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Richard Pandiscio – A Busy Man

CORE Talks // Sep 01, 2008

As marketing and selling evolves and campaigns to sell real estate become more sophisticated, there are some projects that miss the mark and detract from the value of the project, and there are others that over reach and help a project exceed its intrinsic market value.

Walking into Pandiscio Co. gives credence to the old saying “if you want to get something done, ask a busy man.” With 14 real estate projects under their belt in only four years, Pandiscio Co. is in the business of turning properties into valuable new brands (or reinvigorating old ones).

I sat down with founder Richard Pandiscio at his headquarters in the Meatpacking District to discuss his pioneering work in real estate branding.

THE INTERVIEW

Shaun: How did you get into this business?

Richard: Long or short?

Shaun: Whatever you’re comfortable telling.

Richard: Short. André Balazs and Louise Sunshine.

Shaun: Where did you study?

Richard: Exeter. Tulane School of Architecture. Rhode Island School of Design. Before there were assistants there were secretaries and my first job was as a secretary at Condé Nast for the Design Director of House & Garden. At that time, this is the mid eighties, the magazine believed that quality was everything, and it took precedence over style. By the time I was 26 I had worked at Vogue and was Art Director of the new start-up, Condé Nast Traveler. One day out of the blue Tibor Kalman, whom I had never met but who was brilliant and a real design anarchist, hired me as Creative Director for Andy Warhol’s Interview — a magazine I was obsessed with as a teenager.

Shaun: It’s all connected.

Richard: In retrospect, yes.

Shaun: Let’s talk about going from Interview to starting your own company. There’s usually some impetus or driving force into starting your own company. Was there some moment that drove you?

Richard: Magazines, to be sustainable and profitable, are always built on a formula that can be repeated ad infinitum. A magazine can experiment with its consistency only so often before advertisers start getting nervous. I always found working beyond the confines of a Creative Director’s duties the most enjoyable part of my job. I reported on the fashion collections in New York and Paris; I wrote often about design, photography and celebrity; and I had my own monthly column in which I had the freedom to identify undiscovered new talent wherever I found it. It was called “Ones to Watch,” and it ran for about six years. Even with these opportunities, I was limited to what was right for the magazine. So, to answer your question, I wanted to move beyond the magazine world and have the freedom to try new things. The goal of starting a company was to be as experimental as possible, which is something we’ve managed to achieve.

Shaun: Who were some of your prime “ones” that you recognized?

Richard: Some are now inextricably part of that culture, like fashion designer Alexander McQueen, film director Jim Mangold, or writers such as Rick Moody and David Sedaris. But I just as much enjoyed people who had no expectation of fame but who were wonderful, who had a natural gift for gab, or who could do something amazing with a ball of string, things like that.

Shaun: Clearly one of your talents is your ability to recognize trends ahead of their time. Things that stylistically change the way we see the world. Products or people. Whether it’s a piece of real estate or something in the design world. How do you keep in touch day to day with what’s going on out there?

Richard: Cocktail parties, mostly. Just listen to what your friends are starting to talk about and you will get all the new information you really need. But I also find trends to be exhausting – and exhaustive. A trend can become more refined, but rarely becomes more interesting as time goes on unless it mutates into something else entirely.

I’m able to accept that I have very good instincts as well as internal radar for what people are ready to accept next. About five or six years ago, real estate prices in New York were escalating and friends who otherwise would never be caught dead talking about real estate were beginning to tune in. Mostly for my own amusement, I wrote a four or five page proposal for a new magazine that wasn’t about real estate, per se, but rather about the culture that surrounds it: how real estate shapes lives and industries and design and economics. I threw the proposal in a drawer and forgot about it.

