CMO interview: Building a customer engine and marketing culture at Allianz

We speak to Allianz chief market manager and former Telstra marketer, Nicholas Adams, about how he's built out the tech, people and process approach necessary for customer engagement

Nick Adams
Nick Adams


Nick Adams’ remit upon joining Allianz as its marketing chief seems clear enough: Help drive growth, lift the insurance brand’s consumer business strength, and get the customer firmly on the agenda.

The professional marketing leader certainly has the credentials and knowledge to make this a reality, too. Previously Telstra director of marketing enablement and orchestrator of the telco’s CRM, digital and loyalty marketing, Adams has firsthand experience of what it takes to build out a modern marketing engine, from the technologies and data required, to the integrations, strategy and team structures that best deliver it.

Yet three years into his first CMO role and with some strong results now on the board, Adams admits he’s had moments where he lost confidence as he worked to transform Allianz’s marketing function. In fact, he describes lessons in leadership as the biggest part of his personal journey so far.

“My favourite saying is ‘context changes everything’. I went from a company with a very large marketing budget and 40,000 employees to a company with 4000 employees and smaller revenue in Australia. I thought it’d be easier – but it was 10 times harder,” Adams told CMO in his first interview since joining Allianz.

“In the early days, I misjudged the context round how to engage the team, selling in the transformation, and made some missteps. It took me a while to readjust to the new context and delivery. I’m now getting that momentum up. It’s fair to say I lost my confidence along the way.”

Luckily for Allianz, Adams stayed the course, driven by a belief in the journey he’d set. Strong peer support, including endorsement from Allianz’s CEO, has been vital.

“Our CEO has been my biggest sponsor and coached me through moments where I might have misstepped and taken that longer-term view of the transformation,” Adams says. “When I look at most CMOs only lasting 18-24 months in a role, it’s not long enough to really get traction on anything. For our CEO to have the longer-term view and patience was phenomenal. And I’ve had other peers who have stepped in and helped me on that journey. I’m a better leader and executive for it.”   

And as a result, both Adams and Allianz have begun reaping the rewards, from stronger employee buy-in and brand reputation to more integrated and efficient marketing campaigns, customer experience and engagement. And there’s lots more to come.

The brief

Allianz has a strong reputation in B2B insurance. When Adams joined, its newly installed CEO had set out a vision for growth by also being as strong in the consumer space.

“My role was to help with that growth and get the customer firmly on the agenda, help our B2B and B2C customers and put the roadmap together so we’re servicing both well,” Adams says.  

Brand metrics were just one indicator of the challenge ahead. “We have very high brand awareness of 80 per cent, which is comparable with our competitors. But consideration is relatively low – 45-46 per cent. I call it the ‘yeah/nah’ factor,” Adams says.

“Yes, consumers know who we are, but they’re not converting. Our job as marketers is to make this a ‘yeah, yeah’ company and get us on the front foot so customers are considering us for insurance.”

To accomplish this, Allianz’s digital and data capability was critical. For Adams, this required building a data-driven customer insights engine. Alongside this, it was clear the marketing team would need a walk, run, jump approach to move from foundation skills into brilliant basics, then towards North Star activities.

Making a start

In tackling such a significant transformation, the first step had to be re-evaluating the people and skills mix, Adams says.

“We had some great people, but we needed skills in new spaces and disciplines. We needed to bring in CX experts, and we did a lot around out digital skills, as we had more of a pseudo-IT team than a digital consumer-oriented team, so we need to build out those engagement skills,” he says.

“We also hired people in insights, data and technology. I rewrote 80-odd job descriptions from scratch and changed all the professional competencies. We did that foundational people step first – we had to get that right.

“We are a relatively small marketing team compared to our competitors, so we needed to ensure we worked smarter and harder to get better bang for our buck.”

The focus then became getting the technology right. When Adams joined, Allianz was still running its website off Lotus Notes, and it lacked integrated marketing technology across channels and campaign management as well as a voice of customer capability.

“There was a very simple platform approach where data at the bottom of our stack was going through to an unconnected, email platform and then very simple channels to market, plus a separate Lotus Notes CMS running our websites. The whole thing lacked connectivity,” he explains.

