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Deep Dive 3 Nov 2021 - 7 min read

IAG CMO Brent Smart heads NRMA-backed digital-first insurance start-up Rollin': Creativity, distinctive branding, growth culture ‘baked in from the start’

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor
Rollin' Car Insurance

Rollin's boss Brent Smart: "Creativity and a growth mindset are the two keys to the culture we're building at Rollin’. Every single thing we do is about how we get this thing to grow.”

IAG CMO Brent Smart is one of the more outspoken blue chip marketers arguing distinctive creativity and brand building delivers competitive advantage but is underutilised by most industry sectors as a business “differentiator and growth accelerant”. Now he's about to hit crunch time leading an NRMA start-up spurning the traditional digital-first challenger strategy chasing customer acquisition via tactical, performance marketing and tech-based customer experience management. Instead he’s building a creatively-led, distinctive digital brand asset from the get-go in a new “hybrid” start-up for the NRMA business. His critics will be watching – intently. 

What happens with a lot of CX and UX is they've become so focused on creating utility and taking out the customer pain points … it all becomes the same … very generic. Sometimes you need to actually put a little bit of friction into the customer experience to make it different and memorable.

Brent Smart, CMO, IAG and Rollin'

What you need to know:

  • IAG CMO Brent Smart is leading an NRMA-backed motor insurance start-up, Rollin, targeting 25-40 year-olds while retaining his current IAG group role.
  • Smart has full P&L responsibility but wants to retain his CMO title across both units. “I'm quite happy being a CMO, and I love that I'm a CMO who actually gets to run a business,” he says.
  • Rollin clearly promotes its links to NRMA to capitalise on its public trust.
  • Smart wants to challenge start-up convention by building a distinctive brand from the get-go that stands apart from its legacy insurance peers.
  • Per Smart: You see a lot of start-ups and new brands really overly focus on performance channels and performance marketing tactics to really get the growth and user numbers up. This is a brand-driven business.”
  • Rollin is a reworked version of NRMA’s “satellite” unit, Poncho with aims to grow the current customer base 5x in the next 12 months.


Vanilla CX and tech stacks

Brent Smart says he unfazed “putting my money where my mouth is” and challenging convention in the launch of a digital-first category disruptor aimed at 25-40 year-olds. 

He’s keeping his gig as IAG’s CMO and will use the same title at the under-40s motor insurance “hybrid”, Rollin’,  which launches this weekend, although he has full P&L responsibility for the business unit.

Smart has been a vocal critic on the in vogue digital transformation trend which places much faith in technology-led customer experience platforms as a business solution he labels as “vanilla” and all the same. 

Large tech and consulting firms, for instance, talk up the need for digital transformation programs to “reduce friction” for customers in their company interactions; Smart is deliberately “adding friction” through parts of Rollin’s digital experience to deliver the brand and creative experience his team and boutique creative partner, Micah Walker at Bear Meets Eagle on Fire, have engineered in the hope of being distinctive and standing out for the younger set in the insurance sector. 

Rollin’ is NRMA’s attempt to tap one of two core motor insurance consumer segments in the under 40 bracket with a subscription-like model that allows car owners to insure and cancel their policies on a month-by month basis and doesn’t charge an excess for those typically higher-risk younger drivers. It will be priced competitively against Budget Direct and Youi – two brands which have gained marketshare with lower premiums.

“It is borrowing from the subscription model but we can't do that exactly because the way insurance products work,” Smart told Mi3 as the business prepares for a relaunch this weekend using a screen combination of TV, YouTube, social video and Out of Home.

Rollin’ is a rebranded and redesigned iteration of the NRMA’s earlier satellite unit called Poncho, which has been trialling the tech stack and customer experience approach that Smart has been quietly running this year.  

“We have big growth ambitions,”says Smart. “We’re really looking at this to be the growth accelerant through our [NRMA] business. We want to grow 5x in the next 12 months.”

Old poncho

Smart and his team of 60 at Rollin’ have been “beta testing” for some time around the business model, the product, pricing and the technology under the “working brand” Poncho. 

“We've had it as a separate business unit for a while to give it less constraints and be able to build something,” says Smart. “But what's really important in financial services, you need to manage risk really well. We obviously wanted to de-risk by making sure that we've tested the technology, we've tested the product, tested the concept in the real world with real customers. 

“We've had a group that’s been working on that for quite some time. And IAG’s been developing that technology and developing the product. It's really smart tech. It's very modular. I can't talk that much about the technology because it's competitive. I can't tell you exactly how we built it, but basically we’ve been able to build an end-to-end business to really focus on this group of customers and deliver a great experience," says Smart.

