Can car insurance ever be made exciting? America’s second biggest car insurance brand and their long-serving agency has proved that at least its ads can. They’ve even taken the most tedious element of the internet – YouTube pre-rolls – and made them both entertaining and effective.

Kate Hollowood speaks to GEICO’s VP of marketing Ted Ward [above left] and the Martin Agency’s group creative director Steve Bassett [above right] about humour, human truths and the merits of their long-term working relationship – a stable partnership that’s outlasted many marriages

“Let’s come up with 10 seconds of compelling content so that if the audience were to skip the ad, who cares? They’ve already seen it.”

It’s not often you’ll hear a VP of marketing openly lambast their product. But GEICO’s Ted Ward does not beat around the bush. “Car insurance is a terrible product,” he says. “It’s the third most expensive thing you do. The first being buying your home, the second buying your car, the third insuring it. And the best thing that ever happens is you’re never going to use it.”

This down-to-earth approach and sympathy for the customer is at least partly the reason why the company has been the fastest-growing car insurance brand in the US for 12 years consecutively. But GEICO has been a challenger brand right from its inception. Back in 1936, when Leo and Lillian Goodwin founded the company, its direct-to-consumer business model was unheard of. When the Martin Agency pitched to GEICO in 1994, they proposed to use this business model to the company’s advantage and make the insurers number seven in their category. In fact, in the 23 years it’s worked with the agency, GEICO has grown five-fold and is now number two.

“It’s a very competitive business where you have to take the policy away from somebody else,” explains the Martin Agency’s group creative director Steve Bassett. “You can’t grow fast enough just with new drivers.” Two barriers to switching had to be overcome. People believed switching providers would cost them too much time and they didn’t believe the savings would be substantial enough to justify the effort. “Insurance is a category of inertia and low interest,” Bassett explains.


Above: GEICO squirrel, from the '15 minutes could save you 15 per cent' campaign.


At the time the agency and GEICO got together, insurance advertising was mostly emotionally charged and fearmongering. In order to cut through, the team decided to take a more rational approach, and the line ‘15 minutes could save you 15 per cent’ was born. “The non-emotional, left-brain tagline is the basis of everything we’ve done with GEICO since,” says Bassett.

Being something of an underdog, GEICO also had the freedom to play with the rules. So in place of the usual staid and sombre messaging they used humour. “It’s trying to take a relatively serious, not-so-exciting product and put a smile on it so that people at least consider us,” says Ward. “There was nobody doing humour at all. We stuck with that to be a little edgier and not quite as boring as the [rest of the] category.”

This approach lead to ideas like Hump Day, with the tagline ‘Happier than a Camel on Wednesday’, and the ‘So easy a caveman could do it’ series, starring an annoyingly jubilant office camel and offended cavemen respectively. Another long-running series started with a spot featuring an animated gecko holding a press conference to explain that he is a gecko, not GEICO, and would people please stop calling him.


Quickfire Q&A: Ted Ward

What’s your favourite ever ad? That spoof ad for used Aston Martins.

What product could you not live without? Beer.

What are your thoughts on social media? It’s social not commercial.

How do you relieve stress during a shoot? Multiple trips to craft services.

What’s the last film you watched and was it any good? The Big Lebowski. It was awesome… and awesomer the 24th time.

What’s your favourite piece of tech? A snow shovel with a curved shaft that helps your back.

What film do you think everyone should have seen? Pulp Fiction.

What fictitious character do you most relate to? Snoopy.

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be? A fishing boat captain.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know… I’m sensitive and caring.


Doing digital in a more human way

For a number of years GEICO had to be cautious with its advertising spend and put some of the agency’s ideas on hold. “We didn’t know if our infrastructure could handle the growth,” says Ward. “We had a great deal of difficulty, especially in the late 1990s, with managing the volume.” Being direct to consumer, the company relied on its workforce to sign up new customers, so the company was careful not to over-promote itself until more staff had been hired to manage the calls.

However, everything changed when the internet came along. Suddenly, customers were able to do much of the signing up themselves, relieving the brand’s operational resources. GEICO had a new opportunity for growth and, in turn, digital advertising became increasingly critical.

It soon became apparent that a lot of digital advertising sucked, especially YouTube pre-roll ads. “Companies were just taking a traditional 30-second video unit and cutting it down to 10 seconds,” says Ward. “So we asked the Martin folks to start the other way around. Let’s come up with 10 seconds of compelling content so that if the audience were to skip the ad, who cares? They’ve already seen it.”


 Above: GEICO Unskippable.