Adams hired a marketing technologist to help put together the story and business case for a martech overhaul, who then worked with Allianz’s finance and risk functions. “That proved pivotal and a game-changer for us,” Adams says.  

The aim of the long-term game is omnichannel articulation, content evolution, data-based decisioning, sophisticated insights and analytics, all fuelled by a centralised data platform and data source. But in true walk, run, jump fashion, Adams started with a data mart in Hadoop to just get things going.

Today, most of the replatforming has been completed, based around Adobe’s Marketing Cloud. Adobe Campaign is now running and Adobe Target is being plugged in. In addition, a centralised data mart for campaigning now holding 2.8 billion data points and is ingesting all customer data from multiple channels. By mid-2021, Allianz will have a fully integrated stack running at scale.

Allianz has also brought on Maritz’s voice of customer platform, hooked up to its enterprise martech stack. In all, the group has spent millions on its martech transformation.

“It’s been a massive investment into tools that allows us to listen and better engage with our customers,” Adams says. “We’ve gone from Lotus Notes and disconnected systems to a fully integrated, omnichannel campaign decisioning framework.”  

As tech capabilities have come online, Allianz has progressed data-driven marketing engagement executions with customers.

“When I started, we had hardly any campaigns going to customers,” Adams says. “We built initial propensity models for that first data mart, and we’re now up to 22 propensity models. We have grown from almost no contacts to 5.5 million contacts every year. We have stood up that capability to drive deep and personalised customer engagement using data-driven tactics.

“That turns into cross-sell, acquisition, retention campaigns and a library of customer engagement activities we can deliver.”

In this vein, Adams has worked to extend what was a main strategic focus on top of the funnel activities to a customer lifecycle approach. Previously, emphasis was on bringing customers in through advertising and the call centre, supported by search engine and performance marketing.

“We have now the ability to grow from the core, selling more products to existing customers by being more relevant and engaging to them. This whole investment helps support our core business while adding to the great work bringing customers into the franchise,” Adams says. “We’ve engaged in deep analytics to build out value pools to identity where we can have deeper relationships with customers, and we’re actively working to deepen penetration into those accounts.”  

An example of this in action is retention. Allianz’s marketing team has tapped analytics to identify customer cohorts more likely to respond to a retention treatment. Targeting these cohorts using the propensity models along with a multi-step engagement process prior to renewal has resulted in a conversion uplift of up to 7-9 per cent.

“I expect that to escalate as we’re taking a crawl, walk, and run approach,” Adams says. “We are building a library of always-on activity across segments to drive that better engagement across the customer lifecycle.”  

Lessons learnt

Among the biggest lessons for Adams through this process has been the need to overcommunicate to team members and relate marketing innovations back to their needs and business priorities.

“I realised what I take for granted isn’t largely understood, so we had to do a lot of education around what martech and adtech means and the types of technologies we were introducing,” he says. “We then brought that to life with practical examples that relate to what people see in their everyday lives as consumers.”

While he always knew the potential of what he was doing to transform market, learning to sell it in the right way was part of the learning curve.

“I knew concepts, strategies and techniques that may not make sense to other people. My missteps came from assuming people knew what I was talking about,” Adams says. “I’ve been building things in the last couple of years people didn’t think we needed, but now we’re proving their value, they’re in higher demand.

“As a result, I can now get cracking in driving growth from all this investment. There is a lot more optimism and understanding of the new environment now. “

Having a marketing technologist, meanwhile, made a significant difference talking to finance and IT, describing the environment and getting that work completed.

“As we proved out each level, the company has been getting more excited by the capability we have built, helping further build momentum,” Adams says.   

Read more: What Allianz has learnt from its test-and-learn approach to online media buying

Another lesson was around size and scale. Then there’s taking an incremental approach. Adams references an analogy from Theodore Roosevelt as critical thinking at Allianz: ‘Do what you can, with what you have, where you are’.

“Rather than trying to wait to get it all perfect, you get things going in small increments and something going. We learnt a few things, then moved it forward. That curve towards 5 million plus customers was all done in nudges,” he says.  

