Agent to Agent: Independent Agent Marketing: as Unique as the Agencies Themselves

Laura Toops 142x200.jpgBy Laura Mazzuca Toops

Back in the day, marketing for an independent agency meant mailing out flyers or having the owner press the flesh at the local Chamber of Commerce meetings. The sophistication and easy use of today’s technology tools means agents can expand their marketing reach from across the street to around the globe.

But that almost limitless range of capabilities brings with it a unique set of challenges and questions: Which approaches to use? How much to spend? Do it in-house or rely on an outside expert? And is there still room in the modern marketing mix for the tried-and-true approaches?

Independent agency members of NetVU, the official users group of the Vertafore agency management system, run the gamut from small, family-run agencies to mega-brokerages. The marketing approaches of these agencies are as unique as the agencies themselves. Most utilize a combination of old-school methods and cutting-edge techniques spurred by social media and technology.

Event Marketing

One agency that’s part of a large regional bank takes a surprisingly low-tech approach to its marketing: real-life appearances.

Toops article Farm Rescue.jpgBW Insurance Agency is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of the West, with the insurance home office located in Fargo, N.D. BW’s employees operate out of 44 agency locations in nine states: California, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon and Wyoming. BW serves more than 43,000 customers, with written premium volume in excess of $141 million. Specialties, which vary by office, include oil and gas, crop and hail, employee benefits and individual life and health insurance.

Although the agency does direct mail for personal lines, along with digital billboards and print adverting in several markets to help with overall branding, BW finds the best success with event marketing, such as appearances at trade shows, for both personal and commercial lines, says Stephanie Baril, AVP.

“We’ve found that having booths at community events, trade shows and conferences is a great way for us to localize our brand and the agents in each office,” she says. Another benefit of event marketing is the ability to tailor event attendance based on each office’s insurance specialization. “For example, Wyoming and western North Dakota specialize in the oil and gas industries, and because of that we spend a lot of our marketing doing trade shows in that industry.”

Although the dollar amount varies from year to year, BW dedicates a “significant percentage of the budget” to various marketing avenues and deployments.

Toops article WY Trade 390x211.jpgBest of all, it’s effective. “Event marketing always has a fairly high ROI, mostly because our agents are talking face to face with potential customers that are interested in our help,” Baril says. “It isn’t a forced sale or aggressive environment to try and have a conversation. With print and billboards, it’s a little harder to determine the ROI, but for branding, they’re doing a good job.”

Although event marketing is effective for the agency, BW is always looking for new ways to reach clients and prospects. This year the agency launched a mailing specifically directed at its agriculture clients and prospects. Agriculture is on BW’s top five list of lines of business because of customer loyalty and product consistency across the industry, “so we have put an extra effort in trying to capture more of this market.”

Baril suggests that in order to determine the best ways to market, agencies must first pinpoint what they’re good at, and how to best reach that audience. “Insurance is all about relationships,” she adds. “We encourage our employees to be involved in their communities because those connections and word of mouth referrals are invaluable to us.”

Video Makeover

That sentiment of “know your audience” is pivotal for another NetVU agency that takes a completely different approach to reaching its clients and prospects: through video and social media.

Stolly Insurance Group, based in Lima, Ohio, is the quintessential generalist independent insurance agency: family owned and operated for more than 100 years, with five locations, 55 employees, and $5.5 million in annual revenue. Four of its five offices are located in small communities, and the agency just opened a new office in suburban Columbus.

Stolly has always used videos for marketing, but these have basically been instructional discussions on lines of business like personal lines umbrella and business insurance by earnest guys in suits, says agency principal Mark E. Stolly.
However, with the emergence of Millennial-age management and employees, a different approach was warranted. The new generation had other ideas for videos that had nothing to do with talking heads.

Instead, they came up with an idea for an office “mascot,” played by one of the producers: a bumbling but well-meaning and mysterious (and fictional) member of the family named Ricky Joe Stolly (

The Ricky Joe video series, shot in Stolly offices and featuring clips of the owners and staffers speculating on who Ricky Joe is and what he does, was conceptualized by Stolly staffers and executed by an area marketing firm, which shot and edited the video, says Mark Stolly. The result is a series of funny but professionally executed videos that play on the “hustle” of the Stolly staff.

The object was to engage customers and prospects, and so far, Ricky Joe has been a big success.

Although they have not built any measurables around the campaign, it’s evident from the number of YouTube views that the Ricky Joe campaign is much more successful than the “talking head” videos of the past — with 20 times the views of the old videos, Stolly says.

The marketing firm also developed other videos for the Stolly agency. Several feature local restaurants, and tie into contests on Facebook where visitors can vote on the best pizza, hot wings or burgers in the area — a strategic move, considering that many are Stolly customers.

Stolly also writes lots of school business, so the Ricky Joe campaign is a good fit — as is their radio advertising on high school sports broadcasts.

Stolly uses the outside marketing firm not just for video production, but for all of its marketing and communication needs. The mix includes TV and radio commercials (high school sports), Internet/social media, Website design and upkeep, and direct marketing for niche business to the local community. Stolly pays them annually on retainer for their services, which continue to vary and expand year to year.

The next round of Stolly’s YouTube videos, set to launch in the next month, will feature the agency’s “Bond Girls” — two staffers who will drive around in a sports car a la James Bond and discuss the basics of bonding insurance.

Stolly gets a pretty big bang for its marketing buck. Its annual marketing budget, including all aspects, is well below 3 percent of revenues, Stolly says.

He admits that getting name recognition in the Columbus market will be more challenging. Although the agency is well known in smaller communities, there is a lot of competition in Columbus. “We plan to take a wait-and-see approach” and let the young producers at the Columbus location become involved in the community for a year or so before determining the most effective ways to present the Stolly brand in the more competitive Columbus market.

Laura Mazzuca Toops is an independent writer, editor and communications consultant with more than 30 years experience in the insurance industry. Contact her at

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