IAG CMO reflects on toughest parts of the marketing leadership job

Brent Smart highlights ongoing commitment to brand building

Brent Smart
Brent Smart

Long-term brand building and distinctiveness are the hardest things for today’s chief marketing officers to accomplish, IAG’s Brent Smart says.

Speaking at today’s Future of TV Advertising event in Sydney, the insurance giant’s CMO said his experience as a marketing leader over the last four years has taught him just how hard it is to stick to your guns on long-term brand building while in the job.

“It’s because it is so easy to react and focus on a bunch of short-term tactics that enable you to have a great meeting with your boss on ROI, and because of the quarterly cycle of a listed company,” Smart told attendees. “It’s hard to get a whole corporation to be patient to allow brand building to do what it does.”  

Smart, who is well recognised in the industry for his commitment to brand building, said it’s the 2018 investments into launching NRMA’s ‘Help’ brand platforms and creative idea that are now paying off for the business, noting consistent brand work “builds upon itself and has a cumulative effect”.

“But so many marketers don’t have the will, or patience from their organisation, to do it,” Smart continued. “I think distinctiveness is the hardest job for marketers within that brand building, and I see so many doing generic work.

“Finding something that is so true to your brand, and so ownable it stands out in the marketplace, is critical. If your work doesn’t built brand, you’ve just wasted all that money on targeting, and more. People have to know it’s from you. A lot of marketers I think have forgotten that job.”  

It’s the desire to combine executing good creative with owning the brand agenda that led Smart to transition from his career as a creative within the agency space to take up the CMO role at one of Australia’s largest insurance companies.

“I left the creative advertising space as I was so frustrated – I was such a frustrated ad guy. It was so clear to me what the right things were to do and what the brand needed - and those marketers wouldn’t do it. I wanted to be the guy making decisions for the brand and execute it,” Smart commented.  

Having now spent nearly four years as a CMO, Smart had three key learnings around the relationship between client-side marketing team and agency partners he shared with the audience. The first was what he called “the difference between servicing and leading a client”.

“I see it so rarely from agencies, and I wonder if I did enough of that. The difference is between not giving clients what they want, but what they need,” Smart said. “Agencies should be pushing, challenging, stretching my thinking – I pay my agencies for an opinion.

“The brief is not enough – it’s the bare minimum. You have to bring me more than that and be more proactive.”  

Smart added this lack of proactive thinking is a difficult one to navigate as a CMO. “It’s lonely being a CMO – there aren’t a lot of people I can talk to about this stuff,” he said.  

Smart’s second for agencies must was to think beyond the ad collateral. He advised agencies to become more strategic, holistic partners to the brands they’re working with.

“All the stuff I grapple with as CMO could be where creativity and strategic thinking of my agencies could be unbelievably powerful – things like offers, products and how we sell stuff to customers,” Smart continued. “Bring the creativity you’re bringing now to a piece of advertising to that realm and it can make a huge difference.

“But there’s also culture, purpose and some of the bigger issues, which agencies can be amazing at. Again, we don’t have those conversations. It’s the ability to simplify stuff too. So help me with more than the ad.”  

As a final piece of advice, Smart said agencies need to step up to the leadership plate so they’re better partners to CMOs. “The work we do ourselves as CMOs is the most important leadership work,” he said.

“Agencies are shit at the leadership stuff and all the culture work corporates are good at. Through this role at IAG, I’ve learnt to be a better leader, build teams and get the most out of people as a result.”

Hear more about Smart's views on the CMO role, coping with changing marketing conditions during COVID-19 and more in our Conversations over a Cuppa with CMO interview here.

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