Actor-turned marketing man David Learner says the insurance industry needs more razzmatazz and that it should put job ads in The Stage rather than The Guardian. Michael Faulkner reports
When David Learner joined Bury broker Alliance in July he was given the number 42 for his telephone extension. For most people that fact would be neither interesting nor remarkable. But for Learner it is far more significant. Learner was the actor who played Marvin the Paranoid Android from Douglas Adams' cult novel The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In Adams' world, 42 is the meaning of life, the universe and everything. "Pure coincidence," says Learner, clearly delighted. He radiates enthusiasm and charisma: his eyes sparkle, the timbre of his voice is soothing and perfectly modulated. He has stories aplenty. One cannot help but listen.It is therefore no surprise that Learner was a professional actor - he trained at RADA with such acting luminaries as Alan Rickman and Trevor Eve. But equally, with these qualities it is not surprising he moved into marketing."You need to be a good actor, because you need to be able to tell the story on the phone," he says. "You need to be able to perform as well, because whatever it is you are providing, it has to be completely newly-minted, and give the impression over the phone that it's the very first time you've said it. I've never done anything scripted on the phone."But why did he leave acting? "I had a good time, it was marvellous, but I was never going to get to the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was never going to play Hamlet, and I was never going to be starring with Michael Caine. So I thought it was a good time to leave," he says.
Moving into marketingSo, after nearly 25 years in acting, Learner moved into sales and marketing in 1997, starting with a casting agency and eventually arriving at Alliance in July this year. Coming into the insurance industry he says his perception was much the same as everyone else's. "It was something slightly grey, it was something that companies had to have, but it wasn't done with any sort of razzmatazz. That got me thinking about whether it could be something else. Could it not be something more?" For Learner, this meant calling on his acting skills. "I wanted to inject a bit of performance into it, a bit of enthusiasm. Insurance doesn't have to be boring. I have appeared in 300 radio plays in my professional career and I know how to entertain through the medium of the spoken word." Empathy, timing and delivery are key, he says. One cannot talk to Learner without discussing his most famous role, Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin is severely depressed ("Life! Don't talk to me about life," is one of his most famous phrases) with a brain the size of a planet. Does Learner have any of Marvin's character in him?"Everybody knows a Marvin, and the lovely thing about Marvin is that he is the most human character, despite the fact that he is a robot. He has all the human characteristics that we recognise and that is why he is adored. So yes, I do. I have a 'take me home and cuddle me' look about me."
Talking about insuranceHe jokes that people sometimes say to him "Insurance! Don't talk to me about insurance", inadvertently mirroring Marvin's famous comment about life. So how would Marvin describe the insurance industry? "Very, very depressing," he says. "He would describe insurance as being slightly less exciting than cat litter. He would probably try to have a conversation with it."Going back to Learner himself, now that he is on the inside of the insurance industry he thinks its grey image is unfair. "I sense it is something the industry has brought on itself. My image of it is very much like Spitting Image's portrayal of John Major as the man in grey. I know that there is a lot more colour to it."The insurance industry needs to shout about itself more, he says. "I don't understand why it doesn't. It is interesting and it can be seen to be interesting as well. "If I have to literally smack people round the face and say 'Look, this is something that is interesting, because it's your livelihood', then I will do that. I will be an evangelist on behalf of the insurance industry. "I will say 'I'm not talking about me here, I'm talking about you, I care for you, we only met 30 seconds ago on the phone, but I like you and I want you to do the very best by your business."He suggests that the industry should be hiring more actors to promote insurance. "I would recommend that, rather than go to The Guardian to place a job advert, they go to The Stage [the acting profession's magazine], because actors are able to take on roles and they can be whatever you want them to be. "The good actors are malleable. They will put on a coat and say 'I'm one of you now'. I am of the insurance world now and I revel in it and I enjoy it and support it and will do everything I possibly can to make Alliance the best-known name in the country."But one cannot forget his past as Marvin. Does he still have the costume? Posing with the head would make a great photo opportunity. Unfortunately not. For once, Learner looks a bit disappointed. "I had to give it back to the BBC," he says. But then his eyes light up. "If I'd kept it, I could have made a fortune on eBay." IT
Who is Marvin the Paranoid Android?Marvin was arguably the most popular character in the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Built with a prototype human personality, he was constantly depressed and whined about his troubles. His famous lines include: "Life! Don't talk to me about life," and "Life, loathe it or ignore it, you can't like it." He released two pop singles in the UK in 1981; sadly, neither reached the Top 40.