The conversation: Direct Line's Evans and Saatchi & Saatchi's Huntington on revolutionary thinking

In our latest monthly feature about marketers talking to their agency partners, Direct Line's Mark Evans and Saatchi & Saatchi's Richard Huntington discuss beating first impressions and big thinking in a neglected sector.

Direct Line’s "Winston Wolf" campaign overturned the assumptions of insurance advertising when it was created by Saatchi & Saatchi in 2014. 

Campaign brought together Mark Evans, marketing director of Direct Line Group (pictured on the left), and Richard Huntington, chairman and chief strategy officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, to talk muggings, protests and taking a leap of faith.

Banana republic

ME: I don’t know if you remember but I arrived on pitch day, absent-mindedly checking my email. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a gorilla. It was some sort of environmental protest happening on the street and I didn’t think too much of it. In fact, I sent a video of it to my kids – but I think, as an agency, you were super paranoid.

RH: This Greenpeace protest outside the agency... on pitch day. Certain parts of our new-business department went into complete meltdown. But maybe it’s just the rich tapestry of agency life.

ME: But as far as my first impressions went, the thing that characterised your approach was that you really listened to the brief. We were saying we wanted a revolution in insurance, and you really meant it in your response to us, whereas some of the other agencies didn’t. 

RH: But I remember a slightly dicey chemistry meeting – I couldn’t have called it.

ME: Yes, it probably wasn’t going so well because you were expecting us to want to hear something quite steady and safe. Early chemistry can be a bit awkward – finding
out how genuine a new potential client is in their intent.

Travel trouble

ME: But, despite the gorilla, I had a good feeling about it. Then there was a moment when you really let rip about what you thought was wrong with the industry and used the example of being mugged in Vietnam.

RH: I’ve subsequently called this "method planning". I was in Vietnam just before the pitch, and I had my phone stolen on the street by someone on a moped. And when I got back to the hotel, all my bags had been stolen from the concierge. There were two responses around me. One from a client, who was very empathetic and sympathetic. The other was from an account handler at another agency, who didn’t offer any sympathy but just gave me their laptop to get into my iCloud, and their phone to call my wife. I realised in that moment that maybe, when the shit hits the fan, when things go wrong, insurance is there to look after you – you don’t want a shoulder to cry on but someone to sort it out. 

ME: I love the notion of method planning, and it’s entirely generalisable.

RH: Insight comes from the real, and I find it easier to get from real people. Great insights are visceral, not manufactured, and I think great insight is harder and harder to find in conventional research.

Revolutionary thinking

RH: Insurance isn’t everybody’s idea of fun and laughs is it?  

ME: I didn’t grow up dreaming of working in insurance – but that’s because I didn’t know anything about it. There’s a lot to love about insurance. It’s not baked beans or toothpaste – not to be too denigratory – but, in the end, this is people’s lives, their livelihoods. The sector has really been neglected – in terms of the basic principles of marketing – for two decades, which makes it ripe for revolution. And it’s at the confluence of all the major technology trends that are coming down the track. 

You seem to be eternally curious and to love new ideas and the big thinking that exists in the world  – where does that come from?

RH: I’d say that what drives me much more is a dislike and distaste for orthodoxy and cliché. My upbringing wasn’t that conventional – my parents gave up their careers and we went to live in penury in Somerset. What came out of it was that I just hate the commonplace and the accepted wisdom, and that’s not a bad thing
as a strategist.

ME: You’ve also got to convince other people, though – how did you cut your teeth doing that?

RH: A lot for me is about passion and being immersed and involved. I learned that while working on a brand consultancy project for Iceland in the late 1990s. You could see the board was thinking "here comes that Soho advertising wanker" and there was nothing I could do about that – but what I could do was be far more passionate about the brand and business than they were.

Success versus significance

RH: You’ve talked about being driven by a combination of personal beliefs and values – where did they come from? 

ME: There was a pivotal moment on the night of my graduation, when my best friend’s father gave a speech to five of us. He said: "As I look before you I’m jealous because, from this position, you can achieve almost anything.
But, at the same time, I pity you because for
20 years you’ll go after success and, after all those years, you’ll realise it’s not about success but significance." 

RH: And did you have 20 years of success and then figure out significance?

ME: I think it haunted all of us positively. It gave me a roundedness to realise it’s about performance and influence simultaneously. The smart people figure out how to achieve success and significance simultaneously. 

‘I shot Marvin in the face!’

ME: There was a moment [in the pitch] that really nailed it. You’d recorded an extremely good Harvey Keitel impersonator giving a message to everyone in the client pitch team, telling them why they should act in favour of the campaign. It signalled confidence and also showed how the idea had richness and depth.

RH: When a creative responds to a brief or a thought with something you could never have come up with yourself as a planner, that’s one of the moments of sheer joy. Paul Silburn, our executive creative director at the time, said what this is about is fixing things, and it’s a bit like Winston Wolf in Pulp Fiction, when they blow the brains out of that guy in the Chevy.

ME: Marvin.

RH: Yes, Marvin! So it started as an analogy, and a lot of the process was taming that into an advertising idea.

ME: On pitch day, how sure were you that you could actually get Harvey?

RH: We went in having spoken to his agent and knowing in principle that he was up for doing it. The tricky bit was negotiating with [Pulp Fiction writer and director] Quentin Tarantino and Miramax. And we always had contingency plans – but I believe passionately that nothing else would have worked as well.