Direct Line, Harvey Keitel and the beauty of simple ideas

A gangster wouldn't seem the most logical choice as the face of an insurance company, but it worked wonders for FTSE 100 heavyweight Direct Line.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 25 Feb 2019

When Mark Evans joined insurance group Direct Line as marketing director in 2012, his job was anything but simple. The insurer was preparing for an IPO that would see it divested from RBS (it would later enter the FTSE 100) under the terms of the Scottish bank’s 2008 government bail out.

The former 118 118 Media CEO’s brief was twofold. To oversee an organisation-wide relaunch to rebuild trust in a brand with declining sales, and to reinvigorate a "beleaguered" marketing department that lacked direction after years living in the shadow of the looming sale.

The first two years were spent restructuring his leadership team, introducing a programme of training and development - which Evans says didn’t really exist - and developing a strategy to deliver the rebrand.  

But there was still an urgent question. What would this rebrand actually look like?  

"The whole insurance category had become so fixated on the process of buying and the price that we’d lost sight of what it was there to do: Insurance essentially exists in the world to fix things," says Evans. 

The solution was based around a surprisingly simple idea of being ‘fixers’, but the delivery went against conventional judgement.

The ad agency Saatchi and Saatchi pitched a campaign based on Winston Wolfe, Quentin Tarantino’s enigmatic, straight talking fixer from the 1990s cult film Pulp Fiction - played by Harvey Keitel. If you’ve not seen the movie, he’s the guy whom protagonists Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta call to get them out of a particularly scarlett coloured rut.

"The use of Harvey Keitel as the creative expression of that thought was perhaps a bit odd because Winston Wolfe is a gangster and insurance is a relatively low trust sector, so there were some questions around that," says Evans.

"But actually he solved really messy, intractable problems in a very elegant and speedy way and therefore is a very good metaphor for our intent to be fixers."

It clearly resonated with customers. Evans says that sales rose 31 per cent in 2016 - the year the ads launched - after years of decline.

Of course, it takes far more than a marketing campaign to successfully turn around a struggling business, but Evans says that Keitel and the idea of being a fixer has also had a galvanising impact on Direct Line’s internal culture.

"We created huge posters and internal digital assets with the letters WWWWD? (What Would Winston Wolfe Do?) and developed a set of values built around the fixer idea. We were basically saying to our colleagues put yourself in the shoes of a fixer when you're trying to help our customers."

Evans says that the company has seen a 20 per cent increase in its employee engagement score since the campaign began. "Internally that was voted as our biggest achievement since the IPO."

"It’s definitely been a rejuvenation point for the brand and helped to give back the confidence that we had a role to play in the world that the others weren't playing."

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Image credits: courtesy of Direct Line Group

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