Financial companies have it tough. After all, mutual funds, 401(k) plans, and retirement programs aren’t the sexiest products. Layer on top all the regulations the industry must abide by, and one could see how marketing within the financial services market is no easy feat.
But that’s not an obstacle for Prudential Financial, which has a whole team—an in-house agency—dedicated to telling the most interesting and human stories coming out of of the 142-year-old organization.
The in-house agency was started more than 20 years ago, long before taking advertising in-house became a trend. It expanded its team over the years, and today Prudential’s agency has grown to 75-plus marketers nestled away in light-filled space on the sixth floor of the company’s corporate headquarters in Newark, N.J.
“We started off with the goal of consolidating media buying into one corporate center, and today we’re focusing on so much more than that,” said Niharika Shah, VP and head of brand marketing and advertising at Prudential, in an exclusive interview with CMO.com. “In addition to omnichannel advertising, we’re doing content marketing, social marketing, and influencer programs across the brand portfolio. We’re constantly looking at emerging trends, such as virtual reality, to assess potential.”
CMO.com met with Shah, the head of Prudential’s in-house agency, to discuss the role of the agency and the benefits of having it in-house. (Note: Shah will be presenting on this topic during the Marketing Innovations track at Adobe Summit 2017, March 19-23 in Las Vegas. Click here to view the agenda and register.)
CMO.com: Why the need to launch an in-house agency? Why not work with a third party, as brands have traditionally done?
Shah: The agency was initially set up to consolidate media buying across the Prudential businesses into one corporate center, if you will. Then once you buy media, you need creative capabilities, so we added on creative services. Around 10 to 12 years ago, the leadership at that time brought in an agency client services veteran, who brought the mindset of relationship management, that set us up as a trusted partner with our clients.
As Prudential and the CMOs across its different businesses realized that we can be bigger than the sum of our parts–and we actually are a branded house as opposed to a house of brands–the agency evolved, with the addition of the strategy and planning function. We became more of what I would call strategic partners with the business, their overall marketing and advertising strategy, and execution.
Since then, we’ve evolved our capabilities to keep up with the changing needs of the landscape. We’re doing content marketing, social marketing, influencer programs, and integrated media across the brand. We’re looking into VR and other emerging trends. We’re a high-performing agency team that is constantly tweaking on the edge to not only keep up, but also stay ahead. I honestly believe that what we do for the business, even though we’re on the cost side, is create a competitive edge. Part of creating that competitive edge is making sure that we’re future-proofing the brand. That requires investment in building capabilities, but also investment in time and talent development to make sure that we can keep up.
CMO.com: Can you walk me through the process? How does the retirement services division, for example, plan its marketing strategy? Where and how does the agency get involved?
Shah: We have an annual strategy and planning process with each of our individual businesses. That’s lead by the account and strategy folks, but the entire team participates. At that time, we think about the next year ahead. Where does the business want to make an impact? Is there any change in overall business strategy? Are there certain markets or certain segments within their business strategy that we need to pay closer attention to?
The toughest question always is: What is the role of advertising in that mix? Not everything can be supported by advertising. This is where judgment comes in, but that sets the course for the rest of the year. Then as we go into campaign ideation, storytelling, and conception, we work like any other agency would with their clients. Our clients are the various businesses throughout Prudential’s three main divisions: U.S. Retirement Solutions and Investment Management; U.S. Individual Life and Group Insurance; and the International Insurance Division.
CMO.com: So then the different divisions have their own marketing folks with whom you work closely?
Shah: Right. Each business has a CMO, and more now than ever, that role is paired with business strategy. Marketing has a seat at the strategy table when it comes to the overall business strategy itself. That’s a very affirmative statement that Prudential is making in each of its individual businesses, realizing and understanding the importance of marketing, especially in the context of what’s happening with consumer behavior and individuals having to make their own personal financial decisions, often through their employer benefit platforms.
In the old days, you had a pension plan, and you didn’t really need to know much about investment management or managing your 401(k) because your company planned all of that for you. That’s no longer the case. We at Prudential understand that we all need to come together in service of that individual, and that marketing and strategy will help define that new way of doing business. I think that’s one of the most fundamental business changes that Prudential is making.
CMO.com: What about external agencies? I know you work with Droga5. How do you decide what you’re going to use the external agency for versus what you will do in-house?
Shah: I’ll answer that question in two ways. One is when it comes to the entire master brand architecture, conceptually, Droga5 is our brand agency of record. We are brand marketing and advertising, the in-house function, so we are stewards of the brand, and we do everything that is below the line. However, in today’s world, that line is almost unrecognizable. At the end of the day, it’s less about who does what and more in terms of what do we need at this point in time, and what’s the best way we can get there?
That’s my mindset. It’s not about two agencies, one internal and one external. It’s two agencies that are extensions of each other. It works beautifully because that external perspective pulls us away from ourselves, but in-house the proximity that we have to the business, brand, and overall context of what’s happening in and around us keeps us grounded. That tension is where I think creative magic happens.
