It's a Monday morning at Milesbrand, and the nation's top producer of award-winning, results-producing real estate advertising has a toughie on its hands. In a week, it is scheduled to present a client 30, count 'em 30, fully developed proposals in what it calls a "brandstorm."

A team of graphic designers, copywriters, brand managers, creative directors, and a high school intern sit facing a wall covered with sheets of paper (right). On them are ideas from an initial, no-idea-is-a-bad-idea phase. (Well, maybe the one with the drawing of a Mr. Clean stick man versus a skunk stick animal is a bad idea.)

This is the first round of eliminations. Some staff members have identified favorites with yellow and blue Post-Its. They group the ideas into categories, including "Community Comparison" and "Land Plan." One by one, they rate each idea's potential and decide if it's off the mark or will be presented.

Both the "anything goes" ideafest and this winnowing session are integral steps in the company's proprietary process. No one's ideas are sacred and no one's are immediately discarded; two that came from creative director Tony Hyun are among the first to go and a late entry from the intern, who just finished the 11th grade, gets some serious discussion.

Company president David Miles is running the show. Staring at the wall, he identifies two problems. First, many of the ideas don't match the client's positioning statement. Second, Milesbrand has spent weeks studying the market, the builder, the buyers, and the competition. Some of the suggestions are promising things that either aren't true ("We're saying there's no fences between the houses. I saw fences," Miles says), aren't a point of differentiation ("You could say that about any community," he says several times), or that buyers in the market don't particularly care about.

"Help me understand why someone would move there," he says. "They're taking a chance on something new. There's got to be a sense of discovery."

By the end of the day, they settle on 10 ideas to start executing. Miles does a quick count on his fingers. Including the weekend, they have nine days to flesh out these ideas, which includes writing headlines and creating the visuals for a presentation.

Now, they just have to come up with 20 more.

The brandstorm with the client will be interactive and collaborative, with everyone pulling elements from various ideas to "come up with something even better," Miles says.

"It's a lot of fun. Most agencies will come in with three ideas and say, 'Which one do you like?' It's hard to go back to that when they've seen 30. It's a bonding exercise. We gain a lot of trust."

It's a trust that comes from knowing that these guys deliver.

Right message, right moment

David Miles started his now-legendary, Denver-based real estate branding and communications firm in 1986 after leaving Hallmark, where he worked as a book designer. When he first started, he worked with a variety of clients in several industries. When he began getting real estate accounts, he wasn't very impressed with the caliber of the creative. But he was intrigued by the business itself.

"The more I learned about it, the more interesting it became to me, primarily because it's such a big purchase and such a highly emotional purchase," he says. "I was curious as to why people could do such great work for Nike for $100 shoes but not for a $100,000 home. But a lot of builders were family-owned and didn't have the savvy in marketing that they did have in finance and architecture."

Shea Homes' newest community, Reunion, takes its "new hometown" identity from the creative direction of the Milesbrand team (left to right: Jaimee Woodruff, creative department manager, David Miles, company president, and Dana Heltenberg, brand manager). Shea Homes vice president Jeff Kappes says he values their ideas "because they're always on the edge."
Shea Homes' newest community, Reunion, takes its "new hometown" identity from the creative direction of the Milesbrand team (left to right: Jaimee Woodruff, creative department manager, David Miles, company president, and Dana Heltenberg, brand manager). Shea Homes vice president Jeff Kappes says he values their ideas "because they're always on the edge."

He started attending courses on the issues facing builders. He learned about their sales and marketing strategies, how sales centers are designed, and how amenities are used in master planned communities. In 1998, Miles decided to focus solely on residential real estate. Some of his staff balked and either quit or were asked to leave. He brought in brand managers and creative talent who bought into his vision.

Since then, they have won more national awards for their work than any other agency in the country. By their own count, they've won 57 gold Nationals and more than 200 silvers from NAHB's National Sales and Marketing Council.

Process for success

One of the classes Miles went to was taught by Dan Levitan, a South Florida based real estate marketing consultant and an instructor for NAHB's Institute of Residential Marketing.

"He wanted to understand the process, which is unusual for an ad agency," Levitan recalls. "He was amazed at some of the things you could do to position your product because of the competitive data that's available."

Miles used that kind of information to build the process that has made his company's work stand out year after year. With every new client, the first step is a brand charrette, a day-long exercise at the builder's headquarters to determine the essence of the brand. It covers the organization, the product, the buyers, and the competition. That information is distilled into a brand positioning. For Castle Pines Village, a luxury, gated community in Colorado, that position is "Where Denver Becomes Colorado Again." For C.P. Morgan, it's "More Square Feet. Less Money." All the creative will flow from that document.

