An innocuous post on the account inviting its nearly 30,000 followers to “squawk about your 2022 raise/bonus” with the promise of anonymity led to over 7,000 responses. The feedback revealed some shocking disparities in compensation for professionals with comparable levels of experience, sometimes within the same company or at competitors, as well as by geography and, in more than a handful of cases, based on gender.
That surge in interest in the The Hard Market account was just the latest time it has captured the industry’s attention, after first rising in prominence at the peak of the pandemic, and quickly becoming an underground phenomenon off the back of pithy memes commenting on the absurdities of day-to-day life in the industry.
In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview with The Insurer, the account’s creator dishes on what it is like to be an executive operating in the industry with a massive audience and influence under the cloak of anonymity, how the account has unexpectedly taken off and how its meaning continues to evolve, and whether they could envision eventually revealing their identity and operating the account in the light of day, or as a full-time career (the account can be seen here).
Rapid spread via word of mouth
The account was first created in late 2019, mainly intended by the creator as a place to have some fun and to practise making memes, without even conceiving of having an audience made up of many professionals involved in the intermediation and underwriting of commercial and specialty risk.
Around six months into its existence The Hard Market had just one follower, and it was only after a meme featuring Ralph Wiggum from The Simpsons teasing the plight of Willis Towers Watson employees after Aon’s $30bn takeover was announced that word about the account rapidly spread and its posts became widely shared.
“I didn’t see that coming,” the account’s creator said, commenting on the ascent of its popularity. “It was literally something that I did when I was just [expletive] around a few years ago.”
The meme creator also said they weren’t sure how the original follower even found the page. “It was just kind of a place for me to practise making memes.”
“It was literally something that I did when I was just [expletive] around a few years ago. It was just kind of a place for me to practise making memes.”
The account has since attracted a devoted and highly engaged following that compulsively checks for updates featuring new memes playfully commenting on the frenzy of renewals, the subtleties of industry social outings, people moves and major industry developments such as losses or companies ordering staff back to the office – all with the technical acumen and nuanced appreciation of industry culture of a seasoned executive.
Beyond the intense interest in the account’s content and the anticipation of the latest viral spoof, there has been equally intense interest throughout the industry in figuring out its creator’s identity.
The Hard Market is the brainchild of one executive in particular, but gets help from a handful of other executives in their network, whom they trust to keep their identity a secret. The meme creator receives a consistent inbound flow from industry professionals everywhere, oftentimes guessing if the account is run by someone they know.
“I get guesses every day when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re Steve from the mailroom,’” The Hard Market explained, adding that every now and then, a user’s guess is accurate. When a colleague or trading partner guesses correctly, The Hard Market said they don’t respond.
“There’s some that don’t know [it], but they’ve guessed correctly,” The Hard Market said. “And then there’s some people that are very, very close to me and who have no idea.”
For the moment, The Hard Market is highly protective of their anonymity, but envisions a time when they could eventually run the account openly, if the opportunity presented itself.
“I get guesses every day when people are like, ‘Oh, you’re Steve from the mailroom’ … There’s some that don’t know [it], but they’ve guessed correctly. And then there’s some people that are very, very close to me and who have no idea”
The account owner said they were initially highly uncomfortable with the account coming up frequently in conversation in work settings, and feared their identity might be revealed, but has grown accustomed to The Hard Market being a topic of discussion amongst other executives.
“I’m used to it now, but it used to be that I would work so hard to keep a straight face, and I’d be looking around the room to see if people are looking at me to see if I’d break,” they explained. The Hard Market said they’d gotten more comfortable with it, after thinking to themselves, “Nobody in this room suspects it’s you, they’re just making conversation.”
Now they’re able to sit with a knowing smile, even when senior executives ask if they’ve heard about the latest posting on the account.
“You’re a meme site,” they said. “There’s always a fear that if you upset the wrong people, they could find out who you are, and could, in theory, blacklist you, or they can talk to your boss, so you could get in a lot of trouble. So there’s a lot of times I don’t necessarily have the stomach for it,” they added.
Despite that, the account’s level of influence in the industry can be measured by the scope of its audience. “It’s a stupid Instagram account, but the people who participate in it range from interns all the way up to very, very senior people, including a couple of CEOs who just love it and get a kick out of it,” they said.
“It’s like all of a sudden, I get to see the shape of this industry from the outside looking in rather than being in the middle of the machine.” The Hard Market also said that what exactly the account is or represents, or what could be its ultimate potential, changes by the day.
“It was a totally different thing early in the year, and then that whole pay thing happened, which I didn’t mean to happen,” they said, adding: “I kind of went with the tide on that one.”
“You’re a meme site. There’s always a fear that if you upset the wrong people, they could find out who you are, and could, in theory, blacklist you, or they can talk to your boss, so you could get in a lot of trouble. So there’s a lot of times I don’t necessarily have the stomach for it”
When asked if the account poses a distraction to getting actual work done, The Hard Market said they’ve actually found it easier to run the busier things are, as that essentially generates more ideas to meme about. “It’s a great thing to do on your commute. As the site has gained momentum, it’s become even easier because followers will help you.
“It’s the people that follow it that change it,” The Hard Market said. “They tell me where to go. I get people all the time who say, ‘you should do a meme on that’. Great idea.”
They continued: “I know what to post because the people that follow it will guide me there,” The Hard Market said. “If they know who I am, I don’t know if people would be so forthcoming with information.”
