“It was the worst possible time to start a business. But we did.”
The time was January 2007. The words, orated by Richard Look, describe the actions of an ambitious few at Venture Programs who were responsible for the creation of Vertibrands, the organization for which he serves as president.
Frequent accolades for marketing initiatives at Venture were the genesis of Vertibrands — an outsourced marketing and communications firm.
“The plan was to take what was working for Venture and provide the same model to non-competing MGAs,” says Look.
“Non-competing.” That’s the source of the apprehension shown by many prospective clients. One reason for skepticism is that the stable of programs offered by larger managing general agencies makes competition among clients seem unavoidable. Another is that Vertibrands shares a parent with Venture Programs: Both are subsidiaries of Inventure. Thus, there is concern that Vertibrands will pit clients against each other or that its primary mission is to feed Venture at their expense.
But Look explains that the firm’s model is specifically designed to mitigate such fears. “We treat Venture as a client. If any current or potential Vertibrands client offers or introduces a program competitive to that of any of our active clients, including Venture, we don’t panic. Our model is to carve out that competitive piece and source it out to another marketing firm.”
Look says potential conflicts are typically identified up front and may cause some prospective clients to be turned down. Opportunities that qualify are secured by confidentiality and non-compete agreements that extend to all affiliate companies of Vertibrands, including Venture. To date, the firm has experienced only one instance where one client introduced a program that competed with another client. “We outsourced the planning, media and creative aspect of that particular program while retaining the unaffected programs,” he says.
MGAs seek out Vertibrands for access to Look’s team of strategic planners and project managers. Services also include public relations, copywriting, graphic design and Web development. The idea is to help MGAs enhance their brand without the hefty expense of an in-house, full-service sales and marketing force.
“MGAs often don’t get the chance to regularly visit retailers like a carrier’s sales force would,” Look says. “To create this force could cost millions. We allow those MGAs to create a sales force for minimal cost in comparison.”
Each client has a dedicated, unique look created specifically for the program(s) they manage. The MGA pays a flat service fee for project management with additional costs for PR, creative work, Web design and other services as requested.
“A small client may benefit from a guerilla social media effort; whereas, another may require more mass awareness through emails and ad banners. The approach is customized by the client’s objectives and budget to be most beneficial.” They also gain access to Vertibrands’ buying power with several media outlets, helping clients leverage their advertising budget, Look says.
The benefits of Vertibrands’ services are not exclusive to its MGA clients. The firm created “CAST” (Customized Agency Sales Tools) for retailers hoping to place business through an MGA’s program. Retailers can access CAST through the websites of several Vertibrands’ clients. The retailer is then transferred to the CAST site where a profile is created. Information from the profile is automatically dropped into sales and marketing materials for any participating MGA’s program. The materials are customized with the retailer’s logo and contact information and can be emailed or printed for direct distribution. The CAST service is accessible to any retailer for free.
“Through CAST, a retailer can review all the programs a specific MGA has available for sale. Additionally, the retailer can select from a list of other industry programs available from other MGAs that are Vertibrands’ clients,” Look says. “Most retailers we hear from are surprised at the breadth of programs they have access to through an existing MGA relationship.”
Look says CAST has been very successful for MGAs promoting their products on an open market basis. However, some clients choose to use CAST on an individual basis for their preferred or appointed agents. If requested, the materials can be customized by insured rather than by agency. “An agent who approaches an insured with CAST materials helps enhance their image as a specialist, and that’s something insureds prefer,” he says.
The firm has experienced steady growth in its relatively short existence, and response from clients has been largely positive. Look believes this is because most can’t afford to carry their own full-time marketing staff or in some cases simply choose not to—a concept with which he is all too familiar. “Our COO once said to me: ‘I used to look at marketing as nothing more than an expense, but now I look at you as the most productive guy at our company,’” he says.
It appears a growing number of MGAs concur.