“If you wait for this piece or that from the start, or the data, you’d never get out of first gear, which is a mistake a lot of marketers make. It was easier to say let’s do this in a series of steps, and after a while we’ll end up with something very strong. That has proven to be the case with us.”

Evolving customer journeys  

The next evolution for Allianz is organising around customer journeys and lifecycle management. At present, the marketing structure is based around functional specialties such as analytics, digital and brand and advertising.

To help support the shift, Adams has been trialling agile practices based around customer targets for the last six months. This will now become a permanent part of the operating rhythm.  

“Key customer journeys will determine the approach – such as quote, purchase, renewal journey – and we’ll assign agile teams to focus on those areas, rather than working in functional teams, so we can break down barriers and focus on customer pain points,” he says.  

“There is a natural evolution that the Adobe stack leads us to, and it’s about marrying this this with journeys and changing our structure to suit the customer approach.  We’re are unlocking the brilliant basics point to then aim for North Star.”  

The Maritz VOC platform also tracks customer feedback via key journeys, giving teams further insights to optimise and support an integrated view of customer engagement and experience across the lifecycle.

Cross-functional alignment is not surprisingly a vital piece of this puzzle. “The way I structured the team was value chain from insights into planning, then go-to-market and execution. We run a very tight go-to-market process with handoffs along the value chain are very clear, so it’s rehearsed and practiced integration marketing at its best,” Adams says.

“Whether it’s PR, social, CRM or advertising, we want to ensure we bring the full resources to bear so we get the best execution. Collaboration is really high and everything firing at once is so important when you’re in a daily battle for the hearts and minds of consumers.”

An example of this is around Allianz’s Olympics partnership. The insurance group is an Australian Olympic and Paralympics team partner, has been an International Paralympic Committee since 2006, and became the insurance partner for the Worldwide Olympic and Paralympic Games from 2021.

Recent activity saw Allianz’s local team partner with five Olympics athletes who’ve been on personal journeys around their mental health and had to bounce back when things haven’t gone their way. These ambassadors are Madison de Rozario, Cate Campbell, Owen Wright, Nic Beveridge and Australia’s wheelchair rubby team, The Steelers.

Allianz locally launched a public campaign based using research that showed Olympians want to talk about their mental health and recognise mental strength was an important trait for them to share. Activities include PR, social, video content and advertising. Results included 322 pieces of earned media coverage resulting in 93.7 million opportunities to see, 100 per cent positive sentiment, and broadcast integrations with channels Seven and Nine. Social media reach through the ambassadors exceeded 301,000 and chalked up 246,000 impressions.

Adams points out functions such as PR and social didn’t exist at Allianz locally three years ago. “It’s a good example of how we have managed to bring PR and social to help lift our brand. Mental health is important platform for us as a brand and making sure conversations continue in Australia is key for us,” he says.

Thanks to work like this, Allianz’s reputation is the highest and strongest it’s ever been. What’s more employee engagement scores, which were poor when Adams started, have gone up year-on-year 50 per cent.

“People want to be involved in transformation, can see the good it’s doing and it’s energised the workforce,” he comments. “Moving from foundation to brilliant basics and now more of a North Star environment is very purposeful and helps build that pride.”   

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the marketing team has also been able to better show their business value, adding to buy-in and momentum.

“We were producing useful insights and we provided more in three months than we did the whole of last year,” Adams says. These included customer base health insights, website traffic, dishonours, research and tracking, and how COVID was built into advertising.

“We showed our insights and engagement channels we have were quite valuable,” Adams says.

For Adams, short-term measures helping him understand the success of the transformation include daily sales numbers, calls, website traffic, plus health of customer base through NPS tracking and 5-star ratings. Underneath those measures are growth metrics, retention and renewal rates.

“Long-term, we’re looking at brand and franchise health, measured by consideration and brand awareness, where our measures have been less than optimal for industry benchmarks,” he concludes.

Nick Adams will be speaking on his customer transformation work at this year's CMO Momentum virtual event. Get your ticket to our virtual conference for modern marketing leaders now!

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, follow our regular updates via CMO Australia's Linkedin company page, or join us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CMOAustralia.

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