The Hard Market also said that after getting the hang of making memes, they can be done in as little as eight seconds. “Sometimes you don’t even have to think about it. Something ridiculous [just] pops in your head,” The Hard Market said, “That’s when you can literally barf them out.”
Answering follower questions (something that takes place once a month or so during live Q&As) tends to take more time, and the account owner acknowledged that if they can’t think of anything or nothing funny has happened, they could go days or weeks with a lull in activity.
They went on: “People just have so much fun with it. They love it, they participate in it and they feed in information,” they continued. “And none of it is to hurt. It’s all to get a laugh. It’s awesome.”
The account creator has a few recurring motifs, including one that features a World War II soldier seeking wisdom from a tank in a lake.
“I needed an image that gave me a way to just share a blurb of information and I came across a bizarre image of a semi-sunken WWII-era tank with a soldier staring at it as if asking it for friendly advice,” The Hard Market commented.
“It had been used as a meme before, and I thought it was hilarious. So it’s become a constant thing: the Panzer has shared wisdom on the ISO form, legal trends in NY, tort law versus criminal law, and the dangers of not understanding claims-made.”
While up until recently the account was best known for its trenchant humour and as a cunning outlet for the latest gossip, the account’s importance took on a whole new level with the outpouring of compensation information, which included responses from pretty much all of the top specialty and commercial carriers, retailers and wholesalers, along with feedback from staffers at MGAs, insurtechs and those working in the reinsurance world.
It included responses from employees working in the US, London and Bermuda – in some cases touching on unique work arrangements, such as housing allowances for staffers in Bermuda – while the divergence in companies’ maternity leave policies became a source of controversy.
Some of the account’s followers were shocked to find that employees had their compensation prorated to account for time out on maternity leave, or that they weren’t actually ineligible for raises but were just told that they were.
“It’s a stupid Instagram account, but the people who participate in it range from interns all the way up to very, very senior people, including a couple of CEOs who just love it and get a kick out of it … It’s like all of a sudden, I get to see the shape of this industry from the outside looking in rather than being in the middle of the machine”
The most common reactions The Hard Market said they heard following the wave of pay disclosures included enthusiasm from executives looking to mine the postings to recruit discontented staffers, as well as anger from others who believed the information disclosed lacked context.
One takeaway that emerged from the responses, The Hard Market said, was that a large number of employees, and women in particular, have found themselves not being rewarded for loyalty and being grossly underpaid.
“There were some people who were legitimately not being treated fairly,” they said, citing lack of loyalty and gender pay gaps.
“The general rule of insurance firms, whether it be a brokerage or a company, is they’re necessary oligarchies,” they commented. “There’s a sense that they’re just going to pay your people the least amount they absolutely possibly can, without [their staff] quitting. That’s the rule.
“We’ve got to get ourselves out of the mindset that your loyalty will always be rewarded,” they continued. “Your loyalty is rewarded a little bit, but if it’s not being rewarded, you have to be able to advocate for yourself.”
The Hard Market added that while women are among those disproportionately disadvantaged, there are also plenty of employees who are overlooked simply because they are shy about demanding raises. “Unless they literally stomp their feet every year and get competing job offers and threaten to quit, they’re never going to get the raise that they deserve.”
Another prevalent theme from the responses The Hard Market found, was new entrants into the workforce – members of “Gen Z” – looking to switch companies as soon as 10 months after completing a training programme, aiming to serially move in an attempt to rapidly push up their salary.
“There are young people who are hopping around, collecting enormous pay rises but not actually obtaining any depth of experience. Plus it creates a situation where you have people in the same age groups that are making vastly different amounts of money.”
The executive also noted that many respondents, when discussing their pay reviews with their managers, specifically took issue with the messenger:
“Many were very surprised that managers were given free rein to lie so vociferously,” they commented. They cited excuses they’ve heard, ranging from blaming poor raises and bonuses on macroeconomic dynamics, poor results within the company in remote geographies, or even events like the war in Ukraine, despite an affected staffer not working on any line of business that has been directly affected.
“It was just madness,” they said. “They will say anything to get out of that conversation. And I’m very surprised that they’re legally allowed to do that.
The Hard Market also commented on what they have aptly named “swap season” – the time after bonuses are given when many employees look to either make a move, or leverage a competing offer in an effort to get a raise.
For example, they said they knew an executive at an independent broker who said they had gotten upwards of 50 calls from young brokers at the top three firms, and even if they gave them the best offer possible, none of them would take it.
“At least have the decency, if you are going to get another offer just to leverage your boss at a big box, get that offer from a competing big box,” The Hard Market said.
A full-time Insta job
The Hard Market said they would consider running the account full-time, but they would have to figure out how to monetise the operation, which they thought would be unlikely.
They noted that while the number of the account’s followers is relatively low compared to superstar Instagram influencers, the engagement for the account is unusually high, noting that of its 28,000 followers, stories posted typically get viewed by around 15,000 on average.
“Right now this is purely a hobby,” The Hard Market explained, “In the meantime I’m planning on growing it and continuing to find out what it can be for people,” they said. “I want to always focus on humour, education and advocating for yourself in our industry. I don’t want to turn it into a news article kind of thing.”
Despite the executive’s seniority in the industry, they said: “I’m not afraid of doing this weird thing.”
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