Raised on a Canadian dairy farm, Kevin Thompson made his way to New York City as an educator charged with the insurmountable task of fixing a broken brand, the NYC Board of Education.
Over the course of his career in education, high-end fashion and now luxury real estate, Thompson has discovered the common thread that connects everything — storytelling. And modern digital tools are giving Thompson a huge canvas upon which he can paint the Sotheby’s International Realty story for a new slew of emerging consumers.
BuzzBuzzNews: How did you go from being born on a Southern Ontario dairy farm to the Chief Marketing Officer for Sotheby’s International, a company with a long history and significant prestige in the industry?
Kevin Thompson: It’s kind of an interesting journey. I was pursuing my Master’s in Education at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and I was part of a program whose core mandate was about rewriting curriculum for inner-city schools. The idea was to take the old, dated curriculum and make it modern and appealing to make kids want to come to school.
I got recruited from that program by a Gates Foundation think tank and the New York City Board of Education to ambitiously come to NYC and solve the many problems facing the board. After my first year of teaching at one of the city’s oldest schools in the South Bronx, I naively wrote a grant proposal to start a school, and it got approved. There were five of us and we started an arts magnet high school, offering introductory art, music and dance as the hook to get kids interested to show up to school.
At the same time I was working as a teacher, I had this idea that it would be cool if some of the fashion designers I was seeing overseas in places like Rome and Sienna in Italy were also being sold in NYC. I again rather naively picked up the phone and called one of these designers and basically said I want to help you sell your product in NYC, and they said okay. That was my transition from the Board of Education to retail and marketing, which was essentially me opening my own men’s clothing shop in SoHo.
And that led to a role with Gucci, right after Tom Ford departed the company. They were looking for someone to help rebuild the business, a common theme in my story.
After being in high-end fashion for a few years, I was approached by Simon Property Group, which owns hundreds of shopping malls all over the world. And it was the same idea — how do we get people to come to our mall instead of shopping somewhere else? It presented a huge challenge, as right now there is just too much retail space. Some malls will have to close, but if you can create a brand that speaks to consumers in a way that they value, they’re more likely to shop with you. Simon is a big company, and it was challenging because change is hard at big companies. Change takes time.
And that’s how the opportunity at Sotheby’s International came up. I wanted to work for a brand that wasn’t trying to rebrand, relaunch or fix something. It was more about saying I want to go to a brand that has a great foundation and saying how do we hit the gas and move forward in exciting ways — and be open to that.
BBN: You came to New York City to work on branding for the Board of Education. How was the experience of working with the Board of Ed different or even the same as something seemingly as polar opposite as a luxury brand like Gucci?
KT: Both Gucci and the Board of Ed are mammoth-sized organizations. The Board of Ed was a real challenge because it was just so broken. You’re trying to shift culture. I was with Gucci when I realized the value was in the storytelling.
It’s really been about figuring out how to create new messaging around a brand, and get people to show up. It’s a common thread of what I’ve done since leaving university, whether it’s getting kids to show up to school or sell someone a home.
It all centers around brand lifestyle, and what the brand means to you as a consumer. I am fascinated with the psychology of brands and understand the role they play in people’s lives. When you look at the impact of some brands, they’ve changed how people live on a day to day basis. Some brands have the power to do that.
Photo: Belmont Estate/Sotheby's International Realty
BBN: Sotheby’s has been in the auction business for over 250 years, giving it a rather unique position in the industry. Many consumers look at interactions with Sotheby’s almost as a benchmark of success. How do you protect that brand image, being respectful to the history of Sotheby’s, while looking forward?
KT: Sotheby’s is a company with extraordinary and unmatched history. It’s the oldest company traded on the stock exchange. Sotheby’s International Realty gets to draw on that history, the legacy of the brand. I mean, Sotheby’s Auction House sold Napoleon's library.
The sanctity of the brand is always paramount. We can’t do anything that damages the brand or takes away from the meaning of the brand, or what it represents to consumers.
