As every industry tackles the complicated shifts necessary to get fit for a digital future, it’s essential that marketers develop the antennae to distinguish between real customer-focused innovation and shiny new technological advancement that may with no real value.
Mark Till has been a leading marketer in the UK financial services and insurance industries for nearly three decades. As the Chief Distribution and Marketing Director for Aegon’s UK operation, he is in charge of the sales and marketing teams as well as anything to do with driving revenue for one of the country’s largest pension and investment companies.
Aegon, a group that spans 28 countries globally, provides pension and investment services to more than 3.5m UK customers and takes care of about £150bn of UK customers’ money.
In a competitive environment that Till says is the most interesting and fun of a career spanning experience at Barclays, Standard Life and Fidelity Worldwide Investment, the pressure to evolve digitally is enormous.
Till bursts into life when describing the progress his department is leading for Aegon in this area but not before issuing a warning to all marketers concerned with digital transformation.
“There’s always a danger that you’ll look at something new and think ‘I’ll grab hold of that because I’ll look innovative’ and I don’t think innovation for the sake of innovation is a good thing.”
“Innovation is good if it helps your customers, in our case financial advisers, improve their business. If it doesn’t do that, why would I want to get involved with the next new thing? Would it be so I’m able to tell my boss or head office that I’m doing something exciting?”
Despite this measured view, Till is excited by the capabilities of new technology to change the shape of financial services marketing and the market as a whole and is talking amid what he describes as wholesale change to the financial services and pensions industry.
“To keep up I just think you’ve got to wake up every single day thinking ‘I’ve got to make my technology better in the next year. I’ve got to make it ten times better. You can’t have the technology there in the business and stand still taking it for granted. Our standards and benchmarks are constantly being changed and challenged by brands outside of our industry. We need to bring those approaches in and make sure our businesses live up to the standards people have set.”
Till argues that there’s been more innovation in financial services marketing in the past five years than there was in the preceding 20 years. “New digital interfaces create a totally different way of engaging with people and bring you totally new audiences and new competitors. People didn’t see this industry as interesting before. Now, like any other industry we are having our standards set by the likes of Amazon.”
With the myriad of change whirling around the market, Till again checks himself to remind anyone who will listen that the need to be customer-centric must remain the ultimate goal. “We have to be dynamic but it goes hand in hand with being careful. We spend a lot of time with our customers. Our advisers are constantly trying to understand whether what’s coming along next will help their businesses or not. If it will then we look to embrace it quickly. And if not then hopefully some of my competitors will play with it for a bit and waste some money.”
The big, hot challenge facing the financial services and pensions industry, says Till, is how to manage the shift from an old world “dominated by paper”, to a fast-moving digital environment and how to do it at real genuine scale so that we can bring costs to customers down and cost to advisers down.
“If I looked at pensions and investments 15 years ago, everything was done manually with pieces of paper. As a customer, you might have had to manage many different relationships with a variety of financial services companies for different products. Customers now demand simplicity and speed as well as service. They want ease and security, they want content, they want a one-stop shop that they can trust.”
“Our job at Aegon is to provide more and more services to help advisers develop that multi-faceted kind of business offering.”
It is this level of transformational requirement that drove Chief Executive Adrian Grace and the leadership team to start thinking about Aegon, less as just a pensions provider and more as a technology platform business.
The recent acquisition of Legal & General’s Cofunds platform, a digital technology that makes Aegon twice the size of its next largest competitor according to Till, adds the scale that will allow reinvestment back into the business to improve the customer experience. “That’s the game change that I can now take into this market.”
Till also retains a keen interest in the ideas and technologies coming out of the growing number of Fintech startups around the world. Where the popular business narrative suggests that businesses like his should feel threatened by the smaller, more agile businesses, he says he actually feels inspired by them.
He comments that the structural nature of the industry means that there is a valuable symbiotic relationship between the large financial services giants and the startup scene.
“My observation about the industry is that it generally isn’t at the cutting edge of technology developments but is a very good copier of good ideas. We’re good at taking ideas and leveraging them at scale.”
“So actually if you look at some of the apps that the banks have got I think they are genuinely brilliant. Do I think that they would have come up with those had there not been some challenger propositions coming into the market? Probably not. But I still think it’s very hard for small businesses to become big businesses. What they tend to do is to get swallowed by a large business or their ideas are copied and then scaled.”
To this end, Aegon has a 100 million euro venture capital fund with which it takes stakes in small entrepreneurial businesses where innovations may have some applicability to Aegon customers. “We invest in them, we watch and help them learn and develop, and then we take the ideas on and scale them across our global customer base.
Till describes the journey that Aegon has been on. “When advisors give their customers’ money to a company like Aegon the most important thing is that the money is safe, that they can get their hands on it at any point and they can always see that the money’s available to them. That trust and security is the number one thing.
“Once they’re comfortable with that, the next thing they want to know is: ‘is this arrangement going to be easy for my business to interact with?’ because this is a decision that a business may make every 10 years. We need to be there for our customers now but also as they evolve in the long run. It takes a technology platform to be able to accommodate evolution – to understand and improve with our customers as we continue to make their lives easier and help their businesses grow.”