WATCH: Digital Transformation for Ultra-high Net Worth Financial Advisors

top software developer
Zach Ettelman
Jul 17, 2020

How do you bring hyper-personalized digital innovation to an industry built on relationships and legacy systems? Lucy Bosworth, Vice President of Marketing and Practice Consulting for M Financial Group, and Zach Ettelman, Director of Digital Innovation of Spire Digital, discuss how they built and executed a multi-year digital transformation roadmap. In just 6 months, the M Financial team has created a series of interactive “edu-marketing” hubs to support distributed content for its member firms.

Learn about how M Financial Group and Spire Digital used digital growth and agile strategy to:

  • Build a scalable digital platform allowing Member Firms to spin up branded microsites and branded Marketo templates in a matter of minutes
  • Roll out hyper-targeted campaigns enabling Member Firms to attract centers of influence and prospective clients
  • Craft a multiyear digital transformation roadmap to create platforms and processes that support the growth of M’s Member Firms

Digital Transformation Video Transcript: Introduction

Zach Ettelman: Hello everyone, and welcome to fwd20. The age of resilience. I am Zach Ettelman and I’m Spire Digital’s Director of Digital Innovation. Thank you to everyone for attending throughout the day. It’s been a great day so far. I can’t believe how many great sessions we’ve already seen and gotten to be a part of. To continue this momentum. We’ll kick off our fireside chat, which we’ve called, Digital Transformation At Scale: Ultra-high Net Worth Financial Advisors Get A Dose Of Digital. For the next 30 minutes, we’ll be highlighting M Financial Group’s digital transformation journey, which I’m really excited to be sharing with everyone today.

We do have a lot to get through in the session, so we may not have time to do a live Q and A, however, feel free to let us know in the Q and A box if you’d like to chat after the session to expand on anything that Lucy and I talk about.

With me today, I have one of my favorite clients, Lucy Bosworth, the Vice President of Marketing in Practice Consulting for M Financial Group. Lucy is leading M’s digital transformation efforts and we really appreciate her joining us today. Now that we’ve got some of our housekeeping items out of the way, let’s jump right in. Lucy, we’d love to learn more about you, your story, your role in this digital transformation journey at M Financial.

Lucy Bosworth: Thank you, Zach. I’m really pleased to be here and most importantly, you’re one of my favorite partners. We keep finding new ways to engage Spire and to work with your team in Denver. You’ve done a lot of great work in a short period of time and we look forward to continuing that partnership.

I joined M Financial Group in the fourth quarter of 2018. I joined them from Accenture, where I was a Senior Principal in their retail organization. Before retail, I was in the Oil and Gas Division. I worked with companies like Chevron and Exxon and large independent producers. I was bringing transformational change to them in their labor practices and their talent practices using digital, so that was pretty exciting. And before then I worked for a large privately held company and we supported companies like Wells Fargo, Capital One, and also companies like Chevron and also in transformational projects and deep strategy and consulting work around talent.

Prior to that, I owned my own executive search and recruiting firm, and we supported pretty much the entire Southern part of the United States. I sold that company when I was 30 years old. So, you know, it’s a kind of a varied background between working for very large publicly held companies like Accenture and being a kind of a small business owner that built a company and then sold it. So, it’s been a great journey and I joined M Financial Group right after they kind of launched their strategic plan, which included a pretty robust digital transformation.

Our new CEO, West Thompson, joined M Financial in about a year, almost a year exactly before me. He spent that first year crafting and building a new strategic plan for the company. We hadn’t had a new CEO in 28 years, so a lot of things in the world were hard changed, but life insurance really hadn’t caught up to that yet so we brought in a transformational board leader. I was hired by West to join his executive team and help accelerate the implementation and execution of his strategic plan.

So I initially was hired as Vice President of Strategic Initiatives. I launched one of the first initiatives in the strategic plan called Magnet, which is a comprehensive two year training and development program for new financial advisors coming into the business. Life insurance isn’t a sexy job for a lot of people. They wanna go work at Google or Amazon or go to work on Wall Street, but it is a fantastic career for the right folk and for the right person. And so, I launched that and then had a large portfolio. And then this past year, my role expanded to be Vice President of Marketing and Practice Consulting. So, I’ve been pretty busy since I’ve been at M, just about a year and a half.

