More than the middle man

Real estate agents are perfectly positioned to drive the marketing process, Selina Denman discovers.
More than the middle man
By Selina Denman
Tue 21 Oct 2008 04:00 AM

Real estate agents are perfectly positioned to drive the marketing process, Selina Denman discovers.

In many parts of the industry, the real estate agent is still viewed as little more than a mediator. "I think there is still some confusion as to what exactly the real estate agent does," suggests Karen Lay, head of marketing at Abu Dhabi's LLJ Property. "I think people still see us as just the middle man."

In reality, the role of an agent extends far beyond straightforward selling and leasing; the agent is the "lynchpin" of all marketing activities, Lay explains. From consulting on building design and layout to coordinating launches and advising on pricing, LLJ Property offers a full marketing service for both private and master developers.

Fundamentally, the key in marketing is to have a team that can think outside of the box. The challenge is to find innovative means to make yourself heard above the din.

"In addition, we will assist with the appointment of an advertising agency and we'll then oversee the agency. We are also involved in communicating with the client. Selling an apartment is one thing but how you communicate with a client afterwards is really important. You can't just say ‘thanks for the cheque, your apartment will be ready in three years!' You have to keep them informed and make them feel involved in the progress of the project," Lay continues.

Dubai's Sherwoods Independent Property Consultants also prides itself on providing holistic, innovative marketing solutions to the developer community. "Sherwoods offers custom-made marketing solutions to developers looking to market their projects here in the UAE or abroad. Everything from print media to below-the-line activities are catered for," says Jagdeep Pillai, the company's marketing manager.

"We pride ourselves on having an in-house, one-stop marketing solutions shop for our clients' needs, a rarity in the marketplace today. Depending on the needs of our clients, we prepare and plan to meet their objectives, and most of the time it goes beyond just placing full page ads in leading print media or arranging online exposure," he says.

Upping the stakes

In this age of plenty, differentiating one ‘groundbreaking' project from the next has become more important, and more difficult, than ever. "The one challenge we face is clutter," confirms Lay.

"There are an increasing number of projects out there, particularly in Abu Dhabi. And there are a lot more coming, which is why it's so important to try and make sure that your project stands out from the rest."For Sawan Ravani, director of Kensington Real Estate, the Dubai-headquartered brokerage arm of the Kensington Goup, spiralling competition represents a "blessing in disguise" for the property sector.

"Real estate marketing has reached new heights in Dubai. This is helping companies to raise the bar and is challenging them to market the right properties in the right way. The better the quality of marketing, the better the quality of sales and the better the quality of sales teams," he points out.

The pressure is on - and real estate agents are being forced to get creative. "What is definitely happening is a deluge of marketing initiatives, with projects and developers tumbling over themselves to ensure maximum exposure, using any and every possible channel available in the marketplace," says Pillai.

A lot of people are still not used to off-plan purchases, so collateral is very important.

"Fundamentally, the key in marketing is to have a team that can think outside of the box. The challenge is to find innovative means to make yourself heard above the din," he adds.

Spreading the word

Recent initiatives from Sherwoods include the signing of an official sponsorship agreement with Tower Links Golf Club in Ras Al Khaimah. As part of its strategy to generate added exposure amongst high-end property buyers and investors, the company will support tournaments and events organised by the club.

In exchange, Sherwoods is introducing an interactive kiosk in the club's foyer, where members will be able to access information on Sherwoods and its products via a touch screen. A multi-layered brochure stand will also be introduced, while banners will be displayed and distributed throughout the club.

The company also made its presence felt in Abu Dhabi earlier in the year, with a two-day roadshow that promoted over AED800 million-worth of investment opportunities in the capital. The roadshow visited Abu Dhabi's Westin and Le Méridien hotels to promote projects in the emirate and beyond. Meanwhile, LLJ Property showcases Abu Dhabi's real estate sector through its in-house, bi-monthly publication, Property Perspectives.

"We produce a magazine dedicated to Abu Dhabi's property sector. But this isn't just a listings magazine, it includes articles that you would be interested to read even if you weren't looking to buy property in Abu Dhabi."

Also on the agenda for the company is a full-scale property showroom spanning 640m2. The space will act as a one-stop shop for sellers and buyers, who will be able to access up-to-date information on current and future developments, as well as market trends. Visitors will also be able to access an extensive inventory of primary and secondary stock via the company's online booking system.

You have to approach the market in Qatar in a very particular way.

Once fully operational, the facility will also feature show-flats and will be used to host property launches. "There is nothing like it in the market. We are trying to create a resource for people to come and find all the information that they are looking for. We are trying to create a unique Abu Dhabi experience," says Lay.

