Progressive's Jeff Charney named Ad Age A-List Brand CMO of the Year
Just over a year ago, Dr. Rick, the “Parental Life Coach” character from insurer Progressive, knocked on the figurative door of Americans stuck at home under pandemic lockdown, and they were more than happy to let him in. Appearing in a series of commercials designed to prevent people from turning into their parents, his tough-love advice, featuring gems like “If you have nowhere to sit, you have too many [pillows]” and “Guess what, the waiter doesn’t need to know your name” resonated with consumers at a time when they needed it most. It also helped win over customers for the Mayfield Village, Ohio-based Progressive in the uber-competitive insurance landscape.
Jeff Charney, the longtime Progressive chief marketing officer responsible for Dr. Rick, as well as well-known characters such as Flo and Jamie, says the life coach’s COVID-19 debut almost didn’t happen.
“Back then it was a very unpopular decision,” he says. “Everybody else was doing all this heavier stuff, wearing masks, the ICU, ambulances, and we were introducing this kind of funny guy named Dr.—people got nervous.” Yet Charney, a veteran marketer who worked at Aflac and QVC before joining Progressive 11 years ago, knew a character hit when he saw one. “A logo can’t come into your home, a CEO can’t come into your home, but Flo can, Jamie can, Dr. Rick can,” he says.
Progressive amped up its advertising spend during 2020 by 11% to roughly $2 billion, a strategy that paid off as Dr. Rick continued to capture the attention of consumers, many of whom took to social media to convey their appreciation.
“If a TV network doesn’t turn Dr. Rick from the @progressive commercials into a sitcom, they’re missing the boat. Funniest thing on television,” wrote Marc Hochman on Twitter in January.
For the year, Progressive projected revenue of $42.7 billion, up 9% from $39 billion in 2019. Like its insurance rivals, the brand saw an opportunity to offer customers relief during the pandemic when people were driving less and in more need of financial support. The Apron Relief Program gave back more than $1 billion, something that Charney expects to help the brand in the long-term with customer loyalty.
“It’s hard to get [customers], and if you can come through for them during this time when they need you the most, you’ll have them forever,” he says.
The marketer, who is retiring in January, has spent the last decade positioning Progressive for success, a strategy that includes utilizing Progressive’s in-house agency Ninety6, which Charney launched in 2011 long before it was a trend among marketers.
“I really did try to raise the bar for myself and my team and go for the offense, not just defense,” he says.
Dr. Rick would approve.