“Now we're rebranding it to Rollin’ – and this is the bit I'm really excited about. We had to think about how to do this in a way that  is something highly distinctive in the insurance market. And what's really exciting is we can start thinking about what are the next products. We can totally attach that to the same mindset."

Smart says Rollin is not a “completely standalone” business to NRMA, nor is it “completely integrated”. Customer support, operations and marketing sit inside the unit but finance and legal are covered by the parent.     

”It’s a bit of a hybrid where certain parts are separate and stand alone and other parts we leverage the group expertise, like finance and legal,” he says. “Why wouldn't we use the group capability? That’s so much better than the capability that any startup could have. So we leverage the group where it makes sense. We also have standalone capability to really focus on building Rollin’. This is something that's different to the rest of the business."

Money and the mouth

Smart would not disclose how many customers Rollin’ has coming across from Poncho but the new launch will test Smart’s alliance to  a creatively-led, brand building business model. 

“I think that’s right, absolutely I’m putting my money where my mouth is,” Smart responds when asked about his commercial creativity and brand building philosophy getting the acid test. “I welcome that challenge and I'm up for that challenge. This is going to be a fantastic test of the power of creativity as a differentiator for a brand in the business. We've definitely got support from the leadership of the business. And we definitely understand that when you are launching new businesses, new brands, you need to invest. There are certainly realistic expectations about it making money straight away," he says.

“The important thing is we need to show that we can grow the business. It's all about growth. Like, anything, if you're delivering commercially, then you'll get support. I talk about creativity being core to the business and it is. But every single person working on this business is totally focused on the need to grow. Creativity and a growth mindset are the two keys to the culture we're building at Rollin’. Every single thing we do is about how we get this thing to grow.”

More customer friction, not less

The distinctiveness Smart talks of carries across to the user and customer experience. Too many digital transformation and customer experience programs today, he says, are stripped back to achieve low customer friction when dealing with a business at the expense of being different and having a personality.

“Creativity is baked into it from the get go because I believe that creativity is the biggest differentiator,” says Smart. “So it's all baked in from day one. It's not a veneer over the top. It's intrinsic to how this business is being built and how this business is being run. It's the digital experience, the internal culture we're building. 

“We've deliberately created that in the way you navigate. The website is playful and original. It's not the most streamlined. There's a more streamlined way you could get into the quote flow but we wanted to do it in a way that's memorable and a little bit sticky," he adds.

“What happens with a lot of CX and UX is they've become so focused on creating utility and on taking out the customer pain points and making it all very clean that I worry it all sort of becomes the same, it’s very generic. Sometimes you need to actually put a little bit of friction into the customer experience to make it different and memorable. For instance, you rock up to Rollin’s website and you’ve got to work out how to navigate it. But I think that's good because it just makes it memorable and different to other stuff. I've always believed being distinctive is the number one job of marketing. If you can build something distinctive, then it's worth spending time with.”

The younger funkies

For Smart, creativity and distinctiveness carries across the digital customer experience to communications and branding. The advertising and comms is spearheaded by a big fuzzy ball called Larry and a 90’s hip hop hit The Humpty Dance by Digital Underground to nail the interest and “unmet needs” of younger customers in the insurance category. 

“We did a bunch of research with younger customers, and we found two really distinct groups of younger customers,” says Smart.

“If you think about young people today, it kind of makes sense. There's one group who are quite happy to live off the bank of mum and dad for as long as possible. And they don't at all lean into financial decisions. And they're really happy with mum and dad's insurance. And so NRMA is the perfect brand to serve those people, because guess what? We've got  got lots of their parents. So that's a great opportunity for NRMA with young customers. But then there's other people who are more independent, who are sort of striking out on their own, who are leaning to financial decisions mainly because they want to make savvy decisions so they can spend on other stuff – experiences, travel, whatever," says Smart.

“So they lead into the category. They do their own research. They're quite savvy, and they absolutely don't want mum and dad's brand. They want something to speak to them and something that is for them. We see a real distinct segment for this. Over time my ambition focus is [to crack] how do we serve that group of customers. So we’re really thinking about what are the needs of that group and how might we better serve them."

Nail that category, says Smart, and success will come rolling in.

“It's really big. It's a multibillion dollar market. NRMA attracts young customers but challenger brands have done well with younger customers because of their price position, like Budget Direct and Youi. We see a gap in the market where there's not a brand that's really built for this segment.”

Smart says “the really important thing” is that Rollin’ is not trying to detach from the NRMA mothership as a brand without a trust anchor.

