Andrea Brimmer: We saw that, short term, if you only serve people performance creative, they will convert faster, but over time they will drop out and drop off your funnel. Whereas those that are seeing a steady dose of brand creative long term will open more products and convert at a higher rate.
Greg Stuart: Welcome to Building Better CMOs, a podcast about how marketers get stronger and smarter. I am Greg Stuart, the CEO of the nonprofit MMA Global. That voice you heard at the top is Andrea Brimmer, the chief marketing and PR officer of Ally Financial. She's been with the company for 15 years, eight of them as CMO. And before that, she worked at the illustrious advertising agency, Campbell Ewald. At Ally, Andrea helped build an online-only banking brand back when people thought that was a risky idea.
Today on Building Better CMOs, we're going to be talking about Ally's commitment to investing equally in men's and women's sports, the research MMA and Ally have done together to try to understand the value of brand marketing the way a CFO would appreciate it, and what it takes to transition from account manager to marketing leader. This podcast is all about the challenges that marketers face and unlocking the true power that marketing can have, what does real leadership in marketing look like, and how do you most effectively drive growth today? Andrea Brimmer from Ally is going to tell us right after this.
Andrea Brimmer, welcome to Building Better CMOs.
AB: Thank you, Greg. It's really nice to be here with you today.
GS: Hey, listen, just for context for people here, you're a CMO of Ally Financials. Is that the actual, legal name?
AB: So it's Ally Financial. We just say Ally, but chief marketing and PR officer.
GS: In that role with Ally, you were the first CMO in the seat for this role? You're like the oldest new company in the world, I guess, something like that?
GS: GMAC started in 1919, rebranded in the middle of a financial crisis. I'm sure that has a lot of fun stories to it. What is the story? Give me the background here.
AB: The story is when GM was going through its bankruptcy back in '06, '07 timeframe, GMAC was its captive auto finance company. GM spun GMAC out and sold it to Cerberus to create some liquidity and an influx of capital. I came in at that time. I actually came in as brand executive. There was a CMO in the seat who was actually the first CMO, a guy by the name of Sanjay Gupta. You may know Sanjay.
GS: Oh, Sanjay, who was eventually then at Allstate. He was on the global board. He was my chair at one point. Got it. That's—
AB: Exactly. You know Sanjay. Sanjay was my boss, and there was a very small group of us that created the Ally brand. We knew we had to go to market as an independent marketplace competitor. We wanted to start a digital bank. We didn't have the liquidity to build banks and a branch system, we didn't have the capital to buy a branch system, and so we made a bet the same year that the smartphone was launched that we would come to market with a completely digital financial services offering. And it sounds funny to say that now, 15 years later when everybody's banking in the palm of their hand, but it was a huge challenge to convince people to send their money to the internet, and that was exactly what we had to do.
GS: So let's talk about the consumer side of that, but just from a business perspective—even from the private equity guys who bought the business or bought it out—how much consternation was there to be an online-only bank? Or was that really, that was the vision, we were going to do that no matter what?
AB: That was the vision. Look, there was no other choice. We had taken a $17 billion tarp loan. We had over 15,000 dealers that we were serving with retail automotive loans, wholesale loans. We had to have an influx of capital. The markets were closed, if you remember back then. So there was really no other choice but to go with this model. And candidly, I think when we began, we really underestimated how big this franchise could really be. And we started with two products, auto loans and savings products, and we had nothing else. And so over the course of that time, we have become full-scale digital financial services, mortgages, an invest platform, personal lending, credit card, and all online. And so you think about going from zero to what we are today, top 25 bank, over 10 million customers, $138 billion in retail deposits, an incredible consumer sentiment, 96 percent stickiness in our product portfolio. It's just an amazing story, and I always argue that I think it's one of the best turnaround stories in American business history, candidly.
GS: It really is kind of crazy. And you're right. People don't... Today, my children would not understand. You mean, wait, I can't deposit the checks from my phone? As you pointed out, you started even before the iPhone. How did people actually deposit checks back then? Was it just sort of direct deposit predominantly or no?
AB: A lot of direct deposit and then obviously as we launched at the same time that the smartphone did, so creating our mobile check deposit capability. But I think the bigger challenge was just selling the notion of convincing people that this was a safe place to send your money. I always like to joke, the challenge was trying to convince people they weren't sending their money to Joe's Internet Bank, that it was a real place, FDIC insured. And really focusing on solving for customer pain points, which is really what differentiated us and set us apart, creating emotion in a category aside from hatred because, at that time, everybody hated their bank.
