Most Creative Marketers
Most Creative Marketers: Phoebe Barter
Aviva’s group brand director talks about building communities, Manchester’s new arts venue, and her 'best in the world' agency partner adam&eveDDB
13 July 2023
Phoebe Barter thinks about the ostrich approach a lot. It’s a technical term – she jokes – for when we stick our heads in the sand rather than deal with our personal finances.
“I think it's a real human truth, and actually, if I look inside myself, is something that I'm guilty of as well. It's a common truth for all of us,” she says.
So it was no surprise to Barter when Aviva’s research uncovered this truth when the marketing team was mining for insights to inform its latest campaign, Make It Click, developed with Adam & Eve DDB, which centres around solving financial puzzles.
“Finance is hard, it's confusing. It feels like there are only certain types of people who understand it, it’s not accessible for everyone. It feels like you really need someone to come along and offer help. And that was the driving insight behind the campaign creative, that Aviva can help solve your financial puzzles, because there's that fantastic feeling when things click into place,” Barter says.
The approach seems especially salient in these times of tough economic headwinds, when Aviva is keen to present itself as the brand that can help. Landing the message in a way that wasn’t tone-deaf to consumers’ fiscal challenges was a big issue for Barter, who launched the integrated campaign on Boxing Day 2022, having joined the financial services brand the previous January.
“It's an inflationary environment and the situation we find ourselves in, whether it be geo-political, or the state of the things going on in the UK, is tough. We knew we needed to recognise that some people were choosing between heating and eating, it was cold and grim outside and people are struggling to put food on the table. Let's not be frivolous. And let's not be flippant. Let's show that we understand, and we're here to help,” Barter says.
Economic headwinds were also a consideration for the campaign’s media plan, by Publicis Media, through which Barter needed to reach audiences in the most effective ways, while still being responsible with the brand’s funding. Early econometric analysis from the campaign shows a strong sales uplift across Aviva’s General Insurance and Life business areas and an increase in short-term ROI compared to the previous campaign in 2021.
“We've exceeded our targets across the board,” says Barter. “We’ve achieved five- and two-year highs across many of our brand health metrics and are seeing sustained uplifts across all brand metrics. The campaign is connecting with customers in a way that perhaps Aviva hasn't been able to do before.”
Marketing across three continents
And after only six months, it’s a strong result given that financial services is typically a low engagement category, proving that the Aviva brand is safe in the hands of Barter, whose CV reads like the who’s-who of top financial services names, with Amex, Visa, and Barclays all making appearances across her 20 years as a marketer.
As a straight-talking antipodean with experience living and working in Sydney, New York – during the 2008 banking crisis – and London, which she now calls home, Barter would love to claim planning and foresight in her decision to enter financial services marketing. But she admits she fell into it, having worked on the Visa International account, which coincided with the brand’s sponsorship of the Rugby World Cup, hosted at the time by Australia in 2003.
She describes it as “a fantastic introduction to advertising, marketing, sponsorship, creative, studio; the whole kit and caboodle. I had a fantastic time there. Then it just so happened that AmEx was recruiting for a job that looked interesting to me.”
At AmEx, Barter began a 10-year stint that spanned advertising, sponsorship, and a chief of staff role which included strategy, new product development and communications. It ended up, she says, being “a succession of fantastic roles and opportunities that carried me through financial services.” Barter then moved to Barclays, where she spent eight years directing the brand.
So having always worked in financial services marketing, would she ever think of a different sector?
“I always thought I would step outside of financial services, I still do. I would love my next role to be outside of financial services, maybe Formula 1, my favourite sport, or retail or entertainment such as Disney. But for me, it’s always been about the right role, and people I want to work for.”
For the Aviva job, Barter was interviewed by CEO Amanda Blanc on a Teams call because of Covid. She remembers hanging up from the interview; “I just thought ‘I want to work for that woman, she's such a force of nature’. I called the recruiter straightaway and I said, ‘I need that job’. I'd work for her anywhere. And to be able to work for such an impressive female CEO felt like an opportunity not to be missed.”
