24 January 2018

Career View: James Fenner, Founder of Silk Road

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The era of autonomous driving is fast approaching. Self-driving vehicles will hit streets by 2019, owing to smarter artificial intelligence (AI) and powerful 5G networks.

The exclusive look at the career of a senior executive from the UK new homes industry is this week with James Fenner, the founder of Silk Road, a marketing company that works with a host of UK developers to help promote their products to consumers.

Hi James, please tell us a little about yourself, Silk Road and your role there.

I started Silk Road four years ago in a bid to raise the bar when it comes to marketing within the property sector. We have two sides to our business, development consultancy and marketing. The consultancy side looks at how to make developments more consumer-centric as well as future-proofed – thereby making them more appealing. The marketing side then kicks in with positioning the scheme and then developing the branding and marketing materials required to sell or lease the scheme.

Can you tell us about your career path, from education to training, work experience and previous roles?

From a very early age (around 12-years-old, from memory) I wanted to work in advertising. I was captivated by brilliant advertising and the effect it had on people – how great ideas helped brands getting into the mind of people.

After graduating I finally landed a job in advertising and did so for 13 years, seven of which were in Australia. My last role was as a planning director of DDB Sydney: here I set the positioning and strategy for the likes of Volkswagen, News International, Gatorade and worked with the creative teams to develop the ideas across all media. After this I worked as a strategy director for a brand consultancy called Interbrand. This gave me the chance to help shape big businesses and was much more about instilling a vision and mission within a business.

I came back to the UK in 2007 and only started working in property in 2011, when I ran the marketing for a development called Fitzroy Place. I instantly liked it. I could use my skills of strategy, branding and communications all together, and I enjoyed the commercial nature of it.

Are there any projects and/or mentors in your career to date that have been particularly inspiring?

For me there’s never been a mentor as such. However, working within the creative industries I’ve had the good fortune to work with some amazing creative teams. When the strategist/planner and creative teams are in sync with each other you get the chance to create brilliant work. Working on Volkswagen (pre-emission scandal) was fantastic. Biggest highlight was probably the global launch of the Volkswagen Touareg which came out of DDB Sydney, not London. Working closely on a campaign which then runs around the world is a hugely rewarding, especially when the cars sell.

Closer to home, working on Fitzroy Place had a big impact as without it I wouldn’t have worked within property and wouldn’t have set up Silk Road. Like all successes it has many fathers, but if you ask any of the Fitzroy Place team I think they’d all agree the key ingredient to success was how the developer, sales, design and marketing teams were all in sync, on everything.

Are there any projects and/or mentors in your career to date that have been particularly inspiring?

Are there unique aspects to working in the property industry?

What is it about your current role that you most enjoy?

Even though I’ve been doing it for ‘decades’, I still enjoy positioning schemes for clients. However, since we’ve started the consultancy side I really enjoy talking to potential customers about what they would like from a home and then mixing this up with our understanding of how to future-proof design. I’ve been fortunate to talk on this at various events (most recently at MIPIM Asia) and like spreading the news as still believe it’s the one category which very much misses out on using insight to build a better product.

Are there unique aspects to working in the property industry?

From other sectors, yes. As a marketing partner, you get to do everything from the positioning, naming, branding to all the communication. In other sectors, multiple agencies would be used for this process. In terms of client roles, marketing and sales are often bundled together – mostly with someone who has much more sales than marketing experience. This can be difficult as it often undervalues the role and impact marketing can play. I appreciate the two roles should never be completely separate, but they are fundamentally different skillsets.

Finally, there’s a reticent to change. Doing the same seems as last time seems to be the mandate for most in the industry. I understand how the sector as a whole needs to be risk averse due to the money at stake. However, when it comes to marketing I believe this is the most dangerous tack to take. In other sectors if you do the same you die. Meerkats selling insurance – who would have thought it, but look at ComparetheMarket’s market share.

I believe that like the product (as in the home you build) if the marketing is vanilla, it’s bad. It makes you the same as everyone else. Be Marmite. It’s far better for a brand to have people that love it and hate it rather than everyone simply liking it and thinking it’s OK. This is no different to the property industry.

Have techniques learned in other sectors put you ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to property marketing?

I think so, but it’s incredibly simple. What’s the key customer insight that’s important to the marketing? What’s the idea that’s going to resonate with them and ensure the project has an emotional and lasting connection with them? This is how all other sectors approach marketing. However, within this industry for some reason we believe a black-and-gold logo and some CGIs ‘does the job’. Fine if you just want it to ‘do the job’, but if you want it to make a significant impact then it’s not good enough. The better the idea the less you have to spend on marketing – simples.

Are there qualifications and/or professional institutions that may be of particular importance to marketers?

Have techniques learned in other sectors put you ‘ahead of the game’ when it comes to property marketing?

It’s changed since when I was younger as there weren’t even marketing degrees. Now the majority of people coming through have a marketing qualification (which I think is important). Following this, it’s much more about actual experience: getting exposure to the likes of research, branding, marketing plan development, social and digital etc.

What’s your advice to those considering or applying for a marketing job in UK housebuilding right now?

I’d say get experience in other categories first. I’ve met only a handful of good marketers within the property sector. I couldn’t foresee the existing marketing directors of any big housebuilder ever getting a job as the marketing director at the likes of Nike, HSBC, Sky etc but it would easily work the other way around. If you’ve already done that and want to move into property be very careful who you work with.

For the majority of companies it’s a case of ‘this is how we always do it’ and you’ll probably have little impact. Saying that there are obviously some more progressive gems out there – both client and agency side.