GS: That's true. But here's what people didn't see, and I didn't see this coming either, by the way, but it's sort of obvious, especially now: So we had the CMO of Citibank speak at an MMA event back in the early 2000 teens, maybe 2013, 2014, somewhere there. And she pointed out that the net promoter score for those who bank through Citi and the app was significantly higher than those who came into a branch.
AB: It doesn't surprise me.
GS: Doesn't surprise any of us today.
AB: No, you look at our customer sentiment, our customer sentiment is plus 90 percent positive. It's sentiment measured in both social and our tracker. The category average is in the mid-thirties. And so I think through a combination of big brand X and just the digital offering, we've created something that's really special in this category that has huge advantage in many ways to traditional banking models.
GS: It's funny you say that because I did see that Jamie Dimon the other day, which bank did he take over that's failed recently? Was it Signature Bank?
AB: First Republic.
GS: So he took over First Republic. It was funny, I noticed that in some of his comments, he was extolling the virtue of having gotten more branches. And I was like, well, that doesn't... I don't know what goes on in those calls or what they do, but I thought, really, you're talking about getting more branches? I don't know that that makes any sense at all anymore. I do everything I can to avoid going to a branch, I think.
AB: I know, right? Well, different business models, but I think our feeling is there's a role for the big money center banks, there's roles for regional banks, and there's roles for community banks. And that's the thing that people have to understand. The banking category is safe, it's stable, there's roles for each. And Jamie Dimon understands that as much as our CEO understands that as much as whoever the CEO of the local branch understands that there's a role for each one of those types of categories or companies within the category, and it's important for everybody.
GS: I guess a final one, and I'll move on from this, but I do find it fascinating that you took this job back then, especially in those times. So what I'm curious about is do you remember either what your husband or your friends, those who were close to tell you, you were crazy, did they tell you you were crazy or did others outside? I just don't remember the times as well.
AB: At the time, I didn't have a husband, so I didn't have anybody trying to tell me what to do.
GS: Okay, good. Well, that's one way to eliminate that.
AB: That's right. You know what, Greg? I look back at it now, and I think I probably could not have done something at a more tumultuous time in my life. I was leaving Campbell Ewald after being there for 20 years, and really, it was the only thing I had ever known. I was a single mom with two kids, it was the middle of the financial crisis, and sadly, my brother was very ill, and my parents and our family was dealing with that. He eventually passed away, but every single thing in my life was in complete chaos. And there was something about giving myself this opportunity to go and try something different that was important to me at that time. And I actually took a step backwards. Title-wise, I took a really significant pay cut. I think for me, I looked at it as when am I ever going to get a chance to help launch a hundred-year-old startup and create a brand from the ground up? And if this doesn't work, you know what? I can always be a greeter at Walmart.
GS: Well, listen, first off, I love the fact you had a backup plan to take care of the family.
AB: There you go.
GS: I think what you're saying is you were more prone to make this change because of the swirling uncertainty around you in so many parts of your life, I guess? Is that what you're...?
AB: I needed something fresh. And it might be the athlete in me, anything that's a challenge, I run into. If there's a fire, I'm running into it. And I saw this as a fire. I honestly believed in my heart of heart that there was an opportunity to create better banking. And we used this phrase all the time that the world doesn't need another bank, but it needed a better bank. And to be a part of changing the category forever, which is really what Ally has done, is something that is more important than anything that I did in my career in the 20 years previous to that, candidly.
GS: Really? And listen, as an agency leader, you would've seen a lot of, dare I say, clever ideas by big corporations come along? Maybe got traction, maybe didn't. I worked in the agency business, we had a number of fails. My favorite was, I remember we launched a product called Welch's Squeezable, it was jam in a squeezable container. It was amazing. And that's a revolution, when you could squeeze jam out, it was amazing. Oh my God, I'll never forget this, this is 30-plus years ago. The problem at the time was that they had such great early success, it flew off the shelves. They went to market too fast.