By studying the creative work from the competition, Milesbrand carves out a unique, cohesive look, sound, feel, and style for their client.

"Everything is unified and well thought-out," Levitan says. "It's more than just consistent. The product may not be any different from any other, but because everything is themed to a statement, it's fused into your memory in the brochure, the Web site, and the advertising. The message is getting across more clearly. The market feels it's more professional because of the merchandising."

After the brandstorm, the final step in the process is the brand plan, which provides the detail and budget elements for carrying out the strategy. TV, radio, print, direct mail, Realtor campaigns, Web sites, signage, sales center design, community naming, recommendations on amenities--Milesbrand does it all.

Except single projects.

"We're strategic partners with our clients; we're not vendors," Miles says. "We don't want to do a grand opening or an ad for someone. We're not effective that way. We need a much deeper understanding. It's a much stronger return on their investment that way."

New way of thinking

Perhaps the company that has seen the biggest return is C.P. Morgan Homes in Indianapolis. Milesbrand's creative work for the company has won nine gold Nationals in four years, and C.P. Morgan is the top builder in its market. In 2002, C.P. Morgan closed 2,161 homes, up 31 percent from the previous year. Gross revenues were up 41 percent.

Dan Horner, C.P. Morgan's vice president of sales and marketing, says the two companies meshed because they share a philosophy of research-based decision-making.

"We had a very solid business model," Horner says. "We just weren't as gifted as they are in communicating."

Milesbrand's internal audit with employees, trade contractors, lenders, Realtors, and buyers established a clear message that remains C.P. Morgan's brand: "More Square Feet. Less Money." A massive ad campaign launched in January 1999 rolled out a new logo, new colors and new ads focused on the theme, "Other Homes, C.P. Morgan Homes."

The visuals told it all. Goldfish swimming in a small bowl were "other homes." A giant aquarium was C.P. Morgan homes. There was a baby in a basin, next to a baby in a huge bathtub. And so on.

"The market flipped out," Horner says. "They loved it. That got the brand on the map and started us on our next major growth spurt for our company."

Because the marketing message has been so well understood, he says, Morgan's sales conversion rate is a monstrous 35 percent.

"If you don't want more square feet for less money," he says, "you just don't walk in our door."

There's a fair amount of zaniness in the marketing mix ("Every year, I like to do something to freak people out," Horner says), but the effort is tremendously focused.

"None of this stuff I'm doing is because I like pretty creative. If it doesn't drive traffic and sales, we don't do it," notes Horner.

Much of the company's success in 2002 came from Eagle Crossing, a master planned community. It was C.P. Morgan's first foray into community-specific branding. An expensive piece of property, the company needed to communicate what it had done with the neighborhood to increase sales velocity.

Miles joined Horner for a day of tramping through the woods on the site and came back with a concept that focused on discovery and adventure. Horner wanted the campaign to produce 16 frame starts a month; he got 32. Today, C.P. Morgan has five branded communities; all are the top sellers in their cities.

Horner and Miles both say that they often talk to builders who want what Milesbrand produces, but without the cost of a long-term relationship. Horner says you can't get one without the other.

"So many of them don't want to make that investment," he says. "They just want a pretty campaign ... . In 1997, we spent $300,000 on the paper [print ads in newspapers]. Today I spend $50,000 on the paper and reallocated those dollars to other tools that are helping us do better things."

Works for little guys, too

Infinity Home Collection of Greenwood, Colo., averages between 80 and 100 houses a year. General manger David Steinke has been both a Milesbrand staffer and a client. The Milesbrand approach works, he says, because Miles "understands why people buy. He has been involved in our sales center, model homes, Web site, our ads, everything that touches a consumer. He's been involved in our meetings with contractors and suppliers to make sure the brand is supported and delivered in a way they get a benefit from it."

Nestled in a high-end production home niche, Steinke says Infinity is the "BMW/ Jaguar type persona in a Toyota world today."

"Dave helped us put that picture in our mind," he says. "He put together an ad campaign and logo and hasn't let us deviate from the consistency of that. If you talk to anyone in this town and say Infinity, they say, 'Oh man, they build cool stuff.' That's all we wanted to do. It allowed a tiny builder who can't possibly compete against the Tolls to absolutely own a niche and be sought after by buyers and developers. Our ads are good, our radio ads are unbelievable, and all the things we've done creative-wise have followed suit with our homes."

"Just a little uncomfortable"

Shea Homes Colorado is another long-time client. Its latest project with Miles is Reunion, a master planned community near Denver International Airport.

What sets Milesbrand apart from other firms is the depth of the research it does on the builder, the product, and the buyer, says Jeff Kappes, Shea Homes Colorado vice president of sales and marketing. As a result, Shea Homes views them as partners.

