those who use an "e" and those who use an "o," but does it really matter?

Mar 19, 2017 @ 12:01 am

By Jeff Benjamin

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In the annals of financial advice, few questions have divided folks more than whether someone who offers professional financial advice is an "adviser" or "advisor."

Trite as it might seem, the debate lives on, possibly because the correct answer is elusive and, in some ways, simply subjective. Those on both sides of the argument are convinced they're right and that the integrity, respectability and internet searchability of the entire financial advice industry rests on a well-placed "e" or "o."

"We spell it with an 'e' because spelling it with an 'o' connotes a soothsayer," said Carolyn McClanahan, founder and director of financial planning at Life Planning Partners. "All the palm readers and tarot card readers have 'advisor' on their signs."

Them's fightin' words to Bob Veres, financial planning industry veteran and owner of Inside Information, a consulting firm for the financial planning profession. "Whenever I see someone spell adviser with an 'e,' I know it's a securities attorney or an industry lobbyist who specializes in the SEC," he said.

Basic grammar

Beyond basic grammar, which deems either spelling acceptable, the battle lines are often drawn around alignment with the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, which locks in the "e" version for some professionals. The flipside of that argument is that there are myriad interpretations of what it means to provide professional advice, which leads much of the industry to favor the "o" version.

"I'm high compliance, so if I'm a regulated individual or firm, I'm going to use the same spelling as the regulators use, which means spelling adviser with an 'e,'" said Bill Winterberg, founder and president of FPPad, a financial services industry technology consulting firm. "Don't unnecessarily confuse things; just use what the SEC uses and move on."

For his part, Michael Kitces, partner at Pinnacle Advisory Group, opts to straddle the fence with a policy that doesn't contribute much in the way of a resolution, but it does provide some enlightenment on the rift.

In his blog, Nerd's Eye View, Mr. Kitces spells adviser with an "o," "to describe the general label of financial advisers."

But he spells it with an "e" "anytime we're talking about investment advisers legally registered as such or the Investment Advisers Act or being a registered investment adviser, because that's the actual legal term."

There is no debating that in creating the Investment Advisers Act of 1940, the word was spelled with an "e."

Ditto for RIAs, which are defined in the Act as a "person or firm that, for compensation, is engaged in the act of providing advice, making recommendations, issuing reports or furnishing analyses on securities, either directly or through publications."

Regulatory history

Thus, for reasons tied to regulatory history, some have opted for and are sticking with the "e" version.

"The SEC and members of Congress, when they were looking at this back in 1937, used the 'e,' and folks who identify with the history of advisers identify with spelling adviser with an 'e,'" said Karen Barr, president and chief executive of the Investment Adviser Association.

"Adviser with an 'o' sounds a little more squishy, if you ask me," she said. "But the lines have blurred, and what was clear in 1940 is not clear today, because there has been a lot of branding around adviser with an 'o.'"

The Financial Planning Association is also in the "e"-version camp, "because we follow the SEC spelling," said spokesman Ben Lewis.

Clearly, the rest of the financial advice industry is less concerned about following naming convention set by regulators. The vast majority of broker-dealers, custodians and mutual fund companies prefer the "o" spelling.

"We spell it with an 'o' and have been for 20 years, and I don't know why that is," said Tom Nally, president of TD Ameritrade Institutional.

Fidelity Investments spokeswoman Kate Taylor could only confirm that they have been spelling it with an "o" "for a while; it's reflected in our product naming."

In the published English language, the "e" version has a history dating back to well before 1800, while the "o" version started showing up only around 1900.

And usage of the "e" version spiked around the time Congress was writing the Investment Advisers Act in the late 1930s.

By the books
Use of "adviser" and "advisor" in books searched by Google, by year
Source: Google Books

But since that peak, published usage of the "e" version has been trending downward, while usage of the "o" version has been climbing to the point where both versions are about equal.

Mr. Kitces, who produced a video last summer analyzing the two different ways to spell adviser, theorizes that the growth of the "o" version reflects a trend toward a more formal act of providing advice.

But there are other theories.

"It can matter depending on the context in our industry."
-- Amy Lynch, president of FrontLine Compliance

"Technically, either way is correct, but it can matter depending on the context in our industry," said Amy Lynch, president of FrontLine Compliance.

Ms. Lynch, like Ms. Carr of the Investment Adviser Association, believes at least part of the popularity of the "o" version can be tied to the migration by brokerage reps away from pure commission-based sales and toward more holistic financial planning.

Brokerage firms

"Whenever brokerage firms or independent firms refer to their financial planners or reps, they typically refer to them as financial advisors with an "o," Ms. Lynch said.

From Ms. Barr's perspective, the migration of brokerage reps into the financial planning business also fueled the popularity of a host of monikers along the lines of financial consultant, financial planner and wealth manager.

"People use all those terms to hold themselves out as a trusted adviser for their clients, when in fact they're not legally obligated to act in the best interest of their clients," she said. "I think the debate over spelling adviser with an 'e' or an 'o' is emblematic of a larger issue, in that people cannot tell the financial professionals apart, even though they have different services, duties and operate under different regulatory requirements."

The Associated Press Stylebook, which has long been considered the bible of American journalistic writing rules, considers the "e" version correct. That's why InvestmentNews has long favored "adviser."

But, according to both the Oxford and Merriam Webster dictionaries, either spelling of the noun is acceptable.

It turns out most financial advisers probably weren't thinking about grammar or style when they embraced one spelling over the other.

Jonathan Swanburg, investment executive at Tri-Star Group, said that the spelling had been debated within his firm, and that the "o" version won out because it seemed "more appropriate when describing an expert acting in a professional capacity."

The "e" version, he said, "is better when describing someone acting in a nonprofessional capacity."

SEO

But neither history, legality nor the way the word rolls off the tongue was top of mind for Kathryn Hauer when she was helping to launch Wilson David Investment Advisors in 2014.

"I don't think there's a right or wrong way to spell it, but we were concerned about the best way because we wanted to get picked up in more internet searches," she said. "We went around and around with it, and decided to spell it with an 'o' because it seemed more accepted, and we wanted the best keyword for more social media stuff."

If the goal is search engine optimization, the "o" version is the current favorite.

A measurement of Google searches over the past three years for both "financial adviser" and "financial advisor" shows between 1,000 and 10,000 average monthly searches for financial adviser, compared to between 10,000 and 100,000 for financial advisor.

Average monthly Google searches for 'financial adviser' and 'financial advisor'
Search termsFeb 2015 - Feb 2016Feb 2016 - Feb 2017
Financial advisor10K-100K10K-100K
Financial adviser1K-10K1K-10K
Source: Google AdWord; As of February 2017

Even so, that's not enough to convince proponents of the "e" spelling to switch sides.

"If you're spending hours at your firm trying to squeeze some kind of benefit out of search engine rankings, you shouldn't be a financial adviser, you should be a search-engine guru," Mr. Winterberg said.

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