How Adam DeGraide, a rock ‘n roll bass player and band promoter who founded Astonish Results, plans to transport independent insurance agents into marketing cyberspace with his own digital elixir. Will agents drink the Kool-Aid?
We come on down on a mission to save you
Your footloose town won’t even know you’re gone
Our flying boombox was built to take you
Up to the stars where your groove belongs
Lyrics by No More Kings, an L.A. rock band on Astonish Records label
In the insurance world, forces of nature are rarely celebrated. Events such as hurricanes, fires, tornadoes and floods can confound the most exacting calculations, drain profit and sink insurers.
But then there is Adam DeGraide, a 38-year-old, rock ‘n rolling force of nature who is moving across the industry landscape with a hyperkinetic urgency, pursuing the mission of his company, Astonish Results, to transport independent agents into a profitable new age of cyberspace with its total digital marketing and training program.
Draped in black, sporting a soul patch and a row of spiky hair pointing starward, he stands before a grinning cartoon pitcher of Kool-Aid that adorns an expansive projection screen. At the point where rectangular tables part, he surges toward the agents assembled for his company’s second eAgent Summit and, mike held high, announces provocatively: “Everyone in our organization knows his or her role, and they drink the Kool-Aid!”
In fact, creating a Kool-Aid culture is point four in his 10 Steps to a World Class Sales Culture at Astonish. Far from a promise of free refreshments at the break, it is instead a key element of the Astonish Results practice-building system. Each employee should say, do and believe the same things in their professional roles, the Rhode Island native explains. “You definitely need to have a ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ moment and a ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ culture.”
Yes, this is not your father’s insurance agency. It’s a brave new world that DeGraide’s company has set out to conquer and populate. It’s a world in which every agency must have a blogger, ideally one who’s young and “should look like he just came off the street,” according to DeGraide. This authentic blogger should even come along on face-to-face meetings with potential clients. The blogger is an agency’s portal into the realm of Facebook postings, link trades, tweets and other social media treats.
Beyond the blogger, there is a whole turnkey system that Astonish Results is marketing, with capabilities that promise effective e-mail campaigns, referral captures, cross-selling, virtual Web presentations, SEO (search engine optimization) alchemy, and more.
Not Yet Maximized
The real and anticipated virtues of the system were the reason 200 independent agents gathered in the San Diego area in the fall for the eAgent Summit. Most had already been using elements of the system for at least several months; the handful who had not yet signed on were promised an intense sales presentation from DeGraide that he revealed would make them feel “so wound up, so nervous and so afraid all at the same time, you’ll think you won the lottery and just got hit over the head.”
The Astonish Results team was clear that not all users of the system had yet maximized its potential. Company president Tim Sawyer lamented that he was somewhat weary of highlighting the achievements of the same dozen agents while others were slow to implement the best ideas and strategies. “It gets old,” he said. “It gets really old.”
Sawyer is a force in his own right, with a tightly coiled style that tempts clients to peer through a Kool-Aid glass darkly. DeGraide’s approach generally has a brighter edge, even when delivering such lines as: “The difficult part about building a world-class sales culture is that we are human freakin’ beings, and we suck.”
Freakin’ was a popular adjective, superlative and likely euphemism from the podium, and just one of the reminders of the unique provenance of Astonish and its monochromatic cyber-prophet.
Before there was Astonish Results, there was Astonish Entertainment, launched in 2005 to promote new rock bands. The company includes the Astonish Records label and a music publishing division christened with the unapologetic pun: Making DeGraide Music. Through Astonish Entertainment, the bass-playing DeGraide has helped guide the careers of No More Kings, Aranda, Soular, Dirt Poor Robins and David Martin. He has also ventured into music videos, and hopes ultimately to make a mark in the film industry.
His early success as founder of BZ Results provided him with the resources necessary to launch both Astonish Entertainment and Astonish Results. Established in 1997, BZ Results is a digital marketing system for car dealers. In 2006, the company was sold to Automatic Data Processing for a reported $125 million.
