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They say that travel broadens the mind; gives you a bigger perspective on life. The same could be said for your professional life. When there is a client-consultant relationship involved maybe you cannot fully appreciate the true dynamic until you have been on both sides of the table. So perhaps professional ‘travel’ also broadens that mind.
In that respect, Nick Hughes is a well-travelled man. It is not that he has had a multiplicity of roles during nearly 25 years in property marketing and communications, but those that he has had encompass just about every corner of the business.
Having joined the legendary Gilbert Doyle Advertising agency in 1991 (it spawned nine successful agencies), he then set up his own agency with a fellow GDO alumni, before becoming Global Head of Marketing at Knight Frank and then being recruited to his current role as Director of Marketing & Communications at business space giant, SEGRO.
Along the way he had a battle with cancer in 2006 and was given only a 20% chance of survival. So, as you might imagine, he has valuable perspectives on property marketing – and quite a lot more besides. His views are forthright but backed up with sound argument, example and an underlying passion for his business.
We are not far into the conversation when I mention the time-honoured ritual of the monthly marketing meeting which typically brings together the client, letting agents and marketing agency to discuss the progress being made on marketing a building.
“We’ve all attended marketing meetings; these things happen up and down the land every day. But they’re not marketing meetings, they’re sales meetings. The vast majority of the meeting is taken up with agents talking about enquiries. That’s the sales role; the agent delivers the sales role.
“There is nothing strategic about these meetings. They’re reviews. Obviously agents are absolutely massively important to the process, we can’t do without them, but we can’t do without strategic marketing either. We need to always be planning over a 12-18 month term.
“Too often the marketing process just falls into a reactive mode. Eventually someone just says ‘We haven’t done an ad for three months’ and gets the creative agency to come up with something that might be quite funny and tickle somebody for a couple of minutes and they’ll run the ad, but what’s that achieved?
“What does that say about the property? What does that say about the developer? Too much of that goes on. In my creative agency days, I might have lived with that because with every new brief comes a new fee, but it’s not the way to run the marketing of multi-million pound assets, nor build brand.”
He argues that sporadic, uncoordinated marketing is destined to fail because it is not structured along fairly simple lines.
“Marcoms works in an integrated fashion: ‘the rule of three, the power of seven’. The rule of three suggests that you need to have your touch points noticed across three different media for the audience to actually register whatever it is. The power of seven posits that if you’ve seen it across seven different media you are likely going to be positively affected to making a purchase.”
“So for anyone to do a limited amount of advertising and then say it doesn’t work is an argument based on the wrong criteria – you need to analyse all aspects of activity holistically. That, of course, means it can be hard to determine what the right level of marcoms budgets are, but the starting point is understanding how all the available channels work, and how they must work together.
“The legendary marketing commentator Philip Kotler said that the goal of marketing should be to make sales obsolete. He’s not suggesting you don’t need a sales force, but if marketing does its job properly then it makes the sale process so much easier to do. So in property it’s about facilitating the agents’ job; not taking them out of the equation.”
The time he spent recovering from illness gave Hughes time to think about what he wanted from his professional life - and he soon decided it was not going to be a return to the agency world.
“I suppose it was the incremental frustration of sitting opposite clients who would say ‘I want a brochure’ without examining what they really wanted to do, what they really wanted to deliver – and not being able to ask those questions.
“My agenda in those days was obviously to make money for the agency and to create a successful business, a profitable one. So if I had a client saying ‘Here’s £50,000 for a brochure’, I took it, even though I knew there would be limited ROI.”
“At that time the market was roaring along and there weren’t a lot of good marketing people working in the business. It’s clearly got much better and more strategic as people have had to battle through the recession.”
He returned to the business at Knight Frank and found the role fascinating.
“It was incredibly rewarding to work with a brand that just opened doors. There are some truly brilliant people at the top of Knight Frank, there’s no doubt about that. And I am very proud of the people I worked with in my team. At the end of my time at Knight Frank we had a really good team of people and I have no doubt that many of them will go on to be absolute superstars in their fields.”
As Global Head of Marcoms, he was responsible for the perception of the Knight Frank brand throughout the world so for nearly three years, Hughes was actually a well-travelled man as he globe-trotted around international offices ‘joining up the Knight Frank brand’.
It may be a long way from downtown Hong Kong to the Slough Trading Estate but when the opportunity to join SEGRO came up, it was always something that a man – who you feel likes to be close to the end product of the business – was going to take on.
It is also his first time in a quoted company environment which gives a very immediate daily benchmark.
“We have one very obvious metric all the time which is our share price. We’ve got a market capitalisation all the time; and we’re all working to maximise that whatever we’re doing.
“There’s an incredibly strong team ethic at SEGRO - a lot of which comes from the Chief Executive, David Sleath. Two years ago, he unveiled the strategy we’re working on now. It’s being enacted and it’s being enacted very well. The city seems to like it because our share price is robust.”
Hughes’s challenge is now to fit a marketing strategy into the corporate vision. Just four months into the job, he is understandably reticent to say too much about what that strategy will look like in practice but says it will involve taking a more ‘cerebral’ approach with a more long-term vision.
“We have to communicate with many audiences: our shareholders, our customers, brokers, analysts, our JVs, our banks – they’re all really important audiences for us and we’ve got to communicate consistently and coherently to all of them.
“As part of that process, brand is very important because every product and service is a manifestation of the brand. Everything that has a touch point is going to engage you emotionally and therefore create the brand in your head. My role is to make sure that the perception of SEGRO is where we want it to be.
“There is a fantastic reality to SEGRO, but perhaps the external perception is lagging behind that. And that’s not a rare occurrence in property marcoms. Perhaps people don’t know enough about SEGRO, and perhaps in the past we were a little bit shy, possibly a bit nervous and a bit awkward in the way we went about engaging. I would seek to change that.”
In terms of more wide-reaching change, Hughes believes the property industry has lagged behind other business sectors in terms of investment and commitment to the process.
“There are still too many people shoved into marketing roles because they’re available and not because they’re gifted or trained. That does the whole process a disservice.
“So while there has been a massive change in the quality and management of property marketing in the last 20 years we’ve still got a long way to go.”
His commitment to driving excellence is demonstrated by the work he is putting in to reinvigorate the Property Marketing Awards. For this year’s awards, he has assembled a judging panel which includes senior figures from Microsoft, Channel 4, Ogilvy & Mather and the V&A Museum. He believes that property needs to benchmark itself against wider – more progressive – business sectors.
“The judges’ view on property marketing should be fascinating, but win, lose or draw all of us in the property marketing business need to be aspiring to levels of excellence that would be appropriate to any business.”
In terms of branding strength and recognition the room for improvement is considerable for anyone in business. Hughes cites the example of ‘Love Marks’ – the brand measure concept created by Saatchi Worldwide’s Chief Executive, Kevin Roberts.
“His line of thinking on Love Marks was that if you go back in time and looked at what sales wanted to achieve, the gold standard was customer satisfaction. That was the end game – if we can achieve customer satisfaction, that’s bloody terrific.
“Then the bar was raised to ‘advocacy’: not only did people like your product, they told their friends about it. But ‘Love Marks’ transcends both in terms of brand strength.
“Apple is an easy example: it’s following is beyond customer satisfaction and advocacy. It’s like a form of love. It’s a concept backed up by neural research is that as a human being 80% of our decisions are made on intuition and emotion with a maximum of 20% left to logic.
“I think it would be very hard for any property company to achieve Love Marks status, but in terms of SEGRO we need a strong brand position so people ‘get’ SEGRO. So they don’t have to think about SEGRO: they just know SEGRO, and they know what SEGRO stands for.”