August 17, 2011Today we get our buzz on with Ben Smith, the VP of Marketing at BC’s famed Polygon Homes.

Ben has a lot of marketing cred especially when it comes to the world of real estate. Makes sense, seeing as Polygon is one of BC’s leading developers in one of the hottest real estate markets in Canada (the world?). He’s also known for his very active Twitter, so why not give him a follow!

But for now, focus! and read on for Ben’s insights into Vancouver’s housing market, the new hot neighbourhoods in the city, and the characteristics of a true marketer.

Enjoy!

BuzzBuzzHome: What was it about marketing that really drew you in and made you want to pursue a career in the business?
Ben Smith: Well I kind of stumbled upon it. I was always a people-watcher and very curious about what causes people to make buying decisions. One day I realized you could get paid for that, so I just started doing it!
I had a background in retail so I figured it out from there, but I didn’t go to school for it. I always knew I wanted to be in business and I always had math and accounting courses, but I didn’t really know much about marketing until I was in my 20s.
BBH: How can someone learn about marketing outside of a classroom?
BS: I think you can learn the tactics, but I also think you’re either a marketer or you’re not. You either get it or you don’t. My marketing friends and I joke that if you’re the type of person who goes out to dinner with his wife, but can’t focus because you’re looking around the room the whole time and analyzing what people are doing and listening in on their conversations, then you’re probably a marketer.
If you’re the only kid on the block who charged 5 cents more for no-name lemonade at your lemonade stand because you stole your mom’s crystal and served it in that, then you’re probably a marketer.
Can you learn that stuff? I haven’t seen it very often. I think what you can learn is the tactics, like how to run a direct mail campaign. I think the other part is if you have it in you, you can hone it. Hang out at the shopping malls and watch what people are doing or read the latest magazines and see what the trends are. Just keep feeding what’s already there.
BBH: Could you describe Polygon’s approach to marketing in a few sentences?
BS: Very simply: Disciplined action, consistent message, timely delivery.
BBH: Polygon does both high rise and low rise projects. Do you have a preference when running a marketing campaign or do you enjoy different things about both?
BS: I think every project is different, whether it’s high rise or low rise and we do townhomes as well. They’re all different and it depends on not just the product type but also the location, what the community plan is — we do master plans, so sometimes there’s a club house involved — but I think what draws me to this business is that every project is so different even though we’re running through all the same steps as far as marketing tactics go.
I like finding that different thing about a project — what makes it unique and then getting excited about aspect.
BBH: Are there any exciting projects coming up that Polygon is working on that you might be able to share with us?
BS: There’s two we’re really excited about right now. The first community is called New Water in the River District. The River District is a new area in South Vancouver and it’s a large piece of land that have be more than 7000 homes on it eventually. It’s probably the single biggest riverfront master plan in Vancouver that I’m aware of. We have an apartment building there we call New Water. We sold out the first building and we’re going to launch the second one in the fall. We’ll be the first to do townhomes there too. It will be called River Walk and will be coming in the new year.

The second one is in Abbotsford. For Toronto it’s equivalent to Hamilton in its proximity to the big city, yet it’s a city of its own. There are some people who commute all the way in, but it’s not just a bedroom community. We haven’t been out there in over 25 years, so for what we do nowadays, it’s pretty much the first time we’ve been out there. We’re building a large masterplan that we’re calling Westerleigh. It’s predominantly townhomes and there will be one apartment building and a large clubhouse. That’s exciting because it’s the farthest afield we’ve been in a long time.

BBH: Do you have any tips for where the next hot neighbourhood will be in Vancouver?

BS: The Cambie Corridor is scheduled to densify along the Canada Line. If you’re not familiar with it, the Canada Line is a rapid transit line that runs from the airport to downtown. If you rode it now, you’d be shocked by the lack of density along that route. It’s pretty much all single family homes or single level retail. It’s only when you get closer to the core where it starts to densify. I think that’s going to become the real hot spot, from Richmond all the way down to the city.

I’m totally biased but I’d say the River District in Vancouver also stands to be a really hot neighbourhood. Richmond is also hot right now. Metrotown in Burnaby, which I equate to Square One in Mississauga, is burning hot right now and I think there’s a lot left to happen there.

BBH: Do you think prices are too high in Vancouver? Do you think there’s some sort of bubble going on or do the prices accurately reflect the demand in the market right now?

BS: The answer is yes and no. Are prices too high? Yes, they’re pretty expensive. The problem is density. We’re still a young city as far as I’m concerned. We’re maturing and we’re a very desirable place to live.

The challenge is you can still buy a single family home only minutes from downtown that’s got a full backyard and you probably have 2,500 to 3,000 square feet and three or four bedrooms and your neighbour isn’t touching you. That’s where the problem lies. You can’t find that in other major cities that have the values we have. With the single family home market in Toronto, you have to get farther out to get single detached homes or a backyard, but that’s predominantly what Vancouver is. That’s why the prices reflect that.

For the people who are skeptical about what I’m telling you, if you took out anything that’s not normal in other cities, like all the single family homes with backyards and you based it on apples to apples for the product type between Toronto and Vancouver, I think you’d see the numbers a lot more relatively. If you go out to the ‘burbs, there are some really affordable places to live that offer really good values. I think density is going to be the answer to the affordability problem, not some bubble bursting.

BBH: What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in starting a career in marketing?

BS: It depends on what type of person you are. If you like small companies, I’d say try and find a company that’s going to give you a broad range of experience. Even though the projects might not be with big name brands, if there’s a broad range of things you can do in that smaller company, you can become a bigger fish in a smaller pond.

If you’re more the type who likes bigger companies, try and find a company that’s doing a lot of volume so you can get a lot of experience. Granted it probably would be in a narrower scope of work, but I think it would really serve people well in their careers.

Go deep or go broad is the key. There’s a lot of people who find some really cool experiences that are really niche early in their career, but it’s harder to transfer out of those. The more experience you can have, either deep or wide, the better.

BBH: Which social network do you prefer, Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus?

BS: All of them for different reasons. I wrote a blog post about Google Plus recently and I really believe it’s the game changer. To me I think the fact that it’s so integrated with search is what’s really going to change the game — probably moreso for marketers like me.

All the search results that we’re trying to attract are going to be driven by social networks. It won’t just be based on whether your keyword accuracy is on or whether you figure out the algorithm. It’s also going to be based on whether the people who you are attracting have friends that know who you are and like you and are connected to you as well. I think Google really has a chance to change things.

BBH: What was the best and worst day job you ever had before beginning your career?

BS: The best day job I ever had was working in a skateboard and snowboard shop. That was fun because there was a only few of us and we had to learn everything. I actually learned a ton about retail, marketing, promotion and customer service. It was a great job.

The worst job was selling cars for three months. I hated it! I actually learned more about sales in those three months just because it’s such a tough thing to do, but it just wasn’t me.

Thanks Ben for taking the time to buzz with us!

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