They didn't stick around to find out when you put it in the refrigerator that unless the pectin amount was right, that then it would start to create a solid. And somebody actually sent us back a bottle in a package with a brick and says, "The shit doesn't come out." I think it's been long enough I can tell that story now. I don't think I've ever told it before, but it's like, listen, my point is in the agency world, you see a lot of good ideas that just kind of go awry for a whole... It's hard to get any new business right, no matter what it is, even if it's a hundred years old. That's my point.
AB: And there's such a big difference between being on the agency side and being at a brand and leading a brand. And the opportunity to actually create meaningful change in business vis-a-vis being handed a product and saying, "Okay, go figure out how to market this." I always talk about, it's one of those moments you'll never forget. It's a seminal moment in your career where there were a ton of us that sat in a room and had a whiteboard and said, "Name off everything you hate about banking. Don't think like a banker. Don't think like a marketer. Just everything you hate about banking." And we wrote it on a wall and said, "Let's go attack these five things," and we did. And as I said, it's changed banking forever. So that spirit lives every single day at Ally and I think it's a big part of the reason why I've been here for 15 years, which I can't believe.
GS: Okay. Now you didn't answer, though, my original question exactly, which was did your friends, those who care about you, tell you you were crazy or did they support you?
GS: No. Okay.
AB: Nobody said I was crazy. No, honestly, I think everybody thought it was a really good move. And I think at the time it was a little bit of an unheard of to go from the agency side to the brand side. And so I think there was some mystique in it where people were like, "Wow, you're going to get to go be a client? That's pretty cool." So people in the industry were like, "You're going to have a way easier life. Good for you."
GS: Did you know Sanjay at the time, by the way?
AB: I didn't.
GS: Were you familiar with him?
AB: No, I didn't. And I got the opportunity to meet him at Ally, and I learned a ton from Sanjay. Sanjay is a really brilliant man and a good guy, and I'm forever grateful for the things that I took from his knowledge. And honestly, the way he treated me was wonderful.
GS: He's emblematic of, I think, the best of the MMA board members or those who get involved at the MMA, even at the board level, they tend to be of a questioning mind. They believe at a basis there's something that could be done differently, and they pursue the execution of that. Because he was chair, I got to know him a little bit better. There was a lot of things he tried to push through at Allstate that were just really hard, and yet he stuck to it. I really loved that about him.
AB: Me, too.
GS: Hey, one more thing then about just your Ally experience. I want to move just current day here, then we're going to get into our main topic. You've done a thing around a 50-50 pledge, men and women's sports. I know this is a real passion for you, and you're an athlete, by the way. Michigan State, four-year women's soccer? Right?
GS: Okay. Talk about your 50-50 pledge and explain to people what this means and what it is.
AB: I think last year it was the anniversary of Title IX, the 50-year anniversary of Title IX, and we wanted to do something to honor that, that was real and substantive. And we came up with this insight that less than 5 percent of the media coverage today goes to women's sports, and that has created this vicious cycle. And the vicious cycle is without access, the audiences can't find sports or be there. As a result, brands don't have anything to invest in. And that has undervalued both the leagues and the players. So for instance, think about the NWSL, the National Women's Soccer League that we sponsor, minimum player salary is $35,000 a year and that's up $10,000 from two years ago.
So imagine being a world-class athlete, an Olympian, a World Cup winner making $35,000 a year. It's unconscionable. So for us, this opportunity to come in and make this pledge that we made live at the ESPNW women's summit, we came out and kind of shocked the world by saying for every dollar we invest in men's sports media, we were going to match dollar for dollar in women's sports media. And I'm really proud of the fact that we made that pledge a year ago. We were spending less than 10 percent of our sports media on women's sports. By the end of this year, we'll be closer to a 60-40 split. Still wood to chop, but we're going to get there. And beyond that, I think we are making significant and systemic change that is unlike really anything that I think a brand has ever done before, candidly.
GS: And the issue here is, Andrea, just to make sure we're clear... And by the way, we had Megan Rapinoe speak at the MMA CEO & CMO Summit the year that they won. Weeks after she won. It was amazing. Kara Swisher came and interviewed her. It was really one of the highlights of the years of that event. But she talked a lot about how women's soccer players have second... They have jobs.
AB: Oh, yeah. Side hustles.
GS: Professionals have real jobs they have to go to.
AB: Greg, you'll hear stories that'll break your heart of players getting traded and they don't have enough money to pay for plane tickets to take their kids with them.