Understanding M Financial’s Business

Zach Ettelman: That’s great Lucy thanks for that overview and something that I find really interesting working with you, and it’s really invigorating is, you understand how things operate, kind of on our side of the table, being more on the consulting side and you bring that unique perspective to M. And I think that really helps in their digital transformation. Not only ’cause you can bring that new culture to them, but then you also know what you need from a digital partner to get there. And the other really interesting thing about M is, there are different types of financial services. So I think it’d be a really helpful context for our virtual audience today. If you could just, give a background of how M is structured, what your team does and really why organizations choose to work with M.

Lucy Bosworth: Sure, so M is a wonderful company that does about a billion dollars in annual sales and has about $14 billion in consolidated assets. We are a wealth advisory company that offers services like investment advisory services. We are a broker dealer. We have full security offerings and then we work with life insurance distribution companies. So we do wealth transfer estate planning, executive benefits, we are very large in the institutional markets as well as corporate benefits, retirement services, group life, longterm, disability, and care and 401k. In addition to having international insurance products.

What’s interesting though, why a lot of folks haven’t heard about us is because we have a fairly tight client focus, which is the ultra-high net worth, and high net worth consumer and business owners. These are individuals and businesses that need complex insurance products and solutions to help them do that wealth transfer, generational tax keeping, or to really preserve their wealth long term, or to preserve their businesses. If they wanna be able to pass that business down to members of their family, or be able to make sure the business stays intact, even if the family doesn’t wanna be involved anymore. So we’re not a mass market insurance distribution company, we’re really narrowly focused. And in that marketplace, we have close to 30% of the penetration of the ultra-high net worth market.

Most of our carriers and we have relationships with the top insurance manufacturers and carriers in the world, really John Hancock, Prudential, Pacific Life, Nationwide, you know, just to name a few. Those partner carriers develop proprietary products exclusively for our clients. Our clients have not just unique needs, but they’re unique in of themselves. Their mortality is different. They tend to live longer, they pay their premiums longer. They get extra benefits because of the kind of insurance that they need and how they can and how they use it, and so we have proprietary products. We have very specific things we bring to the market that really no other life distribution company has.

In addition to that, a reinsurance company. So we actually share the risk with those carriers in the products that we sell. So what that means is, we have all the motivation in the world to give the best service to our clients and to make sure our clients really stay clients, they stay involved with their policies. The servicing we do for them is really second to none. So we have a unique position in the market. We have a unique voice in the market, and then we do unique delivery in our market.

When our new CEO joined, West Thompson, he really saw that there was an opportunity to transform that life insurance experience. So, that life insurance experience and what that was bringing the full throttle of digital to clients in the way they enroll, the way their cases are created, the way we deliver servicing, the way we deliver accelerated underwriting. All of these things are big differentiators between M Financial and our competitors. We are in that unique position to be able to deliver digital transformation and a completely different experience for our clients. So that’s one of the things that Spire is helping us with is, the sort of marketing side of it, not the delivery of the services side, but on marketing. Because of who we are, we feel we’re in a unique position to really have that transformational experience and our clients certainly expect it.

Financial Services Industry Culture vs Digital Transformation

Zach Ettelman: Thanks for that context. It’s interesting to hear like the market we’re working within talking about a very risk averse industry in a company culture that, you know, has not gone through a CEO leadership change for years. West comes in and then you come aboard late 2018. What were some of the triggers that you noticed when you came aboard like, you know, what can we do from our digital transformation perspective? Then how did you and West work together to really kind of build that, the beginnings of that roadmap?

Lucy Bosworth: Sure, well, I can’t take credit for building the roadmap. He did that before I was hired. He brought me in to help execute on the roadmap. What I think though, one of the things that we talked about before I joined and I met other members of the executive team, is that the board had complete support of this transformational plan, the board and the membership. And I think I probably neglected to talk about our operating model and we have a very unique operating model.

M financial is actually a company that’s owned by our shareholders — 146 number firms and principals owners of those firms. And so everything we do is for their benefit, but there are 146 independent, you know, business owners and they’re strong advocates for their clients. They are considered the top experts in the business. They have deep experience. And so, while we’re not a big brand in terms of, you know, everybody knows us, those in our market know us very well. And so for our member firms to buy onto this transformational plan was a really big deal.

A lot of that had to do with boards. So once that was in place and I saw, you know, the board supported it and West was able to get the funding that we needed to really move forward with this plan. We were able to work with fantastic partners and really put something in place. But, what’s also interesting is, we’re not a corporation that is like, you know, Spoken-hub or hub and Spoke where, you know, we can say, “this is what we’re gonna do, and we’re going to push out.” There’s a lot of socialization that has to be done. There’s a lot of voices that have to be heard and we have to create, you know, kind of like a spectrum of solutions, even within the solutions, to meet our membership where they are.