“So we're making that very clear,” he says. “You see it on the website. It's backed by NRMA. It's part of the NRMA family. We say we roll with NRMA. It's got the endorsement from NRMA because trust is a big thing in the category. So whilst it's great to have personality and be really distinctive and different, it's also important to be trusted in this category.”

Being memorable

Still, Smart is hellbent on building something that stands apart in the insurance category, taking the global learnings from the work and proselytising of globally renowned, Australian-based academics like Mark Ritson, Byron Sharp and Karen Nelson-field and UK advertising effectiveness supremos Peter Field and Les Binet. 

Smart and his NRMA team last month took out the top gong at this year’s Advertising Council Effectiveness Awards, known as The Effies.  

“If you talk about distinctiveness in the category, there’s nothing like this,” says Smart of Rollin’. “I think there’s nothing like this in Australian advertising. It’s a big, yellow, fuzzy, twelve foot rolling ball called Larry. We’ve really tried to apply everything we’ve learned about effectiveness. 

“Obviously we’ve been really effective at the NRMA and we’ve applied all the things we’ve learned about effectiveness to a new emerging brand. So thinking about distinctive brand assets, that runs through all the work because we know that builds [consumer] mental value, builds brands and grows a business.” 

Countering the start-up playbook

Smart remains unconvinced by the approach most startups take when launching – get fast customer acquisition via tactical, performance marketing techniques like search marketing that doesn’t take a long-term view on building brand from the start. 

“You see a lot of start-ups and new brands really overly focus on performance channels and performance marketing tactics to really get the growth and user numbers up,” he says. “We are building brand from day one. This is a brand-driven business. We get that benefit of trust from NRMA.”

So how do you do that at launch?  

“Well, we're launching it with a giant, twelve foot, yellow fuzzy rolling ball called Larry who rolls around the place. And while he rolls, he freestyles, hip hops and he rhymes to the Humpty Dance. The whole thing, it's personifying the freedom you feel from the product. And I think what we have got right, timing wise is as people are coming out of lockdown, we're looking for a sense of freedom.”

Moreover, Smart says the insurance category is full of acronym-based brands – NRMA, AAMI, RACV, RACQ et al. “We’re building a brand from scratch where we can actually think about a name that is meaningful and  memorable. But then think about how do we do it which is distinctive for the category but also doesn't cannibalise NRMA. And it's very clearly something different to NRMA. We're thinking that NRMA is for when you are settled down in life, it's all about being solid and trusted and all the beautiful things NRMA is. Rollin’ is the antithesis.

P&L, four Ps and grand CMO titles

Smart is demonstrably excited by getting his hands on a P&L as a marketer and having broad responsibility for marketing’s early foundation in the four Ps: product, price, promotion and place, or distribution. 

But he’s happy to keep the CMO title at Rollin’ and IAG. 

“I think a lot of marketers go looking for titles that make it sound like they're bigger than marketing or do more than marketing,” he says. “I'm quite happy being a CMO, and I love that I'm a CMO who actually gets to run a business.

“The good news is that I actually run the business. What's great about that is a lot of marketers only get to play with one “P” –promotion. I get to play with all the four P's. I get to think about product and price and really think of how we run the business. That's pretty rare for marketers these days. So it's pretty exciting that I get to run the business as well as design and develop the brand.

With Rollin', I get to think about the four Ps. That's really exciting because that lets me bring the full marketing suite to bear. But also I'm much more upstream, obviously, in the business decisions. The thing I'm really excited about, though, is that creativity is baked into this business from day one - everything about it."

Bullish on the Bear

Smart is an ex ad agency exec – his last gig before joining IAG four years ago was CEO at Saatchi & Saatchi New York. It explains his overt praise for the boutique creative shop, Bear Meets Eagle On Fire, and its founder Micah Walker as being instrumental in the development of Rollin’.     

We partnered very closely with those guys,” he says. “This is Micah’s vision as much as ours. He has absolutely sweated every detail of this brand and really thought about how this brand shows up and importantly, from day one, how we avoid beige creativity for brand. His role has been huge. We couldn't have done it without them. He's my partner on building this brand. I seriously can't overstate how much he's brought to this. He's had a vision from day one. He sweated and crafted every detail of the brand, so he's brought a level of care and craft that is fantastic. I think it's really great that a small agency can do stuff like this. They’ve been world class.”

On the NRMA, Accenture Interactive and its creative hot shop, The Monkeys, are one of Smart’s lead partners. Could have they or some of the big international networks done the same job. 

“It’s not to say they couldn't,” says Smart. “I just think that Micah has had a real creative vision for this from day one.”

Let the grand experiment begin. 

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