AB: Those are real stories.
GS: Andrea, the issue is, just so everybody gets this... There's a part of me that wouldn't wonder, if I look at it in a pure media sense, I go, oh, they don't have the audience, therefore they're not going to have the sponsorship dollars. Your point is that it starts much further back. It's not the sponsorship dollars that came first, although that's part of what you're trying to change, but it's really the media access by consumers, and when consumers have access, audience builds.
AB: Absolutely. Look at the Final Four this year, broadcast on ESPN. The Women's Final Four, the championship game outperformed the men's championship game by 2.5 million viewers.
AB: And 58 percent of the audience was men. So this isn't a men versus women thing. This is a men and women thing. And there's a lot of men that want to watch women's sports as well. So I don't put the onus or the blame on the networks at all. I think it's a combined brands and networks. The networks... things have to pencil. They're under incredible duress. Things have to pencil. They need to know that there's going to be brand support there, and that's what the 50-50 pledge and the movement is about.
GS: Your point in that—tell me if I get this wrong—is that somebody has to make the first move to set this back on the right course. You and Ally... And kind of appropriate, it's sort of funny what the word ally now means in today's times.
AB: Genius, right?
GS: I don't think that existed. It wasn't this sort of tone today. I have, well, slightly older than teenage children at this point. They're big into if they're not LGBQ, whatever, then they're allies. But it's really important to them that they support that cause.
GS: You got very lucky with that name, I think, at some level.
AB: Well, we didn't conjure up that at the time, but I think when we created the name, we wanted something that meant something literally as well as figuratively, and Ally was purposeful in its selection because it is somebody that's in your corner always. People needed that financially, but with that comes great responsibility, and we've always taken that really seriously as a company and as a brand. And I want to say taking on this fight of creating equity for women's sports is something that is exactly what an ally should do.
GS: I love it. I love it. And you're right, we as marketers are a reflection of culture and influence culture, and therefore have an additional level of responsibility than the finance people, whatever it might be. Okay.
Andrea, let's get into our main thing for Building Better CMOs. So I often like to ask the guests, what in your experience, your exposure to the world of marketing, do you think that either marketers don't fully understand and appreciate? Or you could go at it from where's there a knowledge gap that like, geez, we've just not answered, addressed this question, but I think it's out there by everybody, but we haven't evolved enough to get there? So let's throw out a thesis. You and I are going to probe into that some.
AB: Look, I think intuitively most marketers believe that there is interconnectivity between brand and performance marketing. In essence, brand can be performance and drive significant performance. I think where the knowledge gap has always been has been empirically proving it beyond what I'll call the softer measurements like awareness and consideration and things that you point to oftentimes, especially with your financial partners. And they're like, "Well, I hear what you're saying, but what does that do in terms of ROI?"
And so I think this thesis of labeling something brand or labeling something performance is probably something that we need to strike from our lexicon. And we need to start thinking about the holistic ecosystem that you need to build around a consumer and have the research that backs up the fact that each component of that ecosystem plays a part in conversion, ultimately. And I think the work we've done together around brand as performance has been seminal, and I can't believe the amount of interest it's gotten from other marketers. Everybody has been thirsting for this answer for a long time.
GS: You know my position on this. And so what Andrea is referring to, just for the listener, is MMA has launched a study series we call Brand As Performance. Funny, by the way, we had originally positioned the board—I got shot down very quickly—Brand Versus Performance because that's how we heard the problem, is that marketers at a time four some odd years ago were trying to figure out how to balance between long and short term, and they had no dynamics and metrics to do that. And then quickly the board says, "No, it's brand as performance." So that reset the whole thing for us. Well, how do we explain to the CFO the value of brand in a way that the business and the board could then choose to invest in? That was kind of the thesis we'd gone to. Andrea, just so I will confirm for you, there's not a listener on this call that won't be just nodding their heads at this one, but I talked to a hundred CMOs in the year, give or take. There's not one of them that says, "Oh, that's not an issue here."
Everybody says it's a discussion, which is sort of the crazy thing that we as marketers have not answered or addressed that question in the way that we needed to because we all believe. The intangibles on a balance sheet has proven the value of brand, we've seen that, but how to really operate against it. Before we get into maybe some of what you've learned from that, talk about why did you decide to take that on? It was experimental research, it'd never been done before, it was high risk, it's kind of expensive to execute. It's a lot of time and resources to commit from your team. I'm sure you just can't even imagine what that's turned out to be. Why decide to take that on? What was going on for you and Ally at the time?