We have some firms that are huge, and they’re huge, you know, urban centers and they work with their clients or, you know, hedge fund advisors or their big institutions. And then you have some member firms that are in smaller markets and they’re working with mostly family owned businesses. So we have to create digital solutions that work for them. The work that Spire’s doing with us in marketing is very, you know, it’s never one size fits all. We’re constantly looking at how we’re gonna get that buy-in and how we’re gonna move things forward.

Zach Ettelman: Yeah, I think that’s great. You bring up meeting member firms where they’re at. I think that’s a really important piece of, you know, that the agileness we’ve brought to this project. When you engaged with Spire as part of Kin and Carta, really in the beginning of this year, end of last year, one of the big goals that we were trying to achieve is, “how can we support our member firms in how they market to their prospective clientele? How can we make them more effective with the distribution that they’re doing from a marketing perspective become more efficient and ultimately increase referrals?”

Because we know that in this space, referrals are what’s going to actually move the needle. So let’s dive in a little bit more into Aperture, which is the project we’ve started to work on. What were kind of the beginnings of that?  Just give some context, we’ll dive more into some more specific questions about the roadmap and where we’re at after that.

Lucy Bosworth: Sure, so, you know, Aperture was one of the original pillars of the strategic plan that the board and the CEO developed. How to do the marketing at scale, how to take what was predominantly white papers written for a very technical audience and say, we’ve got to do more, we’ve gotta reach more people. People don’t just talk about life insurance everyday. Like, “Oh, I need life insurance”, even the very wealthy, right? So we had to create sort of an opportunity to say, who is our audience? What do we want them to know? And again, keeping in mind what we do and for whom we do it is really important. We are not really a direct to consumer organization.

We don’t really sell or offer life insurance solutions for sort of the mass market. We are very much in a narrower market. Most of our business comes from what we call centers of influence, their trust attorneys, their family offices, their CPAs, that help run family businesses. So the folks that we work with and the first that give us our client referrals are our primary client acquisition channel are actually other individuals. So it’s not the direct consumer. Some of our clients don’t know us as well. Some of our clients know who we are, but they know our members from principal and advisor and they know their advisor that helps them with their portfolios. And so, that was kind of our core audience number one, core audience, number two are our strategic partners. Those are larger institutional banks.

We have a partnership with PNC Bank, the fifth largest bank in the United States. We’ve also just launched another partnership with a 16,000 member organization whose primary mission is a service, but they represent an African-American women philanthropic organization. And they themselves are centers of influence. They are Presidents of Universities, they are politicians, influencers, community activists. ‘Cause we wanna broaden who our clients are. So we have strategic partners who are institutional relationships, and then we have the relationships with our COIs. And so when you take those two, we don’t really wanna talk to them about products. We don’t wanna talk to them about a variable life insurance policy or a term policy. We wanna talk to them about why someone would need life insurance, life insurance, as an asset class, how you can use it, how it fits into your financial planning, how it fits into your business planning.

So, our approach to marketing is really to educate individuals, a little bit like a pharmaceutical model. I like to say it’s like, did you know you had all these issues? If you do, call your doctor. And so our approach is, let’s talk to you about how life insurance is beneficial for tax planning, for business planning, for generational planning. Then, if you find any of this interesting, we wanna refer you to one of our member firms.

We send these pieces out to centers of influence or to our strategic partners in the hopes that it spurs a conversation with their clients, on why they need to talk to an M Financial Advisor. So, it took us a while to understand who our audience was because, it’s like, do we wanna take this opportunity to go directly to the consumer? Do we wanna just do it for strategic partners? So really formulating that plan on who we wanted to talk to, and what we wanted to talk to them about, took a lot of time. It took like almost a year, frankly. But once we really had crystal clear use cases, and crystal clear understanding of who we were tryna reach and why, that’s when bringing in our partners on the creative side, Spire. They were talking to us about how to make it happen, on what platforms we needed to build, what distribution looked like, what kind of creative assets worked better, and how to craft those campaigns. That allowed us to accelerate, but just taking the time upfront to figure out what we wanted to do with this stuff was really important.

Gaining Traction for Organizational Change

Zach Ettelman: That’s great, yeah. The technology piece is really interesting, not only for us, like as our teams work together, but also we have to factor in, how are we using technology? Specifically, we created these interactive, personalized, edgy marketing hubs for our audience. So, how do we use that as a channel? Which is rather new, you know, for COIs you know, deals in the financial industry are done on the golf course, they’re done in more personal communications and relationships. So what kind of, especially in more of the planning phase of Aperture, what kind of obstacles were you trying to plan for in terms of the adoption of the methods we were actually gonna use to get this out to our COIs?

