A view from Mark Evans

Direct Line marketing chief: Leadership means putting your head where it hurts

Evans is chief marketing and communications officer at Direct Line Group. He joined the insurer in 2012, having previously been head of customer management, retail banking...

Having a talented team doesn’t guarantee success

Ahead of a successful 2003 Rugby World Cup campaign, England coach Clive Woodward said to his players: "If you want to win – it’s gonna hurt."

This is a good representation of what it takes to be a good leader. Rugby is a game of diversity and camaraderie and, like leadership, it requires you to put your head where it hurts.

Fast forward to 2016 and the England rugby team have spent more than a decade lurching from one failed Six Nations or World Cup campaign to another. They’ve lacked the influence of a leader like Woodward. Now the current England coach Eddie Jones is transforming the team’s fortunes.

Inspiring the best from good talent can only come from great leadership – someone with authority and gravitas. It is only from that place that you can have the personal authority to inspire others.

You need to have exceptional 'bouncebackability'

I was made redundant from my graduate job before I had even started it (a result of the merger of Lloyds and TSB). I dusted myself down and decided not to pursue a career in finance. Instead, I chose marketing and joined Mars.

After ten years there, I took voluntary redundancy rather than move abroad with my young family. Later, at HSBC, my role ran out of road as a result of a restructure. These experiences were wounding at the time but built my resilience.

Marketing needs to take centre stage

I have maintained the same philosophy of marketing throughout my career, ingrained in me from my days at Mars, where marketing was a strategic leadership function with full profit-and-loss ownership. In all my subsequent roles, I have attempted to turn a marcoms function into a strategic marketing one.

At DLG that has meant expanding the team into new capabilities including PR, social media, propositions and customer experience. As a result, the marketing has become commercially robust. This team has done a brilliant job of delivering the reboot of the Direct Line brand.

Belief in the ‘big idea’

The other defining aspect of marketing at Mars was its belief in the big idea. "Freedom" is one of its founding principles. It was this notion of a big idea that was the starting point for the Direct Line reboot.

For too long, the insurance sector had focused upon price and the point of purchase to the exclusion of everything else. So while everyone else "zigged", we "zagged" and depositioned the rest of the category by making the point of need the hero.

We became the "fixer" brand, differentiating ourselves and restoring brand leadership.

Motivation is key

This was not an easy journey. After a very significant restructure in 2013, the marketing team was at a low ebb with the lowest engagement scores in the company.

To realise the potential of the brand, it was necessary to restore pride and belief so that creativity and bravery could flourish. I made this one of my primary focuses, prioritising investment in capability and communication to increase the potency of the team.

It was not a single act that made this happen but a concerted effort in personal development plans, inspiration from external speakers and the measurement and coaching of people managers. Staff engagement scores increased so much that they are now in the top decile of the organisation.

Raising the bar

While we have achieved some brilliant successes in recent years, there is still much to be done, not least because developments in data and digital are rapidly changing the world of insurance.

The advent of the internet of things is likely to transform insurance through both driverless cars and connected homes. We need to keep raising the bar in our capability to stay fit for whatever arises. This requires talent management and succession planning to continue the momentum.

We have fought so hard to turn around a decline in the Direct Line brand that it would be a tragedy to become complacent and let momentum dissipate.

Evans is chief marketing and communications officer at Direct Line Group. He began his career at Mars and has held marketing positions at 118 118.