Much has been written in recent years about carriers’ efforts to attract and retain insurance and financial advisors in the independent channel. Less well publicized are the recruitment initiatives of the distributors through which they market their products: independent marketing organizations and brokerage general agencies, many of which are ratcheting up their search for top talent. The recruitment drives have, sources tell National Underwriter, been aided by the economic downturn.

“Our recruiting this year is up dramatically,” says Gary Raggio, a national director of annuity marketing of Dunhill Marketing & Insurance Services, San Diego, Calif. “Ironically, the recession has helped. Like never before, brokers need a home and direction.”

Adds Bill Zelenik, CEO of Millennium Brokerage Group, Nashville, Tenn., “There’s been more of a flight to quality [distributors] in the current economy. Advisors want stability.”

For Raggio the starting point for reaching out to unaffiliated advisors is via e-mail blasts–and lots of them. As part of its campaigns, Dunhill regularly broadcasts information about upcoming webinars promoting new sales concepts, insurance products, and productivity-enhancing techniques. To catch prospects’ interest, the e-mails tend toward the lighter side, using clever turns of phrase, caricature drawings and mild humor.

And sometimes, enticements with sex appeal. At industry conferences–Dunhill regularly promotes its offerings at shows hosted by NAIFA, MDRT, and The International Forum, among other gatherings–the company has generated much interest among advisors by posting “attractive” and “personable” shoe-shine girls at its booth. When a Dunhill representative follows up by phone with broker prospects to gauge their interest in affiliating, the memory of the shoe-shine girl helps to break the ice.

“There’s a lot carnival-like stuff we do to get brokers’ attention,” he says. “These techniques are effective, but I would never communicate in the same way with brokers as they do with their own clients.”

To be sure, sources say, these and other outreach initiatives have to be pursued with care so as not to alienate targeted prospects. E-mail blasts are fine so long as they convey useful information and don’t overwhelm recipients who may already be contending with information overload. Setting up a booth at an industry conference, market-watchers agreed, is chiefly of value for branding purposes. They provide brokers with an opportunity to explore the value of affiliating with a BGA or IMO, but partnerships generally aren’t inked at these events.

And not all new Internet communications tools are suitable for recruiting. Sources say they employ blogs, websites and e-newsletters to varying degrees to raise interest in their services. But BGAs and IMOs still largely avoid using social media networks, such as LinkedIn and Facebook, as part of their outreach efforts. Indeed, they say that most affiliations are still sealed through time-tested methods: with a phone call and/or in-person visit to the producer of interest.

It still comes down to the telephone–the old-fashioned way,” says Raggio. “Nothing takes the place of that.”

Adds Teague Wright, an executive vice president at Crump Life Insurance Services, Harrisburg, Pa., “Most agents receive phone calls and in-person visits from our team, accompanied by printed material. If the producer is a big enough fish, we’ll fly him or her to our office to let them see what we’re all about.”

Often, too, relationships are established as a result of referrals from producers with whom the distributor who is already doing business. Alan Silver, an executive vice president at Provada, a San Francisco, Calif.-based IMO, says his most profitable relationships have come from such referrals, so his relationship managers regularly ask for introductions to producers from existing broker/clients.

This is all well and good, but recruiting independent producers is only half the job. To keep new recruits happy and loyal, sources say, they have to follow through on promised services. That’s especially true in respect to the distributor’s ability to execute the underwriting process quickly and with a minimum of administrative work for the advisor.

“We can bring in tons of brokers,” says Silver. “But if at the end of the day we can’t get their underwriting, planning and illustration work done correctly and in a timely fashion, then they won’t see us anymore. That’s why we view our administrative staff as part of the sales team.”

Zelenik agrees, adding that a high attrition among producers who bolt can be especially costly for distributors because of the often significant investment they make in producer training, servicing and marketing, and because a high churn rate can be damaging to staff morale.

To speed underwriting, distributors also are moving application processing online, substituting electronic communications for old paper-based systems. Many also employ in-house people–estate planning attorneys and accountants, plus specialists with expertise in advanced case design and medical underwriting–to assist advisors with often complex planning and compliance requirements.

Distributors say they’re beefing up other resources and services to win the business of new and experienced producers. Crump Life, for example, avails brokers of a policy enhancement program and data mining capabilities that can determine whether, for example, a client’s in-force contract merits a rate reduction or a 1035 exchange with another policy that yields superior investment performance.

Crump Life also has a risk management platform that offers producers market intelligence about a carrier’s financial strength–a particular concern of clients since the onset of the recession. Says Wright: “We want our agents to know that we have their backs. They don’t have to do all the [due diligence] legwork when evaluating a carrier.”

Also of key importance to many independent advisors, sources say, is access to sales/technical training and best practices. Through webinars and mailers, says Cindy Gentry, president of Brown & Brown Associates, Corpus Christi, Tex., her firm offers producers sales concepts to apply when marketing products, such as the long-term riders available on some new insurance policies and annuities. She also hosts a once-annual symposium at the company’s in-house Brown & Brown University, where producers can earn continuing education credits while learning about the latest techniques from affiliated carrier representatives.

Independent producers also are looking to their BGAs and IMOs for help with other areas of their practices. Among them: funneling leads to qualified prospects; providing access to a distributor rep for joint work on a complex or high value case; and, not least, freeing advisors to devote themselves to what they do best: selling.

“If the broker doesn’t have time to sell, then it doesn’t make any difference what marketing organization they’re working with,” says Raggio. “We want to help brokers fish for themselves–to get to a point where we can drop a broker anywhere in the U.S. and begin earning a living that same day.”