Matt Marko | progressive Insurance

Matt MarkoFor anyone new to this blog series, the premise is people’s Squiggly Path: how they have embraced technology to stay relevant in their careers.  I came up with this concept after reading the book Control Alt Delete by Mitch Joel.  During my interview with Mitch he made the point that  “in order to remain relevant people needed to bring the spirit of innovation and ownership to work”.

I would like to introduce you to Matt Marko who I met through Don Campbell.  Matt has a corporate position with Progressive Insurance and he is very interested in technology and data.  I think that Matt is an awesome example of how one person can make a difference in their company by embracing technology and rolling out solutions to stay ahead of the curve.

Tell me what you call yourself now (ie web designer, lifestyle coach, tech futurist)
Professionally, I call myself a Marketing Manager or Product Manager. On a more personal level, my daughter made me a World’s Best Dad mug so I try to live up to that as much as I am able.

When you were in school what did you think you wanted to “be”?
In grade school I wanted to be a professional basketball player, geologist, or marine biologist. In high school/college after cursing my non-NBA ready genes and realizing that I hated AP science classes, I became interested an international business career. My big goal was to be successful “in business”. By grad school I’d realized that I had broad interests in a lot of “business” areas so I began to focus on general management jobs – that is, jobs in which I could be responsible for profitability and growth of a business, involved with the many areas of running a business and in so doing always be learning new things.

Tell me your path from what you wanted to “be” to what you are now.
I spent my four college summers in Krakow and Warsaw (Poland) teaching, studying Polish, and working for the State Department at the American Embassy Warsaw. After college at UNC-Chapel Hill as a double Economics and History major, I took jobs in DC doing research in HR consulting then corporate legal consulting, and then I enrolled at Darden to get my MBA focusing on general management. Having an interest in strong brands and consumer marketing, I spent my MBA years preparing for a consumer packaged goods company role including a summer as an Associate Brand Manager on Hamburger Helper at General Mills. But after graduation I instead took a job as a Product Manager with Progressive Insurance, which appealed to me because of the great people I met from Progressive and because I was able to own a $150MM P&L from day one. From there I transitioned into my current Marketing Process Manager role in which I manage an awesome team that helps 35,000+ insurance agencies across the US grow their business leveraging the Progressive brand and various online and offline marketing tools and programs.

Was there ever a point when you said, this is where I need to reboot – or in retrospect can you connect the dots backwards and pinpoint when you embraced technology into your wheelhouse?
No Jerry Maguire-type moments, but looking back I think there have been two constants guiding my choices: 1) always wanting to be growing/learning something new and 2) an interest in technology and simplifying tools. Thanks to my older brother we had a VIC-20, C-64, and then an Amiga 500 in our house growing up. I first built a web site in 1996 and bought my first mp3 player in 1997 – a really sharp Diamond Rio player the size of a deck of cards that could hold 8 songs. Today a hobby is doing my best to keep up with the world of local search.

What was your first job?
My parents turned a couple of acres of our upstate NY backyard into a strawberry and tomato farm, so my first job was as a strawberry picker. Proudest accomplishment there was once picking 52 quarts in one day. Outside of home or lawn mowing gigs though, my first “real” job was as a box-breaker/bundler at Park Row Booksellers. Not much fun, but minimum wage was better than $0.25 a quart of berries.

What was your most favorite job ever, why?​
I love my current job, but for a couple of years after college I worked for the Corporate Executive Board (now called “CEB”). One of my jobs there was a job I created for myself – to essentially to invent Excel-based benchmarking and productivity tools for Chief Legal Officers at Fortune 500 companies, and then present the tools and data to CLOs and their teams. While that may not sound very interesting, it was the first job that I had the chance and latitude to create/invent, to essentially be an entrepreneur within a large company, and that job led me to discover that that’s what I’ve been happiest doing at work. In that job I also gained exposure to linear regression models & how they could be applied to real world business data and situations – I’ve always been a data guy. The job was also neat because it gave me exposure at a young tenure to senior executives at companies like Pepsi and General Motors that I had no right to be talking to with the small amount of real world experience that I actually had. And finally, in that job I first realized (in part from having an incredible manager) how important relationships are in business and how critical it is to surround yourself with great people, whatever you are doing.

There are points in all of our careers when someone gives us advice that has stuck – what was it for you? A mentor once shared with me an aspect of the “Johari’s Window” concept, the insight that one of the most difficult aspects of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but rather what you are perceived to be by others. Blind spots make leadership even more difficult and demonstrate why “soft” skills like relationship building and communication are so critically important. I try to keep this in mind.

What job was crap but worth it in retrospect?
I love the incredible brand portfolio of General Mills including Hamburger Helper, and I met a ton of great people working there. However in my short time there I realized that no matter how passionate I was about the brands, as a data guy I was never going to be happy or comfortable in an environment where focus groups and subjective arguments about things like the color of packaging regularly won the day. (I tend to share Malcolm Gladwell & Steve Jobs’ disdain for focus groups.)

My time at General Mills helped me realize that for example while the Cheerios brand is outwardly a lot sexier than car insurance, being a left-brained person I thrive where I can make or at least inform decisions based on hard data and analysis as often as possible. Coming to this conclusion after working at General Mills helped me to find and consider Progressive Insurance, which I probably never would have done otherwise.

In retrospect it’s interesting how the jobs I might’ve anticipated to be the least-interesting sounding jobs I’ve had (corporate legal consulting & car insurance product management/marketing) have turned out to me the most fun and fulfilling. Seriously, how can a free market numbers person not love the competitive dynamics of insurance? In what other industry do you not know the cost of the goods you’ve sold until a year after you sold the product, and where the best data segmentation model wins over time through adverse selection? It’s awesome.

What do you like most about what you are doing now?
I love having the freedom to pursue entrepreneurial ideas and programs and to set our agenda as to how to best help local insurance agencies grow, with the brand, resource, and scale advantages of a Fortune 200 company. And I love the challenge and the competition of the insurance industry.

What is your mantra?
I don’t know if I have a mantra but I do collect quotes that I aspire to live by. One of my favorites is from Herm Albright, who was a writer for the Saturday Evening Post, “A positive attitude may not solve all your problems, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.”

I often hear be bold, be brave, be brief – tell me how you are implementing either of the three into your business.
Insurance can be a fairly slow-moving industry, and like other small-businesses, many insurance agencies have been slow to adopt digital marketing strategies. We’ve been working at this challenge for years now but your question brings to mind a new approach we are taking. We’re about to embark on recording a curriculum of 2 to 5 minute YouTube video screencasts outlining highly tactical online marketing strategies within the reach of implementation by the average insurance agency. Mitch Joel would call it B2B utilitarianism marketing. We hope to create a scalable, low cost way to leverage technology and our Progressive learnings in the space to help even more insurance agencies grow by leveraging local search, their agency web site, and social media.

How ’bout this, a curriculum of screencasts!  I am guessing that while logging in time at Hamburger Helper Matt didn’t really see that on the horizon.

I am seeing a trend with video, both in eduction in Mark Pogliano’s interview and now with Matt and how insurance is adapting the technology.  Are you integrating video into your mix?  I am curious.

Thanks Matt! What a great read.

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