Many of the marketing strategies developed at BZ are now part of DeGraide’s system for independent insurance agents. Understatement is not among the favored concepts, however. Astonish Results is “the greatest freakin’ digital marketing system in the world,” said DeGraide, speaking at what his conference program billed as “the greatest summit in the world,” which nonetheless took place at sea level, in Coronado.
Climbing rhetorical heights was a popular exercise at the eAgent Summit. At such altitude, the view of the Astonish digital marketing system is broad and bright, yet without a lot of definition.
“We really don’t get into specifics,” Scott Brazdo, vice president of marketing, said. In keeping with the policy, there is no brochure; rather, prospects can read two magazine article reprints and sign up for a “virtual presentation” on the Web site. Any talk of price is clearly improper. “What if instead of taking you into Disney World I asked if you wanted to go to a swamp in Florida to meet a five-foot mouse?” Brazdo reasoned intensely.
Despite the aversion to details, most conference speakers seemed to acknowledge that many elements of the system are variations on simple, common sense ideas. For example, Sawyer discussed extensively the importance of monitoring phone calls. The Virtual Phone Manager component of the digital marketing system is essentially a program by which Astonish records incoming calls for clients and critiques them.
Agency employees answering phones are encouraged to use an upbeat greeting, such as the one DeGraide’s company uses: “It’s a great day at Astonish!” Beyond that, it is important for the employee to hit key markers throughout the conversation: capturing e-mail addresses, discovering if the caller already has auto, home or small business insurance, and, upon learning the address of the prospect, professing with sincerity: “We have been getting quite a few quote requests lately from people right in your neighborhood.”
The importance of employees learning new routines, and consistently executing them, was coupled with a darker imperative: the necessity of cutting out “dead weight.” Here, the remedy was described with specificity: “walking the employee to the door.”
According to company digital marketing specialist Jonathan Monterecy, this is a reflection of the policy at Astonish. “We are slow to hire and quick to fire,” he said, advising that agencies should constantly solicit resumes. “If your people won’t [implement the system], guess what you need? New people,” agreed Sawyer.
One of Astonish’s star agency owners talked persistently about the importance of pruning the staff of his Boston-area office. “I don’t give rewards for asking for e-mails — I terminate if you don’t,” said Paul T. Murphy. “I am not taking a 20 percent cut in pay because somebody is lazy beneath me. It’s a privilege to have this job, a privilege to receive health insurance.”
Murphy’s place in the Astonish constellation is based on the dramatic growth of his agency, from a purported 347 new policies in 2007 to an estimated 1,500 by the end of this year. Fueling this success is a database of 24,000 names that he has built by consistent e-mail captures during phone calls, as well as innovative campaigns such as a contest for Boston Red Sox tickets for clients who give referrals.
Steadily creating a powerful database is an essential goal of the Astonish system. Complementing this approach are “rounding out campaigns” — selling additional policies to existing clients. “The best customer you’ll ever get is the one you already have,” said Monterecy.
Once this low hanging fruit has been gathered, the task of finding new leads requires a search-engine-optimized Web site that will place high in Google rankings and compel prospects to sign up for the same type of virtual presentation Astonish uses to market itself.
The man in charge of improving the Web visibility of agencies is John Boudreau, chief operating officer. He describes the challenge as “freakin’ complicated.” Vaulting to the top in the search rankings requires a determined effort to create well-crafted content, exchange links with as many sites as possible, and draw traffic and search engine attention through blog postings. PPC — or pay per click — marketing is also an option, but one Boudreau said can be underwhelming in its results.
In Astonish doctrine, the most effective Web site is a lead-generation machine cloaked in the utility of a research tool. The site should allow prospects to feel they are in control of the research process, even as the agency’s online presentation is slowly reeling them in. “The best sales process is the one you don’t even know you’re in,” says DeGraide.
In the end, that might have been not just the central message of the eAgent Summit, but also its ultimate explanation. For long after the frenetic Astonish presenters have soared home on flying boomboxes, there comes a fleeting thought that maybe the sales pitch is still rolling on in your mind. Suddenly you have the greatest thirst in the world, and set out to find some Kool-Aid.