AIG CMO David May on Creating Killer Content in the Insurance Industry

Creating content is never easy. Creating content in a regulated industry, well, that’s a challenge only for the most audacious souls.

David May knows this as well as anyone. Previously the managing director of global marketing and branding at Goldman Sachs and a graduate of Harvard Business School, May is now the corporate CMO at AIG, where he oversees the multinational insurance company’s nascent content efforts.

This July, Contently co-founder Shane Snow sat down for a fireside chat with May, who detailed AIG’s marketing strategy and answered questions from an audience of fellow insurance content marketers. Snow and May also discussed some of the key questions facing marketers in the insurance industry, such as how to package your content for optimal value, how marketing has and hasn’t changed in the digital age, and why you should always take compliance seriously.

In an interview with your colleague Christina Pretto [Senior Vice President, Corporate Communications at AIG] you said, “we are making big bets on our brand.” What did you mean by that?

Are there many media agencies here, or advertising agencies, or anything like that? No? Okay, good [laughs]. We’re making big bets, but we’re not making them in a way that a major global network would think is big. We’re making them rather in terms of being intent on the organization. I’m not going to run out and spend 2 billion dollars, or a billion and change for one market. We don’t really see that as being part of our strategy or part of our need.

What we are doing is making big bets in terms of strategic positioning, and the way we go about doing things at AIG. It’s going to be a little bit different from what we’ve traditionally done as a large organization, which is promote entrepreneurial growth, acquisitions, and other things to build a brand that had a very powerful position. But we didn’t have a lot of the strategic infrastructure—the sinews, the muscle tissue, that connected all of those things together.

That’s what we’re engaged in, is building that kind of infrastructure; though I don’t like using the word “infrastructure” because immediately we all go to sleep. Practices and programs that can help AIG Direct, which sells term life insurance, be integrated with the annuities business, or with our Lexington Insurance business that’s writing policies for social services organizations. Oh, and by the way, large multinationals like many of you may work for, who need insurance. How do you bring all of that together in a way that makes some kind of sense? Hopefully we’ll be able to do that.

Sounds like a pretty tough task.

Oh yeah, it is.

You’re up against a lot of interesting challenges, a lot of big challenges. How does content play into the way you think about brand, or you think about these challenges?

I think about content in a fairly straightforward fashion, which is anything that adds value to somebody who you want to do business with that is in some way consistent with the brand image that you’re trying to build. I’m comfortable saying that the 30 second TV ad is content. I’m comfortable measuring it that way. It’s very different content than the three page whitepaper, or infographic, or video, or whatever you may be looking at. It adds a different kind of value than any of those pieces of content can, but I think packaged goods brand valuations are a good example of why you have to look at a 30 second TV ad and say, “yes, it is content that adds value.”

The interesting thing to me is how that has changed over time, and how the definition of content has broadened. The ways you can deliver content has broadened, and the demands it places on the organization have broadened as well. You can do a 30 second TV ad, but you need 10 people involved, maybe. When you’ve got a content engine up, doing the kinds of content that we all think about nowadays, that’s a lot of people, a lot of effort, a lot of work, a lot of negotiation with marketing partners, with distribution partners, with compliance people, with legal people, with superiors, with juniors, with people who are running the event that goes along with that piece of content. It’s a really complicated task.

There’s a prominent section on the AIG website called the Knowledge & Insights Center. It looks like there’s some how-to, some opinion and analysis on the industry. What’s the story behind that?

That didn’t exist 9 months ago, that part of the site. Some of the content there existed, but it had been developed in service of individual product marketing programs. It sat in various parts of our site, and as long as we supported it with the marketing behind it, or the event, or the sales initiative, whatever it may have been, it got traffic. But, it sat in that chair right there, and a visitor to AIG sitting in this chair had no reason to travel over here to sit in that chair. So what’s the point?

We were originally looking at doing a content partnership with a major multinational media property. They would create a content hub, and we would pay them to write content for it. Then they would try to drive traffic to it somehow, but that development and the degree of commitment would of course be dependent on brand dollars. My question to the team that brought this was, “Okay this actually makes sense, but what happens once they click on that piece of content and they decide they want to learn more about AIG but its not on this content hub that this third party is managing for us? Where do they go?”

There was nowhere to go, right? Nowhere useful, nowhere profitable, nowhere valuable for the organization, nowhere valuable for the individual. What we decided to do, and the media partner wasn’t happy about this, but we refocused our efforts, and we said, “First of all, let’s aggregate our content.” We aggregated it, we created some sort of categories for it. Frankly it was just a way to get started and start learning.

