The Harcourts ‘he said, she said’

While the era of managed corporate communications and non-disclosure agreements means pitching is far less public than the days of clients announcing how much their business was worth and which agencies would be fighting for it, the process is still all about competition. There is a winner (and occasionally winners) and there are losers. And in the recent Harcourts pitch, which was won by Contagion, it seems no-one wanted to be a loser.  

After Contagion sent out a press release about its win saying it had beaten Saatchi & Saatchi and Ogilvy for the spoils, Saatchi & Saatchi’s Isobel Kerr Newel sent us a note saying: 

“I wanted to clear up the point that Saatchi & Saatchi wasn’t actually part of the pitch. While we did have an initial conversation with Harcourts about the opportunity, we didn’t participate in the pitch process. So to say that Contagion won this against us wouldn’t be correct.” 

Ogilvy’s Paul Manning also sent us a note later on saying: 

Contagion (I presume) have sent out a press release suggesting they pitched against us for a Harcourts project. I presume you will have received this as it’s been published elsewhere. Ogilvy & Mather did not “pitch” for this piece of business. Aside from a very informal and brief meeting with their GM, we did not take part in a formal presentation, nor did we engage with Harcourts further in anything that would constitute a pitch. 

In typically outspoken style, Contagion’s Dean Taylor, who spent many years working for Saatchi & Saatchi, believes the two agencies are being disingenuous. 

“If you get asked to present your credentials and you don’t get the business, you lost. For me, it’s simple. Advertising is a blood sport. You don’t get a prize for participating.”

For some, being a gracious loser is a mark of character. In adland, it’s often something that is deemed harmful to the perception of momentum and most clients, when asked who was involved in a pitch, prefer to stay mum in an effort to protect the losing agencies (perhaps advertising is going the way of NCEA or youth football leagues in Auckland that don’t make results public). But Taylor says openly that it recently lost the Yealands business to Special Group and that was a credentials pitch.

“You need to admit you lost and admit that you need to be better next time.” 

Many agencies remove themselves from consideration when they figure out that what they’re fighting for in a pitch isn’t worth the effort. And then there’s the issue of not having an official definition for what constitutes a pitch. But Taylor’s view was backed up by Harcourts chief executive Hayden Duncan, who said “Ogilvy and Saatchi & Saatchi came and talked to us, just as Contagion did”. And when asked why those two agencies would be distancing themselves from the process, he said he found it “a bit unusual”.

“From our point of view, all three companies had the same information, the same brief, the same meetings. And I have to say there was daylight between them and Contagion.” 

As for what Harcourts will be doing with Contagion, Duncan says the company was founded in New Zealand, it’s still privately owned, it’s “by far the biggest real estate group in the country” (with 180 offices) and it’s also expanded overseas. Despite all that, he says it’s one of New Zealand’s best kept secrets. So it will be trying to become more relevant to New Zealanders and “help them understand that success story”. 

He says marketing spend on its brand has definitely gone up in the past 12 months and he expects that to continue as it works with Contagion to create a more co-ordinated and efficient marketing effort.  

It is currently running four different TV campaigns and using press and social media, but he says “digital will play a reasonably big part” in the plans and social media is also moving up the list in terms of importance. Although, as it experienced recently, that can be a double edged sword. 

Last week, the real estate industry was the butt of a few jokes after Guy Williams and his cohorts from The Edge hijacked a hashtag intended for the Harcourts Conference and people started describing their own experiences with—or, more likely, their perceptions of—real estate agents. 

Duncan says he quite liked the attention. 

“The whole point of having a hashtag is to get people engaged,” he says. And while he would no doubt prefer that engagement to be positive, he says the banter proved that the industry has a perception problem.  

As a result, he says the company, which was voted most trusted real estate company by Readers Digest two years running, has now launched a phone line and email address devoted to advising consumers on how to solve their real estate problems.

“We can take a joke at our expense, no problem. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but what we do take seriously is customer satisfaction and if there’s one thing that trending Twitter hashtag showed us, is that there is an underlying feeling of negativity toward real estate agents in general. We’d like to talk to some of those people who have had negative experiences—no matter who their agency is or was—to find out what went wrong and offer them advice on how they might resolve any problems or issues they’ve been having around property. We want to make sure Kiwis are fully informed about what they can and should expect from their real estate agent.” 

Elsewhere in the property market, a number of agencies are currently pitching for the Bayleys account. Work Communications is the incumbent. We look forward to hearing from the losers. 

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