I’ve spent the last couple of months looking for a house. What a dispiriting experience. Not the house bit. I like houses. What’s dispiriting is having to deal with real estate agents. It’s bewildering how quickly and consistently they’re able to diminish what should be a great experience.
Because buying a house should be great. A bit nerve-wracking, yes, because there’s always an element of risk involved. But still great because it’s all about potential – something that should improve your life, the thrill of finding something perfect, or, for that matter, something completely unexpected.
Which makes it a lot like the process of buying advertising. It’s a similar experience, commonly laced with similar disappointment, because Suits seem to make exactly the same mistakes I see real estate agents making. Here are a few:
They don’t ask questions. And they don’t listen.
I’m amazed how often real estate agents open a conversation by talking about either themselves or the house I’ve just entered. I’d expect them to start by asking about me, for the rather obvious reason that they, and the house, can only be relevant when they understand what it is that I’m looking for.
I’m looking for a house to solve a specific problem – the problem of my family and its related schools, hobbies and unnaturally extensive wardrobes – and only when an agent understands the specifics of my problem can they usefully talk about the property. Which you’d really want to do because when referenced against my need it sounds less like a generic house I don’t know and more like a specific house I might want to buy.
The same thing is true of suits. Your job is to make clients feel understood, confident that their very specific problem is about to be solved by the combined intellectual and creative weight of your agency. Which means the client needs to feel like the focus of pretty much every conversation before, during and after. Because clients see what they expect to see. If they believe they’ve been understood, they’ll approach an idea on that basis, actively looking for the ways in which the idea demonstrates that understanding. But if they don’t feel they’ve been understood they’ll approach the idea on that basis, actively looking for reasons why the idea (or the agency) demonstrates a lack of understanding. And, not surprisingly, they’ll find what they expect to find.
Which means your job is to always be asking relevant questions, listening to the answers and demonstrating your agency’s understanding.. This also has the added benefit of making you seem smarter.
They don’t know the product.
When I talk to a real estate agent I know they didn’t design or build the house they’re selling. But I do expect that they know a lot about designing and building in general and have an excellent working knowledge of the specific house they’re selling – like when additions were made or insulation installed. Most don’t.
I also expect that they have a really good working knowledge of the suburb – its schools, bus routes and parks, its recent sale prices, its cycle tracks and creches. Most don’t.
If you’re a suit I expect you to know a lot about the job at hand. If we’re building a website, I expect you to know quite a lot about that process. And I also expect you to know a lot about my category, my competitors, my previous activity, my target audience and how hard my job is.
They compensate for this by pretending to know what they don’t know.
At the same time there are things that I don’t expect a real estate agent to know about. And it makes me nervous when they pretend they do. These are things that become really important if I’m seriously considering buying the house they’re selling, very specific issues requiring the expert knowledge of someone like an architect, a builder or a lawyer. I’d prefer an agent not try and bluff their way through those issues. But lots do.
If you’re a suit there are also questions clearly outside your remit. There are creative directors, agency producers, directors, photographers, programmers and all manner of very highly-skilled specialists who know more about elements of the project at hand than you do. And as a client I don’t think it’s weak that you need to consult them. In fact, I think that’s your job.
They don’t believe in what they’re selling.
It’s a real estate agent’s job to believe in the property they’re selling. (I realise sometimes this is hard and that not all houses are created equal.) But they’re selling the house on behalf of people to whom it’s the only house that matters. It’s alarming how easily you can tell when someone doesn’t believe in what they’re selling. It’s not clever to betray to a potential buyer that perhaps the sellers are a little misguided, a bit too ‘close’ to the property, maybe too emotionally attached. That’s a betrayal. But I saw several agents do exactly that.
I also get really annoyed with real estate agents who are more interested in working out whether they might have a shot at selling me a different house rather than focusing on what they should be selling. They’re the ones who can’t wait to tell you that they also have five other properties in the area. They’re focused on making a sale for themselves, not for the owner of the house. To a degree you see the same thing with suits who want to be seen as the solution. They’re not focused on selling the idea at hand, more on making sure that the client believes that they can find the answer. So at the first sign of a client reservation, they’ve abandoned the idea they should be selling and started thinking about what other idea might be easier to sell.
If you’re a suit, it’s your job to sell the idea you’ve been entrusted with. You need to believe in it. Again, not all ideas are created equal, but the one you’ve got right now is the idea that’s deemed right by your agency. It’s not clever to suggest that the creatives are a bit too attached to the idea, that the planner’s missed the point, or that it’s not quite the answer you would have come up with and that you’re the person who can make sure the clients gets the ‘right’ idea in the next round of creative. But I’ve also seen plenty of suits do this.
What you’re supposed to be selling is the idea your agency’s recommending. You’re part of the agency, so that makes it your idea too.
So that’s my experience over the last couple of months, one I would bet is shared by the majority of people who have ever bought a house. It’s not one I’ll look back on with great fondness. It’s a process that should have been enjoyable let down by basic stuff done badly.
And I dread to think of the number of times I’ve had a variation on this conversation with agency clients, people who went into the creative development process optimistic that not only would they make an ad they could be proud of, but that they’d enjoy the process of doing so. Instead they found the process dispiriting and got an answer they begrudged. Which only reduces the chances of getting a great ad made next time.
(I’m feeling a bit depressed now. But this is cheering me up.)