Encouraging prospective buyers to engage emotionally is the ultimate aim of any agent's marketing efforts - and is particularly tricky when trying to sell a product that might not be tangible for another two years. While experienced investors might only need the basic facts, homeowners need more to work with. "A lot of people are still not used to off-plan purchases, so collateral is very important," says Lay.

Brochures need to show buyers what their future home will not only look but feel like; a simple floor plan and basic statistics won't do the trick. "You have to make sure that your brochures take the customer on a journey," Lay says.

Commercial property purchases are less emotionally driven, notes Ravani. "Selling commercial property is far more disciplined, while residential projects need to be marketed in a more emotive manner. You would promote the cosiness and security of a project, for example. And when the wife comes in, you need to be able to explain what material is used to make the kitchen sink, or how much sunlight filters into the living areas."

The human touch

While the region's real estate agents are no strangers to innovative ideas and elaborate initiatives, they must also rely on the most basic of marketing tools, word of mouth. "We believe that the best marketing and sales is done by word of mouth. We believe in gaining the trust of our clients, which will then multiply into big sales," says Ravani.With the emphasis on human relationships, any agent's arsenal should include a solid database of contacts. "Having been established for some time, we have a strong database of clients and investors. This means we can talk directly to the people who are ready, willing and able," says Lay.

A strong network is also at the core of Doha-based Mirage International Property Consultants' marketing efforts, says Enver Johannessi, assistant general manager.

"We have built up quite a database and are able to offer developers quick results using our sophisticated email and SMS broadcast systems. Depending on what the developer needs we can mine out the database and provide them with a precise target audience."

You have to match the right image to the right project or else you are essentially misguiding the client.

Forging close relationships is particularly important in markets that rely predominantly on local buyers, notes Johannessi. "The market in Qatar is quite different to Dubai. We work mainly with locals, people who believe in the country and want to invest in it. Because of this, we rely heavily on relationship marketing. People are buying for the long term rather than short-term flipping so, most importantly, you have to be perceived to be offering value."

Marketing efforts can also take much longer to pay off in Qatar, so a healthy dose of patience is recommended, Johannessi adds. "You have to approach the market in Qatar in a very particular way. We've had to cope with projects that have taken a couple of years to sell - it probably would have taken a couple of weeks in Dubai. We are careful to caution developers about this, particularly those coming from outside the country."

It is this grassroots, local knowledge that makes real estate agents such useful allies, says Lay. Constant interaction with clients means LLJ Property is able to effectively gauge shifting trends in the marketplace.

"What really sets us apart is our experience of what's happening in the market. We are constantly getting feedback and we can then report back - most developers are stuck behind closed doors and don't have the chance to interact directly with potential clients."

This also means that agents can tailor marketing campaigns to factor in the particularities of a specific market and audience, as well as the precise business objectives of a developer.

‘Marketing and sales go hand in hand. Marketing has to be dictated by the sales strategy - your approach will depend on whether the project will be released in phases or as a whole building, or on whether the developer is looking for bulk investors or individual end users," says Lay.

"We initially sit with our partners and try and understand their objectives and business needs," Pillai reiterates.Once this is agreed upon, our next focus is the project itself, where we aim to tie up the partner's objectives with the unique selling points of the project. Everything else goes into this discussion too, like pricing, financing, et cetera.

"Once the blueprint has been agreed upon, our marketing plan and strategy is created where we offer, depending on the initial agreement, both above the line and below the line activities, event management, in case of launch or sales events, trade shows and exhibitions, road shows, PR, online and direct communications."

To scale

Whatever the chosen approach, it is important that the scale of marketing activities mirrors the scale of the project, stresses Ravani. "We represent properties across the spectrum, from the villa and townhouse category going all the way through to massive, multi-storey apartment blocks. You need to fit the marketing scale to the project. You have to match the right image to the right project or else you are essentially misguiding the client."

The need to deliver on the marketing promise puts the impetus back on developers, who must create products that live up to expectations. "The way you package your project is important but ultimately, it's the actual product that counts," says Lay.

"As a policy, we at Kensington Group prefer to take on projects that have intrinsic sellability, so we never have to create superficial hype," Ravani says. "We're not too keen on taking on projects that do not offer genuine value. We can then do justice to the project by creating an equally impressive marketing strategy."

With a constant stream of new properties being funelled onto the market, it's a brave developer that fails to invest in an innovative marketing plan. And this is no place to be cutting corners - LLJ Property recommends that 2% of the value of a building is spent on total marketing activities.

As a rule, agent fees would represent at least 1% of that figure, says Ravani. "We charge a commission of between 1%  and 2%, although we believe in being flexible in order to get the deal through."

"The standard is to take 1 per cent from each party," agrees Johanness. Developers must ask themselves if they can afford not to.

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