A few years later I was at a dinner party and the woman sitting next to me turned to me and asked “what do you think is interesting right now, really?” A lot of times people are afraid to talk about something they fear no one else has any interest in, so when I said “real estate” I was surprised to hear how much she had been thinking about it, too. She was the legendary magazine editor Alexandra Penney. I sent her the old proposal and she forwarded it to S.I. Newhouse, the Chairman of Condé Nast, and to Adam Moss, the editor of New York Magazine, who immediately bought the concept and turned it into “Vu.”, which couldn’t have made me happier because I knew his team would do a brilliant job with it, and they have. I continue to work with them as a consultant. Fast forward to The New York Times’ “Key”, the New York Observer’s “Location”, etcetera, etcetera… So yeah, cocktail parties, definitely.

When I first started marketing real estate, I brought in really great artists, writers and photographers that I had worked with in the past. They would ask me to omit their names from the credits, as they somehow found it lowbrow. Now the same people are stipulating that they must be credited. Prominently. That’s a huge shift in the culture for the industry.

Shaun: How much of your company’s work is real estate-based?

Richard: Four years ago it was nearly nothing. Today, maybe 85%.

Shaun: Do you think that’s partly because real estate has evolved and has become more sophisticated? Your creative input and your talents are more necessary to make a project more successful and resonate with our buyer of today.

Richard: Well sure, and Pandiscio Co. has had something to do with that. But like most things, the driving forces behind it are the economics. Competition in the marketplace necessitates finding radical new means for grabbing attention and adding value and allure. The usual tactics — more amenities, more expensive finishes and slicker renderings — just weren’t doing the trick. The more sophisticated the renderings became the more the projects looked the same. The bigger the amenities package and finer the finishes, the more the projects were the same.

I have to be honest, when we first started, we really didn’t strategize as we do now — we just did what we thought would make us want to live in each respective project. And the projects were wildly successful and the developers were able to raise prices beyond any of their expectations because the buyer interest was so strong. And nearly all of these buyers were focused on the qualities we had underlined, or in many cases invented. And the subsequent side effect was that our work also generated an enormous amount of press on its own merit, which in turn gave journalists a renewed interest in covering the projects and propelling the real estate media frenzy.

Shaun: The projects that you’ve worked on, you clearly have an identifiable signature on all of them, yet every project is unique.

Richard: Thanks, but it’s really just common sense. Nothing can be unique if it is the same as something else, right? Every project is built differently, is in a different neighborhood, is in a different in moment – the headlines in the news have changed. Why would anyone want to spend a premium for a generic home?

Shaun: What inspires you? How do you get started with a new client?

Richard: We start with the proposition that’s put on the table and consider it the way I think any buyer would consider it – and then we start to pick it apart and look for its strengths as well as the weaknesses.

Shaun: I agree.

Richard: This process of testing the project for its weaknesses is something a good developer — really an experienced developer — welcomes. The public and the press will sniff out a project’s shortcomings in a heartbeat, so it’s important to correct weaknesses early on. Nobody wants to deal with a dog of a building once construction is complete.

The developer’s personality and personal preferences are something you’re going to have to deal with throughout the project. You need to understand what their comfort level is or what their particular interests are, so that the process can proceed as smoothly as possible.

It’s important, too, with every project to develop a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar. The unfamiliar grabs attention for a project and the familiar offers reassurance. As a company we have been able to flourish not only by positioning our projects in the public consciousness by being provocative — a black billboard celebrating a recently deceased architectural icon, or short films starring a martini-swilling cartoon beaver that run in movie theaters, or dancing cowboys on the roof of 246 W. 17th — but also by refining and reinventing some of the less celebrated staples of real estate marketing: better interactive mapping, more effective scale model designs, new production methods, energetic cosponsorships, and more efficient targeted mailing campaigns. One of the most interesting innovations is the software we pioneered and helped developed for The Laurel called the “Residence Finder,” which allows potential buyers anywhere in the world to pre-select the residence that is right for them, pretty much guaranteeing the sales agents a qualified buyer.

Shaun: How challenging is it when you have a developer, a marketing group, a bank, and many different parties trying to tell you what they want?