AB: First I have to give a shoutout to my boss, JB, who's our CEO. He is a huge believer in investment in brand. And in fact, if you look at his... He outlines, at the beginning of every year, six to eight CEO priorities. And one of his priorities is the utilization of the brand as a strategic asset for the company in being a significant catalyst for growth. And so as a result of that as a strategic priority, Ally has invested heavily in what we'll call our brand budget. In fact, the split between what sits in the enterprise budget and what sits in the product acquisition budgets is about 50-50. So we're spending as much to build the brand as we are to build product acquisition. And while he's not ever asked me directly, "Prove the point," because he intuitively believes in it, I feel like I owe him and I owe our CFO and I owe the enterprise and our shareholders empirical data that it's working, candidly. Just being a good steward of company resources.
And I've searched, for all eight years that I've sat in this chair as CMO, to find a good way to truly answer that question other than what I'll call more of the softer metrics. We've looked at brand valuation growth. Well, marketing is not the only component of brand valuation growth. We've looked at awareness. Great, awareness is a function of spend. We kind of all know that. Consideration. Consideration can be affected by so many macroeconomic factors. You have a bank failure and consideration for your brand can fall by 10 points and you haven't done one thing differently. So, squishier stuff.
And when I saw this opportunity with the MMA, I thought it's going to be a heavy lift. There's definitely investment in it from a financial standpoint, but if we can get to a real answer and combine this with other things we're doing—like multi-touch attribution—and be able to combine that data, what a powerful thesis that we will have to put forward with empirical proof around this idea that brand is performance and you can't have one without the other.
GS: I love the ownership of responsibility for that, in spite of the fact that nobody else has been asked. The audience may or may not be fully aware, when I first heard this issue... It was in advance of the pandemic, because we were ready to rock and roll on this in the beginning of the pandemic. Then we shut it down. I don't know if you know that, Andrea, we actually were ready to go. We had this thing teed up to go on March in 20 of the pandemic, and we just said, "We just can't start long-term research in the middle of what is." One, we just don't know what's going on, what campaigns are going to look like. We just can't tell if we're going to get a good read. So we shut the whole thing down, then had to go resell it all...
But the issue was that just prior to that, we discovered two things. One, everybody was talking about it. There was a tension in organizations. But the worst problem was that there was no off-the-shelf methodology to do this research. It did not exist. And at some basic level, it didn't require travel to Mars. It required new math and thinking about how to do data collection in a subsequent way. I want to give a hats off to Les Binet and Peter Field out of the UK who've done some work around this, but we felt it needed a stronger new data set to make the kind of investment. So it was courage on your part to do it. I guess what you're, in essence, saying is that it was your dynamic as a longstanding innovator to look for new and not to be satisfied, which you easily could have done after 10-plus years on the job, I guess?
AB: And candidly, nobody pounding on the door for something more definitive. But I just think that given the level of investment we have in it, it is requisite that we answer the question. And I wanted to know myself. I think as a CMO, every single day you have to look at what you're investing in and be able to put your head on the pillow at night and sleep well that you're making the right decisions on behalf of your shareholders in your company.
GS: So let's talk a little bit. I am sure the listeners are like, okay, well, get to the facts. Okay, so what did you learn? Why don't you give a summary of some of what you've learned so far? Let's do that and then I'm going to go back to some of the dynamics of pulling off this kind of research.
AB: First, I would tell you this was not like we went and talked to a thousand people and made some assumptions. There were 850,000 people in this data set over a period of time. And basically what we did is we served one group a healthy dose of what I would call brand digital creative, more focused at higher-level messaging versus before they saw performance creative. And then we served the other group just performance-oriented creative, what I'll call more product acquisition, buy now type of creative. And we saw a substantive lift in those that were moved to favorability through this brand creative, both in terms of 7x more efficient to acquire those consumers—
GS: Hey, Andrea, just to be clear, so once they've been converted to favorable...