Lucy Bosworth: So that goes back to our business model. We have 146 member firms. And as I mentioned earlier, we’re in life insurance, we’re in wealth, we’re in corporate benefits, real estate planning. So we’re not a monolithic voice, and our clients aren’t monolithic either. We are really trying to find out and understand what kind of content we really need to reach our different audiences. They’re really not the same.

We’re probably still working through that set in terms of, you know, what does a strategic partner need versus a very sophisticated, center of influence, a state planner, trust attorney working with clients with very specific needs. How do we create content for those two types of individuals and audiences?  We continue to evolve that conversation. Just yesterday I had a meeting with five members of our board and we’re still working through it.

So the unique obstacle for us is, we’re not a corporation that’s gonna have like two themes and we drive it home every day. We have a sophisticated audience and we have lots of different markets within that audience that we need to try and develop content for. How do we also balance the need for, I call it, the stream versus on demand approach? I wish I could stream everything in control of how the contents are distributed, so I can get all the analytics and I can manage it all.

But at the end of the day, what makes M really thrilling is the 146 member firms who are run by entrepreneurs and independent advocates for their clients. They want to be able to have the content available to them, when they want it, to distribute it as they want and to whom they want,without having my team back in Portland say “Oh, no, we gotta put them on an email campaign and it’s gotta work like this.” They’re like, “yeah, that’s great, I don’t need that.” So it’s working with Spire to try to figure out the balance of how do I get analytics? How do I get reporting? How do I help manage distribution? So those are the unique wrinkles that I work on every day.

Leveraging Agile Methodology and Technology

Zach Ettelman: Awesome, yeah, the self serve model. You know, as we started working together, I think it was so obvious that we needed to do it, but doing it the right way was not easy. And we’ve already kind of launched what we call MVP with some strategic partners, as we were doing that, we came up with some other potential obstacles that we had to face. Not even on the digital front, but on the execution of how we’re doing this for member firms and some of that overlap. So that like really gave us time to pause.

We had to be strategic about how we moved forward, but we took a very agile approach and, you know, came up with a pilot. Can you talk a little bit about that and you know, how the technology we’re using and just how our processes and teams work together to be agile?

Lucy Bosworth: Yes, and you bring up a really good point about overlap. We could have a market where we only have one or two member firms and they’re very different lines of business and their centers of influence don’t overlap at all. You can be in another market where there’s four or five member firms in a fairly close proximity and they overlap maybe two or 300 relationships. So we want of all five of those firms and let’s say a market like Denver all wanted to be on our email campaigns and send distribution or send content to most of the same people. You could be in a situation where one individual receives the same content from five different member firms. Well, that’s clearly not acceptable. It’s not a great user experience.

But we also don’t wanna be in the position to arbitrate who has which relationship and who owns which COI. Those are sort of thorny issues we’re still working through. So we’re doing a series of pilots in several markets where we’re trying to test if something is M branded versus member firm branded. Will that prevent the member from wanting to be in the program? Will that prevent the member from wanting to give us their list of COIs? Will that prevent the member from, you know, actively advocating for the program?

Okay, so then that happens, we get the COI list. Everything’s starting to work well, will the M branded email campaign have the same level of engagement? When it doesn’t come from the person they know, right. And when it doesn’t come from the member firm they know, or the principal they know, will they even open up the email? Will they even read the email?

So, if we’re in a place where the M brand does not work at all, what do we do in those markets? Where is it super congested? Those are all the issues we’re tryna figure out and Spire is really helping us because we’re having to spin up these AB pilots, ABCD pilots, multiple GEOs, and really trying to get the analytics in a quick enough time so we can report back to our board. Our board is super engaged.

So it’s like, you know, all of it will actually end up determining economics. How much will this cost us when we’re at scale with 146 different member firms with, you know, lots of different COIs? Is it mostly on demand? Is it mostly streaming? What kind of staff will we need to support this? So, all of these pilots have real economic implications that we’re still sorting through. It’s one of those things where again, it took us a fair amount of time to figure out the audience and use cases. When you actually go to implement, there’s like another whole host of things you just have to consider, because, when you do digital marketing at scale, suddenly, you’re just reaching a lot of people and you have to be super thoughtful. And that’s what we’re kind of working through with Zach and the team.

Zach Ettelman: I’m excited to see how our pilot goes and see really what the data tells us and then go from there.

