Jennifer Wallis sits down with Kevin Carr for an in-depth chat about his IPTF tenure, the long-lasting power of Seven Families and the future of protection post-Covid
Kevin Carr is probably the protection industry's most well-known publicist. His career spans over two decades, but Carr says he "fell into PR" after spending the early stages of his career working in financial services.
He started out - as a "spotty 18-year-old" - working on the tills at Nationwide Building Society. It was long until a young Kevin noticed how the nearby financial adviser had what he deemed to be "the coolest" job - not constrained to the monotony of the usual nine till five, and seeing clients outside of work.
He soon took matters into his own hands and tasked himself with learning all of the computer systems and mortgage products in his own time and tenaciously persuaded his bosses to allow him to speak to potential customers, rather than letting them leave to seek advice elsewhere.
We’re not insuring lumps of metal or bricks. It’s people, families, kids, parents, emotions…
Carr eventually progressed to the role of mortgage adviser and from there went on to join CGU, the merger of Commercial Union and General Accident, where he worked for two years, before joining LifeSearch in 2000.
It was this time at LifeSearch that played a pivotal role in his move into PR. Carr was one of the few advisers who actually enjoyed talking to the journalists who called in. His role developed from adviser all the way through to head of public relations and life office relationships.
Now the managing director of his own PR company, Carr Consulting and Communications and the CEO of Protection Review, Carr is a key driving force of a number of influential industry initiatives that touch all parts of the protection sector and its consumer base. So we sat down to discuss his three-year tenure as co-chair of the Income Protection Task Force (IPTF), which draws to a close at the end of this year, as well as where there is room for improvement in the insurance industry and the impact that Covid-19 may have on protection going forward.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Kevin. As the managing director of your own company, what was it that made you decide to set up your own business?
I think with hindsight I probably just got frustrated with how companies do things. I'm not a big company process person. I was excited by the freedom and the flexibility of working on my own terms - with multiple companies in different ways. I worked hard, I'd learnt a lot, I'd had phenomenal career progression. The career ladder was amazing at LifeSearch, but I reached a point where I wanted to make my own decisions. I decided that consultancy was the route I was going to go down. I didn't necessarily know if it was a PR company or not, that kind of evolved over the years.
At the end of this year you're going to be stepping down from your role as co-chair of IPTF. Could you reflect on your biggest achievements there and tell us why you made the decision to step down?
The best things we've done in the three years would definitely be the resurrection of the Seven Families campaign. To say we're pleased is an understatement about that campaign being on COVER shortlist again [for the Excellence Awards this year]. That was a very pleasant surprise.
I'm pleased at the ongoing income protection (IP) sales that began rising when Seven Families began back in 2014 and have continued rising ever since. And it's certainly not down to IPTF and Seven Families on their own. The increase in IP sales is why we're all doing this. To get more people protected so more people can get money when they need it.
[Ex-chair] Peter Le Beau had run IPTF very well, very successfully, for a long time. He ran it through the first phase of Seven Families, but Roy [McLoughlin] and I wanted to bring something different and bring some new ideas. That'll be needed going forward. In terms of why I stepped down, I always thought I'd do two or three years. Roy and I talked about it last summer, we had a pint after a meeting, and we both felt we hadn't done anywhere near enough with Seven Families and really wanted to push it further in the third year - with consumer research and radio days, social media, all on a relatively small budget.
IPTF isn't a trade body, but it's a bit like one, and I think organisations like that can benefit from fresh ideas and fresh faces every couple of years or so. And who knows? Maybe Roy or I might come back in 10 or 20 years' time?
Why do you think the Seven Families campaign was so effective?
For me, first and foremost it was a great idea. And the great idea came from Karin Lloyd, an underwriting expert and consultant who's retired now. Then of course the families were great. We didn't know the sort of personalities we were going to get, how open were people going to be. All seven families were amazing in their own way.
The ones that most people remember are Tracey and the Clarkes and their guide dog Oakley, who sadly is no longer with the family. They are still talking to the press today. They've spoken at conferences and Jeff Prestridge at The Mail on Sunday went to meet them on their houseboat. The Pickford's story was just so shocking and heart wrenching. You could have the best marketing department with the biggest budget, but if you haven't got the idea and the stories, it doesn't work. Something I say to a lot of people is that the easy bit is designing the product, the hard bit is getting people to buy it. Reaching people is the hard thing.
The third element, and arguably the controversial bit, is because it was run by an independent collective of people and not by a single company whose core focus is tomorrow's ROI. Only now, five, six, seven years on, I can say "Yeah. You know what? It was successful" because there was an awful lot of indecision at the time and an awful lot of skepticism. Some companies didn't fund it, some did and really weren't sure. But I think a lot was achieved with a really small budget. People, in terms of consumers, relate to people like them. They're far more likely to listen to people like them, less so corporate insurance companies. I still think we've only scratched the surface.
