By Judy Newman
The Wisconsin State Journal
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great Q&A with Telisa Yancy, the chief marketing officer at American Family Insurance. In December, Yancy was named to Ebony magazine’s 2016 Power 100, a list that also includes athletes Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
The Wisconsin State Journal
If there’s any consumer product that sounds boring and complicated yet is an essential purchase for Americans today, it might be insurance.
Telisa Yancy may have helped to change the industry’s dull image.
Yancy is chief marketing officer at American Family Insurance, a Fortune 300 company that has its headquarters in Madison.
It was Yancy and her team who envisioned American Family’s “dream” campaign that encourages people to “Insure carefully, Dream fearlessly.”
A native of Chicago’s south side and graduate of the University of Illinois with an MBA from Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Business, Yancy joined American Family in 2009 as advertising director after stints with Ford Motor Co. and Burger King.
In 2011, Yancy and her staff launched the dream campaign, a marketing project that has featured celebrities such as Wisconsin native J.J. Watt, a former UW-Madison Badger football star who now plays for the Houston Texans, and Cottage Grove native Jessie Vetter, goalie with the silver-medal winning U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team in 2010 and 2014.
As an offshoot, American Family opened DreamBank, 1 N. Pinckney, on Capitol Square, that features art exhibits, workshops and other resources designed to inspire its visitors to discover and follow their dreams.
“Telisa is a person I rely on for more than marketing expertise and advice — she is a fantastic strategic thinker who delivers results in a way that is consistent with our brand. She is innovative and entrepreneurial by nature and has a way of blending ‘new stream’ thinking with ‘mainstream’ or legacy models,” said Jack Salzwedel, American Family’s CEO, president and chairman.
Yancy’s accomplishments are drawing national attention.
She was named in December to Ebony magazine’s 2016 Power 100, a list that also includes athletes Simone Biles, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan and LeBron James; entertainers Beyoncé, Kevin Hart and John Legend; astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson; and the Obamas.
Yancy’s promotion to the “C-suite” last May put her in charge of American Family’s $194.5 million advertising budget, Ebony said.
Yancy also earned a spot on Savoy magazine’s 2014 list of Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America and on Savoy’s 2016 Top Influential Women in Corporate America.
Married to jazz saxophonist Robert Yancy — known professionally as Yancyy — and the mother of Robert II, age 5, Yancy and her family moved to Madison in 2013 after she commuted from Detroit for four years.
Question: How did the idea for the “Dream fearlessly” campaign come about?
Answer: Around the end of 2010, I had been here a couple of years and was challenging myself to think of what’s next for the brand, to get me back to: What is our company’s purpose? How do we enhance our customers’ lives like nobody else can do?
The board of directors had elected Jack Salzwedel as its next CEO. He got me and the vice president of marketing together in a room. “Dreams” is what came out of our research.
We started to talk to customers about what matters most in their lives. As we dug deeper, we learned that the real value of insurance is it provides a safety net for their dreams. The research also revealed that the American dream meant different things to different people, but they all believed it was important and could be achieved. But they needed help, inspiration and a partner. At the time, there was no company or brand that owned this, but we saw it as something that authentically fit with what AmFam was as a company.
Q: What brought you to American Family? And how did your past experiences lead to this type of thinking?
A: I’ve been very fortunate. Every job I’ve had is probably the best job I had.
When I was at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Business, Ford recruited me into a management program for sales and marketing. I worked for some of, I think, the best leaders I’ve ever worked for. I was with Ford for 16 years and worked in a lot of places, including Minneapolis, Detroit, Atlanta and Seattle.
At Ford, there was a general notion of creating something and sustaining it, the passion of being part of one single team. It really doesn’t matter where you work in a company as long as you believe in the vision.
I left Ford for Burger King, where I was vice president of marketing for one year as the company was going public (again). From there, I came to American Family.
When I got here, I was thinking: How could insurance be as cool and as fun and as rewarding as cars or food? But I was wonderfully surprised. It’s actually better.
The insurance category has a lot of money being thrown at it to attract consumers’ attention. American Family’s brand really seemed authentic. I thought it could be much broader and more enriching.
Q: How so?
A: I don’t believe that anybody achieves anything alone. Part of being a dreamer and a doer is recognizing the people who help you through. My mom helps us during the week. I speak to my sisters and brothers in Chicago and the Quad Cities (in Iowa) as often as a couple of times a day.
When I joined American Family, our competitors’ message was fairly simple: get a character and talk about a single feature like price or how quickly you could get done with insurance and go back to your life. It did a great job demystifying the product but it also took away the humanity about what the insurance agent, policy or brand actually does.
It’s not just that you want to get done with it: It is standing watch over your entire life.
Typically, when there are claims, at American Family, we are 100 percent dedicated to helping the customers put their lives back together, to get through in a manner that helps them to live and to thrive.
Insurance is inherently about a belief that tomorrow is going to be brighter than today. It’s about achieving your dreams.
Q: What message did you want to send in signing celebrities to speak for American Family?
A: I happen to know the ladies and gentlemen, our brand ambassadors — such as J.J. Watt, Jessie Vetter, singer John Legend, (model-turned-entrepreneur) Kathy Ireland and (golfer) Steve Stricker — on the surface, appear to be larger-than-life personalities. In reality, they are champions and dreamers just like you and I happen to be, but on a different sphere.
We use them to bring our brand to life.
Q: How did the recognition from Ebony magazine come about?
A: I’m not sure how it happened. I’m incredibly honored to be on the list. The Johnson family (Ebony founder and owner until 2016) is iconic to people in Chicago. I was actually speechless.
Being in a room with people I really shouldn’t be in a room with, like Beyoncé — it just confirms my view that the great equalizers for everybody are education, economic opportunity and hard work.
Q: Now that you’ve lived in Madison for a few years, what do you think about the area?
A: We love it here. My husband and I are just getting our feet wet. We are working with the Goodman Community center and in Pastor Everett Mitchell’s church, Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church. (Mitchell is also a Dane County Circuit Court judge.)
I am a big supporter of American Family Children’s Hospital. My son had an undiagnosed but really bad asthma problem. The Children’s Hospital helped figure out what it was, and treated my husband and me so well. It gave me such comfort that I believe in what they’re doing.