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

Page Break

Brand building

Alongside team, Smart’s big priority has been building brand in a big way. Australian consumers have already seen these first efforts through the NRMA Christmas campaign, ‘Long Way’, a mass market, TV-led advertising effort drawing on the emotive history of the brand and its age-less tagline, ‘help’. In March, IAG also kicked off the ‘Everywhere you go, we keep you moving’ program of work showcasing the services available to members. 

“I’m not the only marketer right now talking about the Byron Sharp principles of marketing: To grow we need to have mental availability,” Smart says. “If you look at all the literature around effectiveness, fame is the thing that drives effectiveness; it drives disproportionate effectiveness.”  

The big challenge IAG faces is that more than 60 per cent of people only shop for products and services when they get an insurance renewal, Smart continues. “It’s an incredible low involvement category until something happens, when it then becomes an incredible high involvement one,” he says.  

“The way I see it, one-twelfth of customers are in market in any month because they’re looking at a renewal. Other research shows us only 25 per cent of people actively shop at all. So you end up with 2 per cent of people actively shopping our category today.

“Why would I advertise to that 2 per cent? Aren’t I better advertising to the 98 per cent who aren’t shopping insurance categories today, but are going to tomorrow, next month or in six months’ time? Shouldn’t I create a brand impression that means they’re mentally available to our brands when they do come around to shopping for insurance?”

In practice, this means less emphasis on tactical conversion work, Smart says. “There are better ways to do that anyways than through advertising – for instance, search, where people are actively shopping your category – and there’s data and targeting. Rather, let’s focus on the 98 per cent, and work out how we create a brand impression that means they’re more likely to come to us when they do think about insurance,” he says.

To do this, Smart is striving to simplify brand architecture across IAG’s portfolio. Supporting this is a significant needs-based customer segmentation study that went beyond how people feel about insurance and what they’re willing to pay for it.

Using supplemental data, the work identified needs and aspirations to focus on more emotional triggers, all of which are now feeding into the brand architecture. Smart says the data is already allowing his team to make stronger strategic calls. While hesitant to give a lot away, he says the overarching ambition is to simplify.

This can be seen in the ambition to build CGU and NRMA into two distinct power brands. The Christmas NRMA campaign, for example, was about allowing NRMA to tap into emotional levers.

“It’s about letting NRMA play to its strengths, which is why you’ve seen us reach back to the equity of ‘help’ and take the brand back to its roots, but with a modern interpretation of help,” Smart explains.  

“Our NPS is 10 points higher on NRMA than our nearest competitor and that’s because we deliver on the promise. What’s cool about that as a marketer is you can go out and make a big emotional claim like ‘help’, and you absolutely have the full confidence that we’ll deliver on it.”

Meanwhile, IAG is looking to position CGU as a more progressive brand. A case is point is its Australian Day ‘Australian as it gets’ campaign, which emphasised the migrants behind many local small businesses, a customer sweet spot.

“We wanted to take a stand on immigration and start a different conversation about immigration that’s less about boat people and negative elements, and a more positive one about them,” Smart says. “Thirty-three per cent of small businesses - which drive our economy - are owned by migrants. Isn’t that something we should celebrate?”

The work generated more than 40 per cent uplift in TV brand recognition, a 170 per cent increase in traffic to the call centre and digital platforms year-on-year, more than 100 per cent uplift in social engagement via CGU social platforms, and significant media and conversation, something Smart is keen to continue.

“I’m very passionate about brands getting an unfair share of culture: That’s where they’re talked about in culture way more than they spend, or their marketshare or distribution. That’s what we did with CGU - it was the most CGU had been talked about in a long time,” Smart says. “Strategically, it’s about building brands to have strong emotional platforms, because that’s how you lift yourself out of the noise and functional insurance play.”

Smart agrees the scales have tipped too dramatically today to short-term, digital tactics that are highly measurable and accountable but ultimately don’t build brand. But getting buy-in from the business on building a brand over time requires balance.

“We can’t judge this work this month or this quarter, it needs 12-24 month horizons. In the meantime, we will make sure we’re driving the right conversion so we do see those results coming through, but importantly, we’re really focused on the long term,” he says. “If you don’t have leadership that supports that, then maybe you’re in the wrong company. I’ve had that narrative since the first day I got here and I feel incredibly supported.”  

So how does Smart ensure this same thinking filters right through the team? “I make it very clear what our ambitions are, and what kind of culture we want in marketing, which then tends to attract a certain type of marketers,” he says. “And really, we’re ultimately going to be judged on the thing the customer sees – that’s our job.”

Shifting from an agency to client-side view

While the shift to CMO has been a big change, Smart says he still thinks about the agency relationship in the same way.

“The role of agencies is to deliver ideas that are going to have a big impact on our business. I always wanted to be judged like that,” he says. “We’ve got the right agencies in place and they’ve made a tremendous start to the work we’ve been doing.”  

Smart also stresses the importance of trust. “You have to start from the point of view that it’s in their best interest to do great work. It’s their entire motivation,” he says. “You have to be disciplined in how you brief them, and you have to pick the right idea, but then get out of the way. Let them have the space to execute and craft.”  

Measurement is something that is being rethought, however, and Smart is a big believer in brand momentum.

“We’ve thought about a ‘brand momentum’ score, and what are the elements that matter, focusing on that and linking it to our agencies. We have performance arrangements in place with key agencies, and a bonus if they’re helping us achieve great business results,” he adds.  

Being data-driven

While he may be a creative-led CMO, Smart isn’t averse to tapping data to drive insight and action and he highlights three ways he’s tapping science to build brand. The first was the customer segmentation work, a cross-collaborative effort between data, analytics, customer futures (insights) and marketing teams that required all to embrace human-centred design principles.

“That’s a huge foundational piece driving our brand architecture,” Smart says. “We obviously can focus on some segments that give us the best growth opportunities, and we’re looking at marketing programs that pull more of those customers in.”  

The second way data is helping, particularly with in one-to-one communications, is driving an experimentation-based approach. IAG is increasingly stepping up tests versus control groups to gain a clearer idea about what does and doesn’t work. Thirdly, IAG has done deep attribution work, led by the analytics team.

Fortunately, all of the science links up to what Smart says he believes about marketing. “This is that brand really matters; that there are certain channels that work really well for conversion and some that don’t; and that less is more,” he says.

Smart is also confident building brand the right way will not only attract customers, it’ll keep them. Not surprising then that sees creative as a top attribute for any modern CMO today. At the same time, he stresses the ability to influence all levels of an organisation.

“Then there’s being brave – it’s cliché but it’s rare, although I prefer the term ‘gutsy’ over brave,” he says.

Finally, every CMO today needs to be curious about the world, Smart says. “A desk is a dangerous place to do marketing. You have to get out to see what’s going on and be connected.”

Read more of CMO's in-depth marketing leadership profiles:

Follow CMO on Twitter: @CMOAustralia, take part in the CMO conversation on LinkedIn: CMO ANZ, join us on Facebook:, or check us out on