The Martin Agency rose to the challenge. “Instead of starting with the car insurance truth we always start with the human truth,” says Bassett, “which is that people don’t want to sit through pre-roll ads.” Launched in 2015, GEICO’s Unskippable pre-roll ads show viewers a story that they can’t skip because it’s already over. For example, the most famous spot shows a family sitting down to dinner. “Don’t thank me, thank the savings,” says the mother, before the whole family does a spoof ‘freeze frame’, at which point a St Bernard dog jumps onto the dinner table, causing chaos and smashing dishes, wolfing down spaghetti from the family’s plates, as their grins turn rictus and eyes shift nervously.

“There’s something to be said about long-term, stable relationships. There’s a need to respond to business objectives quickly, but it doesn’t have to change the people.”

Directorial duo Terri Timely styled the scenes to resemble stock photography clichés, a look and feel supported by intentionally stilted dialogue. Extended versions of the films show the scenes continuing for one minute. “Those that hung around, and a lot of people did, were rewarded with the GEICO sense of humour,” says Bassett.

The campaign transformed people’s perceptions of pre-rolls by successfully entertaining rather than aggravating viewers and it went on to scoop the Grand Prix in Film at Cannes Lions 2015.

Since then, the team has created two further pre-roll campaigns that build on the original format. “The brief was to do something just as good and be funny,” says Ward. No pressure, then. Of course, Bassett and his team delivered and last year GEICO launched its Fast Forward pre-rolls that cut out the middle part of a story so viewers can get to their video quicker. For example, one film begins with two fishermen talking about GEICO’s great customer service. Five seconds in, the scene jumps to the end and the men appear to have been captured and mounted on a wall by a fish. Extended versions of the films tell the stories in full.


Above: GEICO Fast Forward; Hiking


This year, the brand released Crushed, a series of pre-roll spots introduced with the line, ‘The following ad is being condensed for your viewing convenience.’ The sets, which range from the supermarket to a pottery class, are then literally crushed by a moving wall. Once again, extended versions of the 15-second pre-roll add more to the story.


Quickfire Q&A: Steve Bassett

What’s your favourite ever ad? The Lemon ad for VW. It changed everything.

What product could you not live without? None. But I’m happy somebody invented wine.

What are your thoughts on social media? It’s like any other medium except you can measure more precisely how many people don’t want to see boring advertising.

How do you relieve stress during a shoot? Stop staring at the monitor.

What’s the last film you watched and was it any good? Lion. I sobbed (yes, sobbed) at the ending.

What’s your favourite piece of tech? The iPhone. As a child of the 50s, it’s like a magic box.

What film do you think everyone should have seen? Chinatown.

What fictitious character do you most relate to? Sleepy. I’m a little jet-lagged at the moment.

If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be? The David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin of dialogue.

Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know… I once had a summer job working in an aircraft plant.


Be consistent, clear and unafraid to say it sucks

According to Bassett, Ward is the best client he has ever worked with. The fact that the VP of marketing started out at an agency has helped them see eye-to-eye, while his long tenure at GEICO has enabled the agency to benefit from his consistent and strong leadership. “Ted has steered this ship for 33 years. Often with CMOs and other marketing executives, it’s like a revolving door every four to five years with somebody new.”

“Is that a polite way of saying I’m old?” Ward jibes, going on to explain that the Martin Agency has also been very consistent with its staff over the years. “There’s something to be said about long-term stable relationships,” says Ward. “I think part of our success has been this lack of a need to change quickly. There’s a need to respond to business objectives quickly, but it doesn’t have to change the people.”


Above: GEICO Crushed; Supermarket


While unchanging in terms of people and culture, GEICO and the Martin Agency’s working process is more flexible. The GEICO team may chip in with ideas about the creative and each challenge is approached in a different way. Ward is also against pre-testing, as he believes it can slow down the creative process. “We want to take our best educated guess and then put it in the marketplace and see how it rolls,” he explains.

As an alternative way of measuring the work, twice a year GEICO runs a survey to monitor consumer response to its creative and specific characters used in the ads. Doing so has led to interesting revelations. For example, one year it revealed how people had grown tired of the once-popular Maxwell the Pig character. “He had a very obnoxious ‘ooooweeeeeeee’,” says Ward. Having run their course, Maxwell and his annoying squeals were axed. The gecko continues to be the brand’s most loved character, but the team want to use it sparingly so that it doesn’t have to face the same fate as the pig.

The familiarity and warmth between Ward and Bassett is clear, as is how their rapport encourages creativity. “I don’t think the folks at Martin take any of our comments personally, as insensitive as I can be,” says Ward. “They’re not afraid to show ideas, but we’re not afraid to tell them that an idea sucks. And if it does, we just say go at it again and let’s get it right next time,” he continues. “That looser process has allowed us to get better creative work. And the matching of strategic objectives to the creative is where the strength of the relationship has played out.”

Any final thoughts? “Sure. Steve, you’re fired.”

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