A lesson on content from the research boss

Global Head of Research at property giant Knight Frank, Liam Bailey, talks to Raconteur about how business leaders navigate the process of researching, forecasting and creating a content strategy

R: What does the term “thought leadership” mean to you as a researcher, and how do you see that idea within the context of Knight Frank as a business and its aims?

LB: I think you have to preface this by saying that the term “thought leader” has become rather hackneyed: everybody wants to be a “thought leader.” Ultimately what people really mean by that, and what we mean by that, is that rather than telling clients what they already know or repeating backward looking data, we’re trying to establish what is next for our clients. Where will our clients and our business be in the next year, five years and ten years? The objective ultimately is to gain an advantage in the market for our clients. So I think the “thought leadership” concept really is about being ahead of the curve and being ahead of trends. And I think that’s a realistic ambition. We are in a privileged position in that we have a lot of data and information at our fingertips, and by assessing that data in the right way and working with actors in the market like investors and purchasers, we can pull together insights that aren’t available to everybody, and we can share those with our clients.

R: Many of your forecasts are dependent on changing government policies and external factors – you mentioned recently that the UK’s next General Election has the potential to influence the direction of housing markets significantly. How do you remain agile as a forecaster and as a business to these factors?

We need to be able to explain relatively complex economic issues in a way that a layman could understand them, but we also have a requirement to provide quite detailed insight for fund managers, bankers, funders etc

LB: At a macro level we look at economic trends and conditions, regression analysis and statistical techniques. To some extent you can get relatively comfortable with trends. If incomes are rising by a certain amount year on year, it probably means people have a certain amount more to spend on rents and house prices. So those things you can begin to map over time. But the things that are much more difficult to anticipate are decisions being made by politicians, for example - such as the proposed mansion tax or changes to stamp duty – it’s difficult to second guess where politicians might want to go. With all forecasting you get to a point where quantitative processes can only inform you so much. You’ve then got to overlay that with a degree of qualitative assessment to judge how politicians or other influencers are likely to act, and how that could impact on the market. Also things like consumer behaviours are changing. We’ve seen quite a big shift as first-time buyers are increasingly delaying entry into the housing market and renting for longer. So you have these big trends in the market that need to be accounted for in forecasts, and looking forward. As part of our research programme we’re always speaking to clients – whether they are house buyers and tenants, or developers and investors. We are in the market doing consultancy for clients, so we are very much alive to market trends.

R: You offer market-leading advice to clients and industry leaders worldwide. What is Knight Frank’s starting point or strategy for its market research?

LB: Regarding the practicalities, we have various ways of trying to communicate with people. We obviously have our formal reports, like the forecast report, and have begun breaking up some of the content into blog posts, putting them in email blasts to clients, and obviously using them in tweets etc. This enables us to get the message out to people in different ways that suit the way they want to consume the information. In terms of how we approach this kind of subject, we have quite a complex audience; we have both B2B and B2C audiences to consider. So we need to be able to explain relatively complex economic issues in a way that a layman could understand them, but we also have a requirement to provide quite detailed insight for fund managers, bankers, funders etc. We are tracking data and we get third party data, so we’re trying to look for patterns that point to trends or stories. But, as I mentioned earlier, we’re in a good position because we are interacting with people in the market on a regular basis so we’re able to better understand their requirements, their issues and how the market is functioning.

Global Cities

R: You are constantly researching future market trends to advise your clients, but C-suite executives and business decision-makers are notoriously time poor. How do you go about offering complex statistics, analysis and industry forecasts in the best way for your clients?

 LB: Over the past ten to fifteen years the type of content that we produce, and the type of content that our clients want from us, has changed. People have become much more time-poor, they’re busier and they have more information to assess all the time. So what we have been working on really hard is how to pull together the critical pieces of information and deliver those to clients in a shorter format so they can focus on the important detail and data. Clients increasingly don’t have time to read a 50 page report, but they are very keen to receive up to the minute one page briefings on a daily basis. Infographics are very useful and the skill, as you know, is to not make them overly complex – they can become artworks rather than actually trying to transmit data and information.

R: With the internet saturated with “content,” how do you ensure that Knight Frank’s insight cuts through the noise? How do you know what your readers are looking to learn?

LB: It’s by talking to them. Ultimately our USP is that we are giving our clients independent advice – we are not controlled by the agents in our business, and that gives people a degree of confidence in what we are saying. One of the most dangerous things for anyone in our field is to produce research, documents or reports that we would like to read, which we find interesting. Ultimately, you have got to be alive to what the clients are trying to understand and what their concerns are. And actually the only way you can do that is by keeping quite close to the market. It’s a truism that you don’t want to be ivory tower in your approach. Everything that we try and do is practically applicable in the market and hopefully people can use our information to inform their decisions and investments.

One of the most dangerous things for anyone in our field is to produce research, documents or reports that we would like to read, which we find interesting

R: What other brands do you admire for their research and content strategy?

LB: The Economist Intelligence Unit I think are impressive. It’s interesting when you look at the EIU, because they are a sister company to the Economist, you’ve got a very clear link into a magazine publication where there is a keen recognition of the need to interpret complex stories and data points for a wide audience. That has informed quite a bit of the strategy for the EIU, so they are an interesting model to look at. Also if you look at GaveKal, they are a fairly recent economic house that are slightly more technical, but have a very nice approach in condensing global economic stories into very short accessible pieces. And for someone like me, who has a huge amount of data and information coming in across my desk every day, I think their approach is an interesting one to take.

R: Knight Frank’s annual Wealth Reports consistently wins awards and we recently produced Global Cities for you. How do these publications fit into your wider, and global, content strategy?

LB:  There is a lot of research done on wealth and wealth creation and so forth; lots of reports produced by private banks and interested organisations. We always felt that there was a gap in looking at property as part of the wealth portfolio, and that’s what we decided to fill with The Wealth Report. Across the past eight editions it has evolved to encompass a broader view of the wealth portfolio - while property remains at the heart of the publication, we are increasingly interested in understanding how property investments interact with other investments. We believe we occupy a unique space with that particular publication and that has worked very well for us. With Global Cities the idea was again to produce a forward looking trend analysis report, and give that content a home both in the publication and on the web for clients. We wanted them to engage with a wider audience and help them understand that we are delivering leading commentary on this type of analysis too. I think also, going back to what I said earlier about the increasing demand for quicker reporting, that trend actually gives you the luxury of being able to produce a small number of larger documents. With these, you can delve into a subject in more depth, look at the trends over a longer time period, and start thinking through their implications in a bigger picture. For example, in The Wealth Report we were looking at suborbital travel and space research, and thinking about the implications for property markets. And the reality is, this is something where we are looking at ten years or plus ahead. It’s not something we would look at in our day to day topics, but it’s something really enjoyable for the reader (and the researcher!)

 Liam Bailey is Global Head of Residential Research at Knight Frank