Richard: f you find you are being treated like a service provider rather than as a creative partner you have to put a stop to it or you might as well pack your bags and walk away -the game is over. It’s a big part of the overall challenge, and it’s not always a comfortable one, but if our vision is clear enough, and it’s presented in a way so that everyone can recognize its potential value, then we have a better chance. There’s nothing like the prospect of adding 200, 300, 600 dollars a square foot to a project to get everyone on board. And we’ve delivered on that promise many many times.

Shaun: I look around your office and I see all kinds of literature. I see a portrait of Philip Johnson, art and furniture by Donald Judd, and a lot of books on art and architecture. Is all of this your inspiration?

Richard: I share the studio with Todd Eberle who is the great architectural photographer of our time, in my opinion, and who has been covering the art and architecture terrain for Vanity Fair as their Photographer at Large for the past ten years. Commissioning great photography for a project, by the way, is something that few developers understand for some odd reason.

Shaun: It seems to me that the more sophisticated we become, the smaller the world becomes and the more connected everything is. Do you find that to be true in your business?

Richard: As you know more than most, it’s the global market that’s driving real estate right now for reasons that are largely economic. There are political and social reasons as well. The result of this makes the world appear smaller, but really the neighborhood is just getting bigger, and undeniably more connected. For the marketer though, the promises of status or power or sex or comfort or security are universal. And timeless. The trick is to avoid marketing those promises with clichés.
Shaun: How do you feel technology has shaped or helped what we do and what you do specifically? How challenging has it been to adapt in the last seven years with the internet and with the ability to reach an international global audience.

Richard: Nobody in their right mind denies the power of the Internet and its ability to reach enormous audiences economically. But how the message is shaped and how it is received will always be at the heart of the matter no matter what the medium. We’re just now seeing how effective online advertising can be, and the results are surprisingly good. When we were working on Cipriani Club Residences I made an icon of a house that could be dropped into a shopping cart ready for checkout. For whatever legal reason we couldn’t actually execute the idea, but the spirit was right and some day I’m sure it will become a reality.

Louise Sunshine is not only a good friend, colleague and mentor, but we’ve partnered along with her son Paul to develop a means of aggregating media and marketing to cater to global real estate investing by taking full advantage of the Internet. The company is called Domineum. I’m really excited about it and you’ll be hearing a great deal more about it soon.

Shaun: It will be very interesting to see where we are five years from now. With globalization in real estate, marketing, branding, and architecture.

Richard: One of the most positive aspects of this renewed interest in residential building are the opportunities it has given architects. I believe we are entering a golden age of residential architecture. My generation grew up with considerable mainstream appreciation for architecture, but saw very little great architecture built. But that interest has broadened thanks to people like Herbert Muschamp, the great Times critic, who was able to relate architecture to anything: art, music, Hollywood. I also think this emergence of a public fascination with design owes a lot to publications like Wallpaper magazine, which was able to correlate architecture with fashion; also Todd’s work for Vanity Fair, which has made architecture speak to the powerful and influential.

And yet for most of our lives architecture has felt archeological – a relic of of other generations. The great urban residential buildings by Candela are nearly 80 or 90 years old. Even great commercial buildings like Lever House and the Seagram Building are now 50 years old, and The Lipstick and AT&T buildings nearly twenty-five. So there’s a real pent up demand for good modern architecture from a generation that is now reaching an age where they are able to afford it – not to mention recognizing its value and cultural cache. I expect that the developers daring enough to work with the best of the new generation of architects will be very well rewarded. That process, thankfully, has already begun.

Shaun: To me it’s important because it impacts the way in which we live our everyday lives.

Richard: Precisely. I don’t understand architectural critics who are dismissive of residential architecture and who go out of their way to apologize for covering it — those who don’t take it as seriously as they would a museum or some other type of cultural institution. Good residential architecture is incredibly complex and requires an incredible level of understanding of the nuances of human behavior in a way that more academic endeavors do not. Residential architecture needs more serious criticism, not less.

