Universal Pixel’s £70m gamble

Universal Pixel took on the challenge of selling the most expensive new-build residential property in the UK. Had it all gone wrong, it would have been disastrous for the company. Founder Hayden Allen-Vercoe explains how and why he succeeded.

A £70 million gamble

How do you sell a house for £70 million? That was the problem Universal Pixel, a tiny Surrey-based marketing agency, decided it would risk its business – and reputation – on solving.

The property in question was Updown Court, the most expensive new-build residential property in the UK. Situated in Windlesham, Surrey, it comprised 60,000 sq ft of living space and 58 acres of land. Along with a staggering 103 rooms, the property boasted tennis courts, five swimming pools, a 50-seat cinema and its very own bowling alley. On the market for a cool £70 million, the experts reckoned it would cost £70 million to furnish.

A risky coupe

Universal Pixel pitched for the job of marketing the property and won the contract in September 2004. That was when the hard work really started, since the project dwarfed anything the company had worked on before. While being associated with such a prestigious project was a coup for the company, it was not without risk. As Universal founder Hayden Allen-Vercoe explains: ‘The task in hand was unique, and there was no obvious right or wrong way to proceed. In a way, the house itself was an experiment in seeing whether such a property would sell, and our reputation depended on it.’

The first problem to tackle was the property’s dubious past. Severely damaged by fire in 1987, construction work was halted in 2001 and the house was seized as part of a fraud investigation by Customs & Excise into the property’s then owner, Indian businessman Banjul Singh. The developers, Rhymer Investments, bought the house in 2002 from the receivers with backing from an Irish bank. ‘The house had always been in the limelight but not for positive reasons,’ says Allen-Vercoe, ‘and if things had gone wrong we would be tainted by association.’

Not enough billionaires?
The next problem was to whom should a £70 million house be marketed? ‘Being the price it is and as opulent as it is, the property could only be marketed to billionaires,’ says Allen-Vercoe. ‘There are around 600 billionaires in the world, but only about 50 who are suitable buyers. The final owners might never live in the property, keeping it as a symbol of their status instead.’

Universal Pixel consulted with managing agencies Savills and Hamptons and came to the conclusion that branding the property would broaden its appeal. But it shied away from a ‘classical’ approach, opting for a more contemporary feel to lure ‘new money’.

High price for information
Allen-Vercoe came up with a two-pronged marketing campaign for Updown Court. He began with a teaser, providing pictures and a short film to the national press to attract potential buyers. However, to avoid timewasters (those intent on seeing the house without any inclination to buy), he created a luxury leather-bound prospectus of the house with a £500 price tag attached to it.

‘Charging for a prospectus was something no one had done before,’ says Allen-Vercoe. ‘It was a big gamble because we didn’t want to put off genuine buyers and £500 is a steep price for information, even for billionaires! In reality, interested parties that came forward would be vetted and traced by the managing agencies and there was never any intention of making sincere prospective buyers pay.’

Unsurprisingly, the entire campaign took a toll on the rest of Universal’s business. ‘We spent 70 per cent of our time for three months solid on the Updown project. We were doing 12 to 15-hour days, but at the same time we had other clients to deal with and it was difficult to juggle the amount of work we had on,’ recalls Allen-Vercoe.

To cope with the workload, the team of four became five. ‘Taking on another member of staff was daunting,’ he adds. ‘There was a risk that if work dried up after Updown Court, we didn’t know what we would do with the extra person and it was essential that they fitted in immediately with the team, as we had no time to ease them in.’

Success breeds confidence

During the lifespan of the contract, Universal Pixel was entirely self-funded so any loss of business could have created dire financial circumstances. But the risk paid off and the Updown Court contract has subsequently brought in new business. ‘The confidence we gained from the Updown project encouraged us to pursue new avenues,’ says Allen-Vercoe. ‘We’ve always been generalist but now we have a niche in marketing expensive property developments. For instance, we have just won a pitch to develop a complete range of on and off-line marketing materials to promote Beijing’s new European Business Park to SMEs across Europe.’

Allen-Vercoe also says the entire experience taught him a valuable lesson. ‘Before we won the contract, we had a lot of clients we really needed to shed. They weren’t producing money for us and we were just servicing them. In all honesty, we had outgrown them, but telling them that was risky in case the main project fell flat on its face. In the end though, it worked out for the best.

Leslie Copeland

Leslie Copeland

Leslie was made Editor for Growth Company Investor magazine in 2000, then headed up the launch of Business XL magazine, and then became Editorial Director in 2007 for the online and print publication portfolio...

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