Rahul Sachitanand
Aug 25, 2021

Insurance CMOs seek to erase segment's rep for middling creative

CMOs and agency leaders agree the insurance industry isn't known for electrifying creative work. What needs to happen to change that?

Insurance CMOs seek to erase segment's rep for middling creative

Over the past two decades, Julie Nestor has spent her career across consumer-facing marketing roles in telecom, tech and hospitality companies. In October 2020 when she was appointed as the marketing and customer experience chief for insurer Manulife, one of the first things she noticed was the mixed creative output being churned out by a company with big plans for the Asia market. 

"I think that the insurance category suffers from terrible creative," Nestor told Campaign Asia-Pacific in a recent interview. "For sure, it's a sea of sameness—we always joke about the couples running down the beach, and I'm sure we've got examples, we've done those ads." As a former top consumer marketer for Hilton who also spent time at eBay, Nestor contends that marketers and agencies working in this space "still speak like an insurance company" and as yet there is a long way to go "around simplifying the language that we use, and making insurance simpler for customers".

Nestor isn't the only one asking her teams and agency partners to rethink the way they approach briefs. At AIA, group CMO Stuart A Spencer is also pushing his creative team and agency.

"I think the industry has tried to provide a narrative that is probably in line with what critics are suggesting is very stereotypical," he told Campaign Asia-Pacific. "Work in the industry overall is generic and vanilla, and very formulaic and lacking in creativity and ingenuity, and I think as an industry that's not an altogether unfounded critique." 

Merlee Jayme, chief creative officer with Dentsu APAC, argues that it is challenging for agencies to devise strong creative in the space, because "as a consumer, when you know that an insurance officer is reaching out to you, chances are, you'll ignore the calls, hide from the person or make all kinds of excuses" simply because you're not interested. 

Ed Cheong, executive creative director at Iris Singapore, agrees there is an opportunity for creatives and insurance CMOs to refocus their creative strategy. “There is more room to sell optimism as opposed to the constant use of sappy emotional porn, which is ironic given that most consumers don’t have much of an emotional connection with an insurance company," he says. "Insurance advertising has almost become a template—safe, tried and tested—and there is plenty of room in the vertical to break the mould.”

The challenge for CMOs like Spencer and Nestor is two-fold, industry observers say. First, the sector is in various stages of evolution across APAC. It has just been liberalised in markets such as Cambodia, and foreign insurers have been allowed to operate in India for barely the past two decades. With these varying regulations, building out homogenous creative product is challenging. Second, there may be a gap between the briefs from insurance company CMOs and the final output from agencies. 

While he is happy with much the work AIA is getting out into the market, Spencer admits he is very tough on his creative agencies.

"They are not moving as fast as we are in the understanding and the recognition of how creative has to change," says AIA's Spencer. "Those of us who work in the industry, in the trenches, are much more sensitised to how the marketplace is shifting and consumer sentiments are shifting ... [and] to recognise how quickly creative needs to change and adjust." As the industry changes almost overnight, this lack of specialisation may be hurting agencies, he adds. "The marketplace and consumer attitudes and behaviours are shifting and therefore the creative needs to evolve even more rapidly," he stresses. 

Examples of interesting work in the insurance sector do exist. See for example, a Hong Kong campaign that debuted last week for Manulife (see "These angels sell retirement plans for Manulife"), or NTUC Income's visually arresting single-shot film shot by a drone (see "How NTUC Income's astonishing drone-shot ad almost didn't make it to air"). And agency leaders contend they are generating a pipeline of strong creative work as clients ask them to be more current with their work.

Like all agencies, agencies serving insurance clients know they're always on notice. While Manulife's Nestor is mulling a review of her shops, Spencer says he may step up in-house work. "If someone in-house can do it better, why should I pay an external agency to produce poorer quality work?" he asks. 

Faced with this heat, Dentu's Jayme says that for agencies and CMOs alike the challenge is to deal with completely mixed demand for insurance across demographics, which makes it harder to build one unified message. "It seems the communications are just as unsexy and boring," she says. "For the older generation, they probably have already bought into all kinds of insurance plans. And for the millennials or generation Z, they probably have zero interest and conviction why they need this."

Brandon Cheung, international markets business lead in IPG's Team Unleash (the bespoke network agency for Cigna global), says the challenge for marketers and agencies is breaking away from tried-and-true approaches that are well understood in the boardroom of industry-leading insurance companies. "It’s important to remember most insurance companies have been built through the persistent efforts of sales teams, broker relationships, and affinity partners," he says. "Cigna Stress Portraits was successful because we were able to reframe how our creativity was applied to meet the needs of their business." 

Stress portraits from Cigna/McCann


The effort worked because Team Unleash didn't focus only on the advertising campaign, he adds. Instead, the team worked to equip the client's sales teams with a technology that strengthened their existing prospecting efforts and built a perception that the Cigna was a thought leader in preventative wellness.  

Marketers and agencies need to better understand the psyche of consumers. "I would dive deep and look for insights and seek products that can help genuinely lift people up," Jayme says. "How people feel from a more Covid-confident Auckland is so different from a struggling Manila or Bangkok. In the end, there has to be a clear brand purpose why and how insurance can truly enrich people's lives, especially in times of uncertainty. Then, we get rid of the cliche picture of a family running into the sunset."

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