The idea of Sotheby’s as a benchmark of success was a big part of the thinking on how we move forward. I think that consumers are either buying a home with Sotheby’s, or listing a home or working with a Sotheby’s agent as a measure of their own success. It’s meaningful, it means you’ve achieved something — much like buying your first pair of Gucci loafers. That’s the most important thing we have as a brand.
Whenever we’re thinking of doing something new, that’s the first thing I ask — is this the right thing to do for the brand?
BBN: When you joined Sotheby’s in March, what specifically did you see working in their current advertising infrastructure and what changes did you want to bring?
KT: It was really about looking at what we had from the decade’s worth of work done by my predecessor to see what was working, what could we keep, or what needed to be updated. But it was also about looking at what we needed, what didn’t we have.
I wanted to start with a campaign that was digital and video first that reflected a lifestyle. The Sotheby’s lifestyle is one of the most unique brand images we have, and I wanted our new campaign to reflect that and not just be a snapshot of a moment in time. We created a suite of tools to implement this from a digital first perspective.
The goal was to be always be thinking of where the brand is going. Where will it be in 20 years? What do we do now to have it be where we want it to be in 20 years?
BBN: Digital media has rapidly evolved over the last five years specifically. How significant is digital marketing to an established brand like Sotheby’s?
KT: It’s essential. Brands are all trading in time as a commodity, chunks of time. We all want to get a piece of the five hours Millennials are spending in front of various screens on a daily basis. We want to not only get the most time, but use that time most effectively. You have to be present digitally, and use assets in a targeted way.
We have a specific market and a dedicated consumer. Digital allows us to target them and re-target them in very thoughtful ways you just can’t do with print media.
BBN: Some say print media is verging on extinction. How important is it having a presence across all mediums to Sotheby’s image?
KT: The death now for print has been ringing for a long time, but it’s not true. What’s had to happen was the industry has had to evolve due to the major disruption caused by digital. If you look at publications like Vogue and GQ, they have their highest subscription rates ever right now.
What digital did, was shake out the print magazines that had failed to make meaningful connections with consumers. The ones that have stayed, are the ones that have value to the consumer. And they’re doing very well.
The same thing has happened in retail. It’s happening in commercial real estate and in residential real estate. The disruptors are out there, but if you figure out your place in the playing field, you’ll be just fine.
BBN: How do you tailor the Sotheby’s story to different media? Do you find different cross-sections of your clientele tend to respond to one medium over another?
KT: We were able to break down our consumers into two groups, established and emerging luxury consumers. So we had the ability to target content to these different groups. For example, we launched 3D and VR content on the Sotheby’s International Realty website, tailored more towards the new affluent end of the Millennial consumer. We did a partnership with AppleTV, and have the most subscribed YouTube channel of real estate brands.
We’re trying new things in areas where we’ve historically done well, but are also really excited about trying new modes of communication to connect with consumers.
Photo: Belmont Estate/Sotheby's International Realty
BBN: With the immediate reach of digital marketing, what is your strategy for standing out?
KT: It goes back to the idea of storytelling, which isn’t a new idea but it’s where the meaning is. We have the incredible ability to tell the story of the incredible homes in our network. For example, we listed the Belmont Estate in Vancouver for $63 million, which if it sells at that price will be the most expensive residential property ever sold in Canada. It just has an amazing story. The owner got his hands on this incredible chandelier, and built a rotunda to house it — the chandelier was owned by Mussolini.
We have these stories in our repertoire, and being able to tell them in a modern way via digital and video first allows us to make these great connections that resonates with consumers. It’s an interesting cross-section where this ages old notion of storytelling meets modern formats.
BBN: What challenges does working under a huge parent company Realogy present?
KT: Having the influence of the Realogy as a parent is a huge benefit for us. It allows us to tap into a broader understanding of the industry, and that’s a core asset. It gives us access to vendors and partners and other organizations we couldn’t access on our own as easily. There’s a sense of shared expertise.
Another advantage is being to manage the disruptors that are popping up around us more effectively and more efficiently.