Aviva currently boats a female chief executive, a female chief financial officer, and a female chief people officer. The impressive lineup of women in leadership has had “a massive impact” on Barter, who says she spent her early career very often being the only woman in the room.
“Now looking upwards, and seeing not only female leadership, but such strong and decisive female leadership, is really inspiring because when you see others doing it, you believe that there's no stopping you.”
In May, Aviva achieved ISBA All In Champion status, instigated by Barter. As the second financial services brand to get accreditation after Direct Line Group, Barter says the employer brand, and how the brand is lived by employees, is integral to making campaigns deliver.
As a financial services firm with more than 22,000 employees worldwide, 8,000 of whom are in the UK, it’s no easy task.
Showing up in the community
“We want to be the most customer-centric organisation that we can be, and that seeps through everyone who works here. But that doesn't translate always into the outside world, which is what I've been trying to achieve with our new brand platform. This warm, human, customer-centric brand that I feel and experience every day from the people who work here; I want people outside to feel that as well, so connecting that thread between the two is really important to me.”
The drive to create a friendly and human face was a big factor in the brand’s multi-million-pound sponsorship of Manchester’s new arts and culture venue, now named Aviva Studios. Backed by Manchester City Council and Factory International the venue is predicted to add £1.1 billion to the economy of Manchester and surrounding region over the next decade, with 1,500 direct and indirect jobs. Aviva Studios’ official opening will be in October, with the production Free Your Mind, a large-scale immersive performance based on The Matrix films and created by Danny Boyle, Es Devlin, Sabrina Mahfouz and the co-founders of Olivier Award-winning Boy Blue.
“Aviva is really well known [as a brand], so we start from a position of strength, but actually when you try and unpick what people know us for, they can say ‘car insurance’, and then they stop. They might say ‘yellow’ if you're lucky. And so, what we realised was actually, most people know us, but they don't really understand us,” Barter says.
While scores show Aviva is still number one for affinity in the financial services market, Barter has since identified “a huge opportunity for us to connect with people, to help them understand who we were and what we do, and how we show up in the community.”
That’s when they started thinking about a sponsorship strategy, which is “about more than just the name above the door, but something that's part of the fabric of the UK so we can show up as a brand and demonstrate who we are, because we don't have bricks and mortar.”
The brand had already sponsored the Aviva Stadium in Dublin for the past 10 years, so the Manchester deal was “a good natural extension to the sponsorship portfolio,” explains Barter, who points to recent research carried out regarding the Aviva Stadium.
“When you ask people in Ireland the number one thing that comes to mind about Aviva, it’s the stadium. And when you probe into that, there's this understanding of how Aviva supports the community by building financial resilience, and running sustainability initiatives, which gives us an ability to talk to people in a different way. It shows a friendlier face of the brand and makes it more accessible.”
Through all of this, Barter works closely with agency partners adam&eveDDB and Publicis Media. She admits that the UK advertising industry has always been one that she’s looked up to and aspired to be a part of.
“I think it’s one of the best in the world,” she says. “I was so excited when I started working with adam&eve DDB. It's incredible to think that people who worked on our Make It Click campaign swept the floor at the Cannes Lions Festival with the incredible work for CALM [Campaign Against Living Miserably] which is such important work. To be able to work with talent like that is just phenomenal.”
Barter says that with agency partners at both Adam and Eve and Publicis Media, she can have open conversations about brand challenges.
“And they're ready to volley back. We've built a relationship where we really trust each other to want the best for our brand.”
No heads in the sand here then.
Aviva is really well known [as a brand], so we start from a position of strength, but actually when you try and unpick what people know us for, they can say ‘car insurance’, and then they stop. They might say ‘yellow’ if you're lucky. And so, what we realised was actually, most people know us, but they don't really understand us.
The world according to Phoebe Barter
Who is your creative hero or favourite piece of creativity?
