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IAG CMO Brent Smart: martech is "hygiene", everyone's doing it, no competitive advantage

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

15 July 2019 5min read

Brent Smart

By Paul McIntyre - Executive Editor

15 July 2019 5min read

Marketing automation is quickly turning vanilla as "customer-centric" becomes "customer-generic", says IAG CMO Brent Smart. Longer-term brand building, emotionally connecting with customers and prospects and a progressive two-year brand building trial are priorities for the insurance giant's top marketer.         

"We've all got Salesforce and Adobe plugged into our tech stacks. We've all done media mix modelling and attribution studies. It's hygiene. It doesn't give you competitive advantage."

- Brent Smart, IAG

Polarising? Perhaps. But refreshingly, Brent Smart has a view and he's backing it. It helps that his IAG CEO Peter Harmer and chief customer officer Julie Batch are in step. 

The one-time CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York is 2.5 years in to his Australian return and the big theme that's bugging him is the industry-wide swerve to marketing automation and efficiency as the next silver bullet. 

"It's a big topic," he says. "Every big corporate has got themselves doing customer journey mapping. I don't think it delivers competitive advantage. It's hygiene. It's a classic quick win mentality. When you focus on efficiency you're able to show a commercial impact from marketing pretty quickly but you're missing the bigger aspect in this conversation. Too many marketers focus on the efficiency side as opposed to the effectiveness side of things." 

Smart says martech and customer experience (CX) is "definitely part of the modern marketer's toolkit" but he spends far less time thinking about those "inputs", as he calls them, than the "outputs".


Competitive advantage still comes from brand

"What gives you competitive advantage is your brand," says Smart. "Human beings are emotional creatures. We've got to tap into emotion, we really do. Too many marketers have forgotten that."

The Art and Science of Emotional Storytelling just happens to be the theme of a panel Smart is on at AdWeek APAC in Sydney, 30 July with CNN International and Prof. Joel Pearson from the Future Minds Lab at the University of NSW.    

"We either draw or lose on all the rational attributes but we win on the emotional level, because of our brand," says Smart. "With all this talk about customer experience, the most important people in delivering CX in a service industry is your staff."

Smart says he can "never remember getting an email from anyone on our customer frontline thanking me for an automated lead generation program. But if we create emotional brand communication and that makes them feel proud to work here, makes them walk a little taller, not only do they feel really good, they actually deliver better experiences for the customer. It's contagious," says Smart. "Staff pride is one of the most important metrics for me as a CMO in this place. Isn't that a better conversation to have with your CEO than how I might be delivering a 30% efficiency gain from the martech stack?"    


"I can't remember the last time someone at a bbq or dinner party told me about an email they received or a frictionless retail experience. They talk about great design or great ads that moved them emotionally."

- Brent Smart, IAG

Smart repeats that marketers must always remember the fundamentals of any business: people.

"Why would you spend all your time at these conferences talking to Salesforce or Adobe when you can actually spend time talking to people inside your business who own the P&L and with whom you need to have strong relations if you want to do good, effective stuff. My job is to bring in new customers and that's really hard to do when you're a big incumbent leading brand. A lot of those brands have forgotten how to do it; they've forgotten how to grow."


Smart CX is the best CX

Now, for all those CX and martech folk starting to froth, here's the good news. Smart does get passionate about CX. One initiative he's enthusiastic about - and has won a bunch of awards for - is Safety Hub. It was an idea he picked off a wall from his agency CHE Proximity, and backed for a trial of 200,000 customers. 

The idea was to use historical customer claims and location data to identify high risk trouble spots and pay customers to address problems before their homes flooded or faced a house fire. The idea was to pay customers upfront to lower claims risk and reduce bigger payouts for the insurer later. The pilot program saw 25% of the 200,000 person-trial taking preventative action and getting paid in cash to do it. 

"Safety Hub was our move to create a new kind of customer experience," he says. "It's a really simple idea to reward people, not for how many products they have but reward them for being safe. It's a really simple app that shows you things you can do around your house to be safer. It's an incentive for people to be safer. It's not that we've got an automated customer journey. It something that talks to our purpose," says Smart. "It has a clear idea and we executed it with fantastic design and great experience. Isn't that a much more meaningful thing to be talking about to the c-suite than martech?"


"What we did with Safety Hub was more than just mapping the customer journey and automating some emails, which is what I think most marketers are doing with CX."

- Brent Smart, IAG

A progressive, two-year brand building trial

For all the talk and tension in the marketing community about short-termism versus investing long-term in brand building, Smart is actually doing something about it.

He won't divulge too much on the specifics because Smart thinks it needs a panel discussion to better contextualise the strategy - hence CNN's plug on Emtional Storytelling at AdWeek. But the idea, or what we know of it so far,  is a good one.

It looks  a little like this: Smart will choose a test market in Australia where IAG will only focus on brand-building efforts and after two years - yes two years - the insurer will unpack the results.   

"It's so easy to prove the ROI in short-term marketing techniques but we need to find a way to prove ROI in long-term brand building," he says. "I'm working on the experiment to do that. I have a CEO who is very purpose-led and I work for a chief customer officer who totally believes in the power of creativity. I couldn't work here otherwise". 

Here's to some progressive thinking. By 2021 we'll know something, for better or worse.  


You can listen to this week's Mi3 Audio Edition on how martech's snake oil claims are hurting marketing and why industry needs to "start being honest" here. It's a flat 20-minutes for on-the-go.   



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