CMO interview: How IAG’s first group marketing chief is using brand and creativity to fuel growth

Insurance giant's first CMO talks about the brand strategy he's using to build cultural impact, how to build a marketing team for growth; and balancing creativity with science

Brent Smart
Brent Smart

Brent Smart believes his switch from creative agency chief to first CMO at IAG says as much about the insurance giant as it does about him.

“Surely it says something about the type of CMO they want here and the marketing they want. I’m definitely a creative-led CMO; it’s my experience and what I bring to the business,” Smart tells CMO.  

Of course, there’s also Smart’s desire to do great work with cultural impact.

“I thought if I could be on this side, I can make this great work, creativity and bravery happen,” he says. “It’s a somewhat naïve view, but I hoped to make a bigger difference going into marketing. I knew there was an appetite at IAG for it, despite what looks like a conservative, risk-averse insurance company.”

Smart’s remit upon joining IAG was clear: Transform marketing to drive growth. He describes the purpose-led vision overseen by IAG CEO, Peter Harmer, as one of disrupting the business before it gets disrupted, and using data, digital and creativity to transform into a customer experience-oriented organisation.

“So many businesses have been through restructuring, consolidating and cost cutting. But you can’t cut your way to growth,” Smart comments. “It might work as a short-term profit strategy but not a long-term one.

“I 100 per cent believe marketing is a growth function; it’s the job of marketing. And that’s how I want to be judged in this role.”

The other thing about IAG is it’s grown through premiums as opposed to customer-led growth. “Our long-term sustainability is about growing customer numbers. We’d lost sight of that a bit,” Smart says. “We have a huge customer base and we’re a market leader, but there are still opportunities for growth – geographically for example, and through certain segments. Bringing that growth mentality to what you do is very different to a profit mentality, too.”   

Being the right kind of CMO

Smart certainly doesn’t look or act like your average insurance company marketing leader, and he’s spent the past 20 years working in agencies locally and abroad.

His resume stretches from formative experiences with entrepreneurial New Zealand agency, Colenso, where he spearheaded the creation and documentation of the audacious Yellow Pages treehouse made entirely out of telephone directories, to New York-based creative goliath, Saatchi & Saatchi, where we worked on iconic American brands such as Tide, Cheerio’s and Walmart.

“It was an extreme in scale you don’t get in this part of the world,” he recalls of his time in the US. “It was hard, but I learnt an incredible amount and the talent in that market is amazing. It made me step up and be better.”

It’s creativity Smart sees as the massive competitive advantage for companies today, more so than technology or customer journey mapping to identify and remove friction points. Yet he sees too many organisations built to stifle it.

“It’s never been harder to get someone to spend some time with your content. You must do something creative or you have no chance,” he says. “In an insurance company that manages risk, my business risk in marketing is being invisible. And most marketing is.”

Team building

To fuel that creativity and growth, Smart has spent the past 16 months building out what he’s aiming to be the best marketing team in Australia.

Among recent recruits to the Customer Labs division are former Mondelez International global brand strategist, Caroline Hugall as group brand strategy director; former Freemantle Media GM of commercial, digital and branded entertainment, Zara Curtis, as director of content; and former Pandora music group marketing director, Sally Kiernan, as head of marketing for NRMA Insurance.

“These people are different to the culture you’d expect in insurance. But that’s what we’re trying to build into the marketing culture – it’s about doing work that’s different and unexpected for the category,” Smart says.

IAG has also brought more capabilities in-house such as search, programmatic, social and content production. In addition, Smart is working to overhaul ways of working, noting “making over meeting” as one of his many beliefs.

At the same time, Smart recognises the need to link marketing with digital and data and says having all three teams under IAG chief customer chief, Julie Batch,  and the Customer Labs division has been a huge step forward to building a collaborative culture.

“It means the skills you need to create a modern customer experience all sit and work together, but in a way where they’re all elevated,” he says. “We’re all passionate experts in our field who play really well together. I joke with Julie that she’s formed the Avengers – that’s kind of how it feels.”

Up next: How IAG is building out its distinctive brands, what Smart is doing to tap data insight, and the keys to being a modern CMO

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