Glen Smith cheerfully admits that he doesn’t know an awful lot about PR. His company has dabbled in local media relations. Occasionally it tries to raise its profile among potential employees around its headquarters in Braintree, Essex.
But when it comes to using PR for brand and business building, he admits he is a novice. "I don’t know exactly how it works and I haven’t met many PR people, although I know it is perceived as a dark art. But many people say they want to work with us. My main concern is will they really get under the skin of the business?"
Well, he is just about to find out. The company has grown an average of 30 per cent a year since 2009. That is pretty tasty by any standards, but apparently it is not enough for Smith. He is now planning to turbocharge growth by taking company turnover from £14m to £28m a year by 2018.
To do this he is investing £2m in an advertising campaign through MWO, the same ad agency that created the Red Telephone for Direct Line and the Iggy Pop ads for Swiftcover, "plus a quarter of a million in production", he notes dryly. The campaign breaks in January and he is now looking for a PR agency to help him amplify the campaign by explaining his products and their benefits, and generally bigging up the brand.
Smith founded Avanti in 1996 as a general insurance brokerage after a spell at Bupa. He soon found he was writing more travel insurance, especially among the over-50s. "We have grown because we are a service-oriented business providing good, strong advice in a complex but commodified market," he explains.
The core of his business is now providing travel cover for the increasingly itinerant over-60s. It is a niche that Smith seems to have made his own. The average age of his customers is over 69, and there is even a section on the Avanti website for the over-80s.
There’s gold in the silver market. "Obviously getting cover for high-risk customers with often complex medical and insurance needs can be difficult," says Smith. Not to mention pricey. Wanderlust is now such a force among retirees that some are willing to pay as much as three or four thousand pounds on insurance premiums alone for a trip.
The age of Avanti’s clientele explains why in some months it pays out more in claims than it receives in premiums. But it is good for business and defines the opportunity, says Smith: "People don’t understand the difference in policies. But it signals that we are here for the long term."
And that is what he wants from his PR agency: a long-term relationship: "We are in business for the long haul and we want the same with our PR relationships. It’s about finding someone I can trust."
The brief will cover trade and product PR and Smith says he is agnostic about exactly how the relationship with his agency will work. But he is sure he is not drawn to big agencies. "I want someone who is passionate about my business," he explains. And he is not sure yet how much he needs to spend: "I have an open mind on budget." And he doesn’t really understand the selection process.
He says he needs to learn about the different sorts of PR available in the market. And to do that, he believes the best approach to choosing a PR agency will be a beauty parade.
But Smith is very clear about what he wants from his PR: "We want to be famous and we want our products to be understood. We’ll have to be brave. We have clear criteria, but in the end I suspect I’ll choose my partner on the basis of gut instinct."