Lucy Bosworth: I think we’re positioned for success, just the team we’ve got, you know, between Spire and the technology to support it is really helping us.

Zach Ettelman: Yeah, so, we got about six minutes left. I kinda want to shift focus and take it out of technology, but just focus more on company culture at M, and really how that potentially needed to change. Again, you came aboard after West was introduced as the CEO, but we know in these digital transformation projects that a cultural transformation also happens.

Especially in this situation, we just explained, like, we’ve gotta be moving on the fly very quick. We’ve got to look at data and then we’ve got to act, how has your team changed to really allow for us to get to that level of innovation?

Building a Culture of Innovation

Lucy Bosworth: That’s a really interesting question. How has our team changed? I think our team has changed in that you know, a bunch of us came from kind of consulting backgrounds and we’re so used to a client telling us to do something, and then we just go and do it. What I’m constantly having to remind them of is, we’re really not in control of this, right? At the end of the day, the member firm feedback is what’s gonna drive it because we can create beautiful content, which we’ve been told is beautiful. We can deliver, we can create a great platform, but if our member firms don’t wanna use it, it’s not helpful.

We constantly have to be, frankly, open-minded to get their feedback and incorporate their feedback. Even if that means a two week delay, even if that means a three month delay, because ultimately I could deliver to the moment, on time, but if they’re not going to embrace it, then it’s not gonna work. So it’s having my team have to have, and I’m really working on it everyday, like having a more open mindset, and embracing the feedback and whatever that brings with it. I think that’s really important. I think that sets the tone as a CEO, our executive team is really aware of this. We have a couple of members of our executive team who’ve been with us for a really long time. They’re sort of used to it but a few of us were brought in by West and we weren’t used to it. You have to kind of, you have to live in that moment. But yeah, being open to client feedback is really important every day.

And one thing I’ve noticed is everyone working, you know, at your team on these projects, and we’re expanding our scope out of Aperture and going into some other digital expansion projects, everyone is very flexible and nimble and we’ve kind of jelled our processes — two kinds of agile methodologies put together.

Every one of them I think really wins cause they lead with empathy. I think that speaks well to always understanding what the member firms need, trying to put themselves in the shoes of also these ultra-high net worth individuals really wanna reach, which is difficult. ‘Cause most of us don’t have that type of wealth, but I think that’s been part of what your team has and why, you know, we’ve been able to be successful working together. 

Zach Ettelman: So we’ve got a few more minutes. I’d love to just ask you, what kind of lessons do you have for the audience just about going through a digital transformation project? Anything that you wish you could have told yourself before we kind of started working together as you were coming on the M that the audience can confine and use in their own jobs?

Final Digital Transformation Tips

Lucy Bosworth: We actually were really set on using another partner before we embarked with Spire. And I like reverting back to my old supply chain training and I said, nope, we’ve got to go to market. This is really important, even though these other partners have done a really good job for us, I really wanna see what’s out there. My team, you know, at first was like, ugh, this is going to be so much more work and it’s right before the holidays. We just don’t have time to do this big RFP process.  I was like, I get it, I don’t care, we gotta just do it. Then about two weeks later, they came in, like, we think there’s actually a partner out there in Denver. They said this, and then I got upset and I was like, “no, we were about to contract.”

I just wanted to go through the process. I didn’t really think the process was gonna yield anything and then lone behold, you guys, you know, we ended up going with Spire. You guys have done a great job for us. We’re expanding your work in our rebranding opportunities and other creative areas. We’re also transforming our end benefit solutions and you know, you’re helping there too. There’s just lots of things.

First of all, never skipped the procurement process because you never know what you’re gonna get. Hopefully you’ll be pleasantly surprised, I’ve been. Then secondly, I think it is really taking in feedback, repeating, just keep taking that time to get that feedback from whoever your stakeholders are and not being so maniacal about like, “this is what we said we were gonna build and we’re gonna build it.” Just knowing that if it’s truly transformative, you’ve gotta bring a lot of people along with you. That means sometimes you’re gonna have to take a couple of sidesteps and different routes ultimately. So, just embracing that sort of mindset and having a partner that will help you get there is really important. So, those are probably my two things.

Zach Ettelman: Awesome, well, those are some great lessons we can all take advantage of and we are very appreciative to be working with you and your team. Lucy, thank you so much for joining us today. I always love talking with you.

Lucy Bosworth: Thank you.

Zach Ettelman: We could talk for hours and I would have enjoyed everything and learned a lot. So, thank you again and thank you everybody for attending virtually today. Have a good rest of the day.

Lucy Bosworth: Thank you, bye bye.

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