Esurance Wants To Stay Master Of Its Own Data Domain

Nothing succeeds in a crowded mosh pit of a show like SXSW more than the occasional cheer from a corner of the crowd. Insurance provider Esurance, one of the major sponsors of the event, seems to have tapped into that vibe well enough this year. As part of the #esuranceaccess program for the brand here, the company hosted a huge “glove box” that spit out instant prizes – from iPads to Xboxes. Hence the cheers. And the long line of attendees taking their shot to scan the #esuranceaccess for a shot at a prize.

A sponsorship like this is a pure extension of brand identity, CMO Alan Gellman told me this weekend at the event. “Insurance for the modern world is not just a tagline,” he said. The company was built on tech 15 years ago and promotes itself as especially tech-savvy. The #esuranceaccess program offered users at SXSW personalized recommendations for which panels they should attend -- the same way it recommends via algorithms the best insurance options for customers.



Gellman admits that the tech-heavy, automated approach to buying insurance may not be right for a 50-something like me who likes knowing who his local agent is. But the brand’s main audience -- the 30-ish and 40-ish demo -- is much more comfortable having most processes handled by well-oiled (or programmed) online machines. That's why Allstate invested in the company. Proving the technology works and that it still leaves the customer in total control of the process, is core to Esurance's branding mission.

Data is at the center of Esurance, largely because it is a digital endemic not hobbled by legacy systems. Gellman, who came over last year from Wells Fargo, appreciates working with digital-native systems. The company has its own home-built DMP. “We built our own algorithms,” he said proudly. The company doesn't use third-party software or agency trading desks. “We manage our own keywords and campaigns.” Company strategists know exactly how their own in-house program performs compared to outside systems, whose impact they've tested. Other systems "can’t beat us,” said Gellman

Still, he admitted that while the company is “great” at search and affiliate marketing, for now it's merely “good” at programmatic buying. But part of the project now is to bring that deep expertise in precision marketing and transfer that talent to  programmatic buying.

And why isn’t Esurance working with trading desks and the ad tech ecosystem? Well, in addition to performance, it is very much a matter of trust and transparency, Gellman said. As we reported yesterday from SXSW, Gellman is blunt about the weaknesses in the programmatic supply chain. “There is limited transparency. Look at the ecosystem," he said. "The players in that space can get tremendous margins because they understand the data and targeting even better than their client, whether it is the agency or the marketer.”

The industry talks a good game about transparency, but clearly there is little incentive built into the system. Providers know “they are better off to keep it cloaked,” he said And he warns the supply chain that as other brands get better educated about their own data and the technology, more marketers will look to control their own programmatic destiny.

And with Esurance having mastery of its own data, programmatic buying and costs, Gellman is looking forward to the migration of these automated systems to bigger screens. “You can’t not get to programmatic TV,” he says.  The TV upfronts are “as old-school as you can get.” Direct buying and personal relationships will not die, but he fully expects much of the old system to wither over time. His challenge is how to bring all of the data Esurance is  amassing online “upstream” to TV.

But as we look at the prospect of having the greatest branding vehicle yet invented see its media-centric model shift to audience-based buying, I had to ask Gellman: Whither context? “We don’t know,” he admitted. “We know there are times when context gives us greater lift and other times when it doesn’t.” More work needs to be done to distinguish when simple efficiency should drive the buy, and when the context really is having an impact.  But while digital technology has been focused mostly on performance, “I do believe there is a great brand value to digital investments. And people keep trying to prove it,” he said.

And unlike many other companies where traditional and digital marketing are still separate, “we are not," he said. "We have people doing both at the same time. We think we have an opportunity to take advantage of that.”

There is a lot of discussion internally about integration, he added: “It is something many marketers and agencies are talking about, but pulling it off is really hard.”  Esurance doesn’t pretend to have cracked the code of true integrated marketing, but Gellman is pretty sure one of the company’s existing disciplines gives it a leg up: It depends on both traditional and digital marketers learning from each other and having some shared skill sets. Integration is not so much implemented as something deeper, built from the team up.

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