We saw our downloads and traffic increase once we aggregated. Pieces of content that hadn’t been look at in months all of a sudden became looked at, because we gave it some prominence, we gave it some context, we gave it some support. Even by just putting them all in the same basic room in the house. Then after a month, after we kind of saw what happens when it’s just purely organic, we started supporting the social media and traffic and downloads doubled. Just by starting to push a little bit of the stuff out there, just to see what would happen. We did that, and that was nice, that worked well.

Then we dropped some [financial] support behind social to see what happened and boom, right through the roof. It was amazing. Advertising works, it really works. You support something, and you tell people that there’s something there that they may be interested in. They’ll respond, so we use that to test different advertising vehicles, to test different social media platforms, to test different content. What content draws, what content doesn’t? We could learn about what we’re doing even before we started to invest significant organizational resources behind developing content, which is the terrifying thing we have to live with.

You mentioned the fleet of stakeholders, and lawyers, and everyone who are involved with compliance…

Specifically the Atlantic fleet, the Pacific fleet… we have many fleets.

Which ones have you infiltrated so far?

All of them [laughs].

How does content make it through the fleets? Risk is the opposite of what an insurance company stands for.

Are we speaking on the record?

Who’s taking notes? Dillon?

Okay, Dillon? Close the laptop for a minute, will you [Editor’s note: I did close my laptop, but I was recording on my phone. Sorry David.] Okay, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s consensus building, it’s what anybody has to do. Within an organization, you have to be able to both manage the consensus building part of it, which you need to do, but you also have to manage the ability. It’s not just about bringing everybody together, sometimes it’s also about acting. You have to be able to put this Knowledge and Insight Center out there. We knew it was good, we knew it was useful. We knew if we just did it, we could have something we could show people, and then you could start to build some enthusiasm, and some excitement around it, and some of, “I guess this isnt’t as bad as I thought it might be,” around it. Sorry Dillon, that wasn’t really all that secretive [laughs].

So instead of asking permission of the lawyers…

Whoa, whoa, no. I will never forget when I was at South by Southwest three or four years ago, and there was a panel on entrepreneurship and regulatory environment. There were 3 people on the panel [two from banks and one what we now call the sharing economy], and the question came up, “is it better to ask permission or forgiveness?” You can guess that one of the panel participants said, ” Oh forgiveness, there’s no question, otherwise you never get anything done. You ask forgiveness.” Then the guy from the bank says, “How do you feel about jail?”

That was real. If you’re in a regulated environment, you’re an idiot if you don’t bring your legal team and your compliance team along with you. You’ve got to, because you’re playing with something really significant and really serious which is the company’s reputation, its permission to do business, and not to mention your career.

I assume that several people here are trying to figure out what’s the optimal way to structure the way you internally go about creating content. I understand you have 1,000 person team, maybe even 1,500. How is that structured for you, and how do you think about that?

It’s whatever it takes to get it done and that’s your team. Sometimes there’s a virtual team based on the piece of content. I think what we’re kind of experimenting with first is the platform building, so that there’s a place to put this stuff. There’s a certain kind of quality that you’re aspiring to as you do that. One of the things that our CEO told me when we first told him what we were doing and how we were doing was “don’t let everything up there.” Basically he was a big supporter of a very strong editorial hand. Just because somebody does content, doesn’t mean that they make it broadly valuable.

It’s a combination of taking what we find, hunting and gathering, but then also looking at what the conversations are in the industry. We’re identifying topics that we might want to write about. We’re going out and figuring out what would our angle be, and who would the appropriate spokesperson for this be within AIG and then we write it. We give it to them, we get their professional input. Sometimes it starts with an interview, sometimes it starts with an article that they respond to, just to get a quote. Then we work closely with our compliance and legal partners to figure out, how do we craft this in a way that makes sense?

As you look at how buzzy content is, what are you excited about? What do you think the future holds?

I’ve got no idea. Really, if I had an idea I would have retired 15 years ago. I just think it’s going to hold interest. Personally, professionally… It’s going to be interesting, whatever the hell it is.

For a marketer, the world we all live in right now is, in many ways, totally different from the world that I joined a long time ago. In some ways it’s important to remember that some things will remain consistent. When websites were first being developed, I remember sitting with a client we were pitching, who we had no business pitching them for a website. The only confidence we had was that nobody else had any business doing it either. They were saying, “it’s got to be perfect right off the back, because people are going to come once, and if they don’t like what they see, they’re never going to come back.”

That’s just not true. All you have to do to get somebody to come back is give them something that offers value. So some of the truisms will remain, which is add value in some way. Intellectually, emotionally, practically add value. People will respond—it’s really quite simple.

[Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.]

Image by Richard Drew
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