How has the industry changed since you started out?
The products are much better than they were 20 years ago. The technology is much better. I think the industry is far more open and honest, certainly around things like claims. Ten or 20 years ago we weren't talking about claims, we weren't talking about reputation, we weren't talking about gender balance, we weren't talking about mental health and we weren't talking about diversity. COVER and others have been very instrumental in dragging the industry forward into a more modern age. The caveat to that is if you asked customers, I'm not sure you'd get a big ‘yes'. I think we'd like to think that in our little world a lot has changed, but if you asked a customer has much changed in the life insurance industry - what would they say?
Where is there room for improvement still, especially in the income protection space?
My opinion is probably a little biased, but it's in promotion, marketing, PR, consumer awareness, consumer understanding. I think there are lots of great pieces of work by individuals, by organisations, that occasionally cut through and make a difference. As a collective - as an industry - I don't think we do a great job still and that's evidenced in all sorts of pieces of research and sales figures and trends.
When something like a global pandemic hits you can see Google life insurance searches went up dramatically this year but sales are kind of up, down, up, down. Sales of IP, CIC and life insurance should've doubled this year without the need to market it, but they haven't and that's because people don't perceive the need for the; perhaps they don't trust the industry because the processes and the products aren't aligned with what they expect to see.
There's still work to be done at an industry wide level around consumer awareness and understanding. And whilst we talk about claims stats being a positive development there's still so much more that could be done around claims stats and likewise the care and support services. The movement in that direction is brilliant, but I think there are question marks over what's behind the scenes - do they deliver what is said on the tin? Are they marketed well enough? We get emails all the time from friends or journalists saying "something's happened, can I claim for this?" but this year it's been more "something's happened. How do I get CIC?" It's like trying to buy car insurance after the car crash.
What are the best and worst things about the industry today?
The best is that in most parts of the industry there's a desire to be more open, more honest, more altruistic. Not only is that right for 100s of reasons, but also it's a very good fit with what the industry does. You provide a product that you hope people will never need but when they do need it, crikey do they need it! You're not insuring lumps of metal or bricks. It's people, families, kids, parents, emotions. You're insuring the most important things to you and we've got much better around that.
As for the worst, I always used to say lack of education in schools but I think that has evolved and improved over the years. So I guess the worst thing you'd have to land on is lack of trust. The industry is moving in the right direction and maybe customers are moving in that direction, but there's still a big gaping hole in the middle. I think arguably the huge funding that the industry has doesn't necessarily go in that area.
2020 has been a challenging year for all of us. How are you holding up, all things considered?
I guess like most people, very up and down, but we are where we are. You muck in and you make the most of it. You look for positives and speaking personally I've been home based for a decade so we didn't have any big upheaval in that sense. We've got jobs that can be done remotely and we live near a massive forest. So there are many things to be thankful for. My wife had Covid quite bad in the spring and Dean [Mason] one of our best friends died from it a few weeks after she had it. Dean was a well-known mortgage advisor. I was 18 when I met him at Nationwide in Victoria. We shared a huge love of music, all the festivals and all the bands we used to see. We were both Arsenal fans and we both had the same sense of humour. It must be six months now and I think about him every day. That's for sure.
In the face of the current economic crisis, how do you think the protection market will fare? Bear or bullish?
I don't like sitting on the fence, but there's an element here of it being both. What I mean by that is it depends who you are. I think there will be those who prosper, and those who don't. We mentioned that Google searches for life insurance rose significantly. We know that phone-based firms have continued to do pretty well. We know that some insurers sales have been up, whereas others have fallen. But at the end of the day, any increase that's driven by demand, whether that's a pandemic, marketing, or better PR - whatever that might be - can only be met if we've got the products and processes in place.
If there's two people I need to thank most in my career, it's Tom Baigrie and Peter Le Beau. Tom once said: "Protection is dull in the good times and dull in the bad times." What he means by that is that whilst there are peaks and troughs, even for this year, still not that much has actually changed. In the protection market no insurers have pulled out of the market, no one's pulled any products, yes there are some new questions and there's some exclusions, but prices haven't rocketed. We're all facing an unpredictable longer term claims impact. CI claims are down, but they're all going to come. The tail on income protection claims alone is probably going to be very long, so I think there will be those that do well, but you might see some businesses fall by the wayside and you may see some mergers at the same time. It's sitting on the fence, but I think we'll see both. You've got to be positive haven't you?
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