Shaun: Every development and every marketing campaign that I see says “luxury” on it. The word “luxury” is probably the most overused word in real estate right now. But, as you know, the luxury market has definitely grown leaps and bounds. Where do you see that luxury market going?

Richard: Yes, and so few of them actually are. Of all the consumer protection laws out there, none protect against hyperbole. True luxury is, quite literally, rare. But the “luxury” market will to continue to grow because so many people consider themselves a luxury buyer. And that has less to do with wealth or taste and more to do with attitude which brings us to that other overused word, lifestyle. Right now that’s a popular arena to play in, and more affordable and easier to pull off. But within that luxury market of buyers there will always be a segment that’s going to want, or rather insist, on separating themselves from the crowd. There’s really no dollar limit per square foot if you create the right product. On the other hand, if anyone out there is using good architecture to develop better low- and middle-income housing, you’re probably the future. Call me.

Shaun: My favorite part of any project is first sitting down with the architect and defining the needs of our buyer. We try to give them something that will make their jaw drop so when they walk in they say, “I don’t care what it costs. I want it”. How did you assemble your team of people? I know you’re very hands-on, and your team works as an extension of you.

Richard: Well, yes and no. I’ve never hired anybody because I thought they were or could become a mini me. It’s actually quite the opposite. I hire people who can do things and think things I never could – people with specific expertise and interests. Each is his or her own person with their own way of going about things. My job is to set the goal, convey the parameters, help them understand the schedule, budget, and hazards and potential pitfalls. Other than that, I pretty much try to get out of their way.

A person can be extraordinarily creative but without being grounded in the reality of a production schedule they are just spinning their wheels. When it comes to being able to get a job done under very tight deadline, I’m very experienced with that. That is something you have to really train people to be able to do. It’s not something that comes naturally – everyone wants more time.

If somebody has what I think is an excellent idea, I will do everything in my power to make it happen. I’m the biggest cheerleader for a well thought-through idea no matter who proposes it. With the right team anything can be accomplished, and right now I have the best team of experts in the business.

Shaun: Other than real estate, what’s been your most exciting account product branding creative experience?

Richard: With branding, it’s time that tells. We’ve done a number of projects that have passed that test. Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie New York Museum for German and Austrian Art is one, Sharps Barber and Shop men’s grooming products is another. We also did the creative development and branding design for the Core Club, which was enormously successful. Plum TV is expanding quickly. We launched Cipriani’s real estate efforts, and they have quickly expanded into other cities very smoothly. And we’ve laid the groundwork for other properties which could, if they choose, expand into other cities or other areas. The Mark Hotel and William Beaver House in particular.

Working with artists is also something we consistently enjoy doing. The work is always exciting and we’ve done books with the best: Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, John Currin, George Condo, David Salle. Artists are relentless in their need to make the experience challenging, always pushing to make it better and unique.

Shaun: I’m starting to see some brands become diluted. Brands that meant something at one time now mean something else.

Richard: That’s probably just poor brand management. I don’t like to get involved with already established brands. The outward appearance of a brand can change so long as the brand message is kept intact. The fashion and automobile industries tend to do the best job at brand management because they must constantly produce a new product every season, forcing them to really recognize who they are and what they represent.
Real estate offers the same opportunities to savvy developers – you can create a very rich and varied set of properties without losing a consistency in the quality of the experience each one offers. A poorly managed brand is often stiffly consistent stylistically, but without variation it quickly becomes stale. You can be a developer and do very different things. André Balazs, Richard Born and Izak Senbahar do it well. No two of their projects are ever the same, but you can depend on them to steadily deliver a best-of-breed experience.

Overall though, branded real estate is still in its infancy. I’m often in a situation in which I have to convince a developer who has to convince a bank who has to convince their shareholders that constructing a brand while constructing a building is a worthwhile expense. The value of a strong brand is money in the bank that will pay huge dividends in the future.

Shaun: Absolutely. I think you’re a huge part of that and your company has definitely raised the bar. That’s why I’m sitting here having this conversation with you.