"Miles is a part of the team," Kappes says. "They're not a consultant we call in every once in a while to whip up a quick idea. From day one, when we analyze a new community, they're in the room, and their voice is as loud as anyone else's. We take their recommendations very much to heart."

What Kappes says he likes most about Milesbrand is the rich creativity of its work.

"We love 'em because the stuff they bring to us always makes us feel just a little uncomfortable," he says. "We don't want predictability. We like to be on the edge, and they're always on the edge."

One of the first communities they worked on together was a community slated to be called Chatfield Greens. Miles insisted it needed a new name, and proposed Trailmark.

"We all went, 'Nah,'" says Kappes. But, he adds, "David is a passionate person when he believes his firm is on it. Through dialogue, we decided being on the edge and trying something unpredictable from a theming standpoint was on the right track. We believe it was one of our biggest successes in terms of vision and community branding."

Pat Curry is a freelance writer based in Walkinsville, Ga.

A Critical Eye

Four questions to ask about an ad.

1. Does it meet your objectives for both brand and strategic alignment? It could be brilliantly executed and still convey the wrong message. Everything needs to be focused on the position statement.

2. Is the tone appropriate for the key prospect? Look at both the visual and the copy. Do they look and sound like your buyer?

3. Is it different from everything else in the category?

4. Are you proud of it?

Dave's Faves

These award-winning ads are among David Miles' favorites. Here's his take on them:

1. Grant Ranch, master planned community, Littleton, Colo. When you're spending money in a crowded medium, the ad needs to resonate. I always ask, "Does the communication transcend the category? Would someone not looking for a house remember it? Does it bring a smile or ring true?" I have never, ever seen another ad in real estate with this voice, capturing the imagination of a 9-year-old boy. This is delightful. It's just so charming, you have to go see the community to see if it pays off.

2. C.P. Morgan Homes, Indianapolis. We've won nine golds in four years with C.P. Morgan. People forget that this is for a value builder. The ad is filled with confidence about the position, "More Square Feet, Less Money." You're able to distill the essence of that position into simple but compelling images. These have very high production values. It compliments a savvy buyer. It's a clear, concise communication for an entry-level buyer.

3. London Bay Homes, Naples, Fla. This is very similar to the approach with C.P. Morgan. The big problem with luxury homes is that everything is there, and builders are generally trying to communicate all their features in the ads. We were able to condense all that into a fashion statement. We projected the environment onto a person. It's unique to the category. It's very simple and elegant.

4. Falcon Homes, Denver. This has the highest emotional content of anything we've done. It had the courage to talk about the process and ask the question, "What is a home?" It's when you walk in the door and say, "This is it, this is it." No one had been able to condense that process into such an emotional, concise description. People still quote it to me.

5. Castle Pines Village, Castle Rock, Colo. We went through about five nature photographers to capture this environment. We found John Fielder. It speaks to the positioning, "Where Denver Becomes Colorado Again." The headlines and body copy are so out of category. Most gated luxury community ads talk to sense of status; this talked to release. It connected with the executive/professional, people with a lot of pressure and who are compensated well. It offers a higher return on investment because the memory points are so much deeper. It sets the expectations correctly. Most real estate ads don't do that.

Break the Mold

Five steps to stellar ads.

1. Break the rules of the category. Most real estate ads sound the same. Places become commodities, and the ads tend to reflect that. An outstanding ad will look, read, and feel different from the competition.

2. Keep it simple. One ad, one message. You want to focus on the benefit to the consumer, not a product attribute.

3. Create a unique personality. Everyone likes to spend time with people who are interesting and unique. It's also true about places. The goal is to be attractive without being vain, confident without being arrogant. A great sense of humor goes a long way.

4. Talk to your prospects one-to-one. Don't sell or preach. Have a conversation. Talk to them from their point of view, not yours. You can't do this if you don't know who they are and what's important to them.

5. Invest in high production values. That means great photography, beautiful illustrations, brilliant writing, and first-class printing. In broadcast, that means top-notch voice talent, music, and videography.

Add to those five steps the three crucial elements of any ad:

The headline. Establish a compelling idea without fully explaining it. Leave enough unsaid that readers will want to continue. Express one big thought--"This is what home looks like" or "Renting is lame"--and promise a prospect benefit.

The copy. Reward readers for their time and effort. Follow the headline with deeper knowledge, but don't overwhelm them with information. Less is more. Separate the story being told from the mandatory information, such as location, price, and contact information.

The visuals. Visuals are the "other" language; they should advance the concept. Ask, "Is it a visual idea or just a picture?" Visuals should complement and add to the headline, not mirror it.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Denver, CO.