When David Droga and his team convinced us a bunch of kids had broken onto Andrews Air Force Base and tagged Air Force One with “Still Free” – in support of Marc Ecko’s video game. It was 2006 and I was working in Australia. We were all sitting around trying to figure out how we could ‘make things go viral’ and suddenly, this awesome film starts doing the rounds. We were all convinced it was real. It felt just homemade enough to be authentic and was so in tune with the culture of that moment. I think it got something like 23M views. I love that we were all trying to figure out how to work the internet, and David Droga just walked in and mic dropped a lesson on being creative, brave and bold. Nearly two decades later, I still think that’s my favourite piece of creativity.
What’s been feeding your imagination lately?
Music. I love listening to lyrics, especially of lesser-known artists. Some feel like poetry and others open my eyes to new perspectives and ideas. I’m loving Jax at the moment – ‘Cinderella Snapped’ and ‘Victoria’s Secret’ are awesome and carry such positive messages for women.
What do you think has been your boldest creative play?
Walking into Aviva and, in month one, going after a new brand strategy and new creative platform. I had the support of the business, my leaders, peers, and team, which really helped – but there were definitely moments when I thought – this is a massive change you’re trying to make too quickly – are you sure this is right, is the time right? It would have been easy to step back, carry on as we were, not been brave – but I kept believing we were onto a winner with our new ‘positive about financial actions’ strategy and ‘Make it Click’. So, with a few deep breaths and a brave face, I kept going. I’m so glad I did.
And how did it pay off, and what lessons did that teach you?
It paid off beautifully – we’re only six months in, but the campaign results so far speak for themselves. We’re outperforming on every brand metric, and uplifting sales across our business. And the organisation has adopted the campaign in every corner – be it marketing, the people function, colleague comms, and so on. What did it teach me? Find your people – be they colleagues, agency partners, friends, or family. If you have experts by your side you trust, who will be honest with you when you need to hear the feedback to make something better, who can lift you up when you feel deflated, who can cheer you on when you’re about to do something massive, you’ll feel supported and brave enough to do anything.
What do you enjoy most about being a marketer?
Seeing my work in the world. I’ll never be so cool that I don’t get a kick out of my friends and family seeing something I made. My kids seeing an ad I made on the telly. My parents seeing my OOH. A friend talking about Aviva Studios... a Barclays branch covered in the brand refresh I led... it never gets old and will always be the best bit!
What makes a good creative marketer?
Someone who can suspend who they are just long enough to really understand the customer they’re talking to, but then bring their expertise back at just the right time to apply their craft. I had a wonderful boss and mentor who used to say it’s as much art as it is science. I really believe that. The best marketers just feel it in their guts, because they’ve taken the time to understand their audience and they know their stuff. Oh, and to be open to hearing when you’re wrong. Feedback is the breakfast of champions.
What makes a good creative agency partner?
Trust. I need to be able to call up the agency teams (and trust me, I do – they will tell you!), and speak openly with them. All our hopes, dreams, and fears. The trust has to work both ways. I need to be able to tell them if I don’t think something’s right, or if we need to make a change, or if I need their guidance – I need to trust them that they will provide the very best counsel they can in those moments. We’re in it together. And they need to trust me – that I will listen to them, partner with them, respect that they also want our brand and work to be the best it can be. You only get that level of partnership when it’s a relationship built on trust.
And what frustrates you?
It’s the nature of our business that sometimes the most exciting and creative ideas aren’t the ones we’ll buy – for whatever reason, usually brand alignment or some other corporate or commercial reason. It can be frustrating – especially if I equally loved the idea but can see it won’t ever fly – if we can’t let that go and move fast enough to the next brilliant solution. I’m an impatient person and I think once I’m ready to move on, I get frustrated if we don’t do it quickly!
What excites you about the future?
Aviva is the most wonderful brand, with incredible leadership (shout out to Amanda Blanc, our CEO) and we’re only just scratching the surface of the brand stories we want to tell. Whether that’s about our commitment to financial resilience, sustainability, or our communities, or even our new sponsorship strategy. We’ve been around for more than 325 years, and I am so honoured to play my part in shaping and evolving our brand for the next part of our story. I’m so excited about the future of Aviva.