CMO.com: One of the biggest reasons brands build out internal agencies is the cost-effectiveness. What are some other benefits?
Shah: A primary benefit is our proximity to the business. We call it the in-house insight. I think of it as us owning the brand and being part of the business system, which helps us understand what could be a very complex web looking outside in. That definitely helps.
Secondly, part of it is just in terms of when you go from efficiency to effectiveness. It’s being able to connect the dots and amplify the investment that we’re making, and I don’t just mean from a media standpoint, but in terms of content. In today’s world, given the fluidity of the media landscape–the messaging, narrative, and storytelling–integration is elusive when you’re one of seven agencies working with a client. You can only solve a part of the problem because you’re given part of a solution. We don’t have a limited mandate. We are the agency. Ideas are unlimited. So when you’re sitting down with a strategist or producer or creative, you’re not restrained because you are the digital agency to come up with an idea for digital.
You’re coming up with an idea and then the channel–the omnichannel, multichannel, call it what you will–follows. I think that’s not only where better, bigger ideas are born, but also it’s hugely empowering for any talent coming in to have that kind of open canvas. And it’s more efficient. It’s balancing the effectiveness and the efficient equation; it’s sometimes easy to paint in-house functions with purely being an efficiency play, but that’s not a sustainable model because you could outsource this and gain even more efficiencies. It’s when you continue to add value from an effectiveness standpoint where it makes sense. That’s why it becomes a sustainable value-added function–a competitive edge.
CMO.com: You’re essentially saying you’ve tackled the silo problem, right?
Shah: Look, it’s not perfect. But the world is not siloed anymore and has no tolerance for insularity. To have a model–organizational model, talent model—to be able to look across and actually challenge the very notion of insularity, makes it exciting. Our opportunity is to connect the dots. Because of where we sit, that portfolio view of the business is really important in terms of what we’re able to achieve.
CMO.com: What about agility? I think every financial marketing executive I’ve spoken to has told me their biggest challenge has to do with legal and not being able to do things quickly enough.
Shah: I think our challenge remains in real time because we do run the risk as a financial services company to not get ahead of ourselves. So the checks and balances are there, but we’re very conscious of the fact that context and timeliness will win the game. That contributes to the overall value of what we’re trying to say. So we don’t necessarily always have to be first to market, but let’s endeavor be a valuable part of that conversation.
CMO.com: Let’s talk about the team. What types of skill sets do you have on board?
Shah: We’re about 75 people, which is really a good size agency. The team consists of client services, strategy and planning (including analytics), social, integrated production, video content development, creative, media, and operations.
CMO.com: What’s a really great piece of work that’s come from this in-house agency?
Shah: PGIM, Prudential's rebranded trillion-dollar investment management business, recently launched its first TV commercials: “Alpha Seekers” and “Urbanization.” These striking animated TV spots, created in-house, present PGIM's differentiated approach to capturing alpha for investors and identifying opportunities in long-term megatrends like urban expansion.
In October, Advertising Age named “Alpha Seekers” one of the top new ads recently aired on national TV. Now running on Bloomberg TV and CNBC, the spots are supported by print ads in The Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, digital ads on popular institutional investor sites, and targeted LinkedIn and Twitter posts. A 22-foot-tall digital animation in the Prudential Tower lobby encouraged visitors to look for the TV spots.
Also, Individual Life Insurance debuted four short films from the “Masterpiece of Love” series on Valentine's Day at Kiyo Sakaguchi Hall in Newark’s Prudential Tower, on Prudential.com, and in movie theaters around the country.
Honoring stories of love, loss and the resilient human spirit, each film features a survivor and a local artist who created artwork based on that person’s journey. The Masterpiece of Love website, which will play home to the films, is also building an online community that will offer related content and allow users to share memories and photos of loved ones to create a unique and collective digital work of art.
CMO.com: What’s your proudest moment since joining Prudential’s in-house agency?
Shah: When I see people grow and do things that they didn’t think were possible, and we’re able to create those opportunities for them, that gets me really excited. That translates into good work.
CMO.com: What’s your advice for companies thinking about taking marketing in-house?
Shah: I’ve always been a believer in show–don’t tell. Find a partner, a CMO, or a marketing organization within one of your businesses, or an executive who’s willing to get behind one campaign. If it is something that cuts across all the different businesses and you can demonstrate success, then it’s a matter of, “OK, let’s scale and build from there.” Start at the right place with the right outcome. I would go back to, are you looking to get more efficiency out of the system, or are you looking to show impact across the white spaces? Not to say that they’re mutually exclusive goals, but agree on the outcome and what it is that you’re looking to demonstrate.
I think anybody would tell you getting executive sponsorship is really important and as much buy-in as you can get from the businesses.