To succeed in the digital space insurer boards need to have the "guts" to make it a strategic priority, pull capital in from elsewhere to prove it, give it its own profit and loss "teeth" and build a few icons to underline a commitment to the cause.
Having joined Aviva from British Gas as the first CDO at the insurer in late 2014, he underlined the challenge he has faced in a new industry in his presentation, ‘digital in the boardroom'.
"For us it is all about the consumer transformation as well as a digital one. The reason Aviva is really focusing on this is we believe our customers - whether direct or those who chose intermediaries - are there [digital] already," Brem commented.
"And for us that has been a major mind shift for Aviva, to think of ourselves as consumer focused and as a retailer, whether direct or through partners, but I had not appreciated how much of a manufacturing mind set we had."
Breaking the Manufacturer Mindset
Brem added: "I try to explain it internally as the relationship between Asda [retailer] and Unilever [manufacturer]; the thing we are really pushing is building our own proprietary deep understanding around the consumers so we can bring them the propositions that they need [and be more like a retailer].
"For us if there are cost benefits in doing it then fine. But unusually for Aviva that is not the driving factor for us. It is because our consumers want to engage differently and that is absolutely the top priority."
Brem highlighted that at Aviva digital was not one of ten or even five group priorities, but one of three alongside not doing everything, everywhere [underlined by the recent withdrawal from Irish healthcare] and becoming a true customer composite [like John Lewis where you can electronic goods, alongside clothes].
"You need a leadership team that is ready to make really tough decisions on investment," Brem told the Collective. "I have been in businesses where they say they will invest in [digital], but the reality is that they do not have to have the guts to pull money out of other things.
"And that is where our ‘not everywhere' strategy is so important, because [in the last week] we announced we were selling our Irish health business. And we were clear this is no comment on our commitment to that market, there were just reasons for us not to have it.
"And that is brilliant, because a whole load of capital that might have been nice to have employed in that business - that was not effectively being used - has been taken away and put to use somewhere else. And I have to say my CEO [Mark Wilson] is very clear on where the money is coming from - and where it is going too."
Brem also stressed it was "very important" to "have a "single clear leader" of any digital transformation strategy. Joking that his job title might seem a bit "pompous", he described how his job differed to that of group chief information officer Monique Shivanandan.
"It is a very different role, but we work inextricably together," he continued. "Her team write all the code, test it and build it. So I'm the customer and commercial guy, and she makes it happen.
"So when we sit around the table there will be developers, testers, scrum masters alongside digital product design, commercial and marketing people. So we work together in agile teams, but there is a fundamental difference in her role and mine. "
To integrate a successful digital strategy within a business, Brem stressed you needed to give it "teeth", which he equated to having its own P&L line, targets and incentives so people respond to it.
"Mark [Wilson] recognised if you want to pull a lever in a business like Aviva you need to give something teeth; and in the big corporate world teeth equals P&L. So what we did was create digital as a business unit [by incorporating it within] the UK direct arm Quote me Happy, which is now a tremendously powerful transformation vehicle.
"And [despite those origins] it is not true that all we do is direct to consumer. We are leveraging the team to help all our partners [whether banks, agents or brokers]. But somehow, big organisations don't get something unless you call it a business unit."
Digital Garages as Icons
Finally, Brem commented on how important its digital garages in London and Singapore were to the overall perception of the strategy internally within the wider Aviva group.
"In any organisational change, you need icons. And these two places are microcosms of what we do digitally," added Brem.
"It is not a case that everything that happens digitally takes place in those two buildings - that would be ridiculous. But is true that we have elements of everything that we do in them, whether that is digital designers, digital marketers, data people, engineers, coders, all working alongside a digital business - QMH in London and Navigator in Singapore."
Brem concluded: "What I don't want [the garages] to become is idea labs. I like ideas, I like labs, but it is important to stay grounded - which might have something to do with my retail background. But my absolute paranoia is that these become crazy places where there is actually nothing really happening; with fake grass flooring and all that kind of thing.
"They need to be real places, where real work goes on. That are icons and where anyone from Aviva is welcome to come along and hold workshops and meetings. The reality is that it makes the digital revolution more concrete for them."
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