GS: ... it was one-seventh the cost to get them to move to customer—
AB: Acquisition. Product acquisition, exactly. Three and a half times more apt to convert than those that only saw the performance creative. And then the thing that I think was the most interesting to me, Greg, was the fact that if you think about it, a steady diet of brand creative has a long tail effect. Pays almost an annuity, if you will. Where we saw that, short term, if you only serve people performance creative, they will convert faster, but over time they will drop out and drop off your funnel. Whereas those that are seeing a steady dose of brand creative long term will open more products and convert at a higher rate. And so what we learned from this is that there are times where you need to do things promotionally. "Hey, go get me $2 billion in deposits." And you know what? It's two weeks of just performance-oriented creative and does the trick. But if you're playing the long game, this idea of brand pays out over the long run at a much more effective and efficient rate than investing the entirety of your budget in performance-oriented messaging only.
GS: Correct. And just so people know, we only ran the research from one year to another. That was our long term. I think it was probably a little less than that, 9, 10 months. So we have accurate read exactly on the buying behavior of those people over that time exposed to brand. We know exactly what they've done. And that's just so people know. What had never been done before was tracking the same people over that period of time. The scale of it was just insurmountable. In fact, it's funny, Andrea, I probably didn't tell you this in the process of explaining the original research idea to you: We told Google we wanted to go after this and they said, "We love the idea. We think it's amazing. You really should. By the way, we don't think you can pull it off." That was their analysis. We're like, "Well, okay. It's a big question. We should try." That was my conclusion at the time.
But I think what you're referring to there, so correct me if I get this wrong, but I think that if you model out performance and model out brand over a two-year period—again, we're modeling now, we're making some projections, just to be fair to everybody versus the facts that Andrea just spoke to—is that I think brand outperforms total sales of that period by plus 40 percent. Wasn't that kind of one of the conclusions we got to?
AB: That was. It was this whole notion of the annuity over time.
GS: That's amazing.
AB: Which is incredible. And at a more efficient rate as well.
AB: So your cost of acquisition comes down and the lifetime value of that customer significantly goes up because they're consuming more of your product set as well. The ability to cross-sell them increases. So I think for me what it did, it solidified perception that we all had. It solidified the intuition that marketers have always had with the first real empirical data. And then when you take that data and you overlay it, if you have multi-touch installed at your company, when you start to lay that in, then you're able to make really great media optimization decisions. And that's a big part of the way that we're using the combination of the MMA data and the MTA data right now is to make our media optimization decisions. And one of the things that we've learned recently is that 80 percent of all of our product acquisitions so far this year has started with a brand touch.
GS: Ooh. You know that now. Wow.
AB: We know that now.
AB: So it's pretty incredible. And so we're able to see the touches through the journey.
GS: At the time of recording here in middle of June, this information is at most three months old. Have you had a chance to really take it internally and talk to outside of marketing about this yet, and/or what has been some of the reaction? And I think what I'd like to try to figure out is what change do you think might be created as a result of this information now in the guts of the company?
AB: Definitely had a chance to sit down and take JB through it. We're going to take our board through it in August, which I'm excited for. We've got a new CFO starting...
GS: Oh, wow.
AB: ... in a couple of weeks. And honestly, this is the first slide I'm going to show him as we talk about...
GS: Listen, I speak your talk. I want you to know. There's another project of MMA's that we're doing is like, how do we help the CMO and the CFO get along?
GS: Marketers are from Mars. We need to fix that. Okay, got it.
AB: I think it'll be great for us as he comes into a new role to understand why we make the investments that we do.
AB: And so, yes, we've shown a lot of people, the businesses, et cetera. But like I said, I'm in a lucky position because, philosophically, everybody at Ally believes in brand investment and it's not questioned. That said, the way that I've used it has been really powerful because we're making media optimization decisions based on the combination of the MMA data and the MTA data. And so we didn't just do the study and now it's over. The MMA data is being used every single day because we've got those 850,000 people in our ecosystem and we've got the people that we actually converted as a result of the test. We're watching their behavior and we're watching how to make optimizations within them and looking at really tailoring our media plan around this notion of finding more favorables and that movable middle, if you will, that we've talked a lot about, as opposed to optimizing out of places that you know that have people that are unfavorable that will never convert. And I think those were some of the things that have changed our medium mix and changed the way that we've thought about going to market.
GS: Let's take a quick break. We'll be back after this with Andrea Brimmer.