Meet the Celebrity Broker, Latest Boldface Aspirants

A 24-foot-wide billboard will soon be hoisted above the sales office of the sleek residential tower at 505 Greenwich Street at the corner of Spring. The outdoor advertisement-set against the building’s burnished copper base and glass façade-depicts the profile of a commanding figure silhouetted against a flash of light over the tag line: “Get Inside.”

The figure in the ad is Dennis Mangone, a top-producing broker at the Corcoran Group specializing in ultra-luxury “lifestyle” buildings-condominium developments like 505 Greenwich; the Cesar Pelli–designed 1 Beacon Court; and the bulbous Charles Gwathmey tower now ascending above Astor Place-that attract attention for celebrity buyers but mostly fill up with Wall Street money.

“When I came to Corcoran, I wanted to be a brand within a brand,” Mr. Mangone said of his billboard advertising campaign. “This billboard was a way to draw a line in the sand. I really wanted to be associated with an address where I had sold 10 percent of the building.”

Mr. Mangone’s new billboard is just one part of a comprehensive marketing strategy that has aided him in becoming one of the city’s highest-producing brokers, closing deals such as the sale of a pair of condos at 1 Beacon Court to Beyoncé Knowles for $9 million.

He is part of a new generation of condominium brokers who have achieved second-degree celebrity much the way publicists, stylists and agents did before them: By virtue of their connection with boldface names, they have become boldface names themselves. They are tossing out the understated manners of a butler or Saville Row tailor, which used to define the upscale broker’s comportment, and instead embracing their celebrity and using it to get business.

To Laurance Kaiser IV, the president of Key-Ventures Realty, and the coterie of society brokers trading among the city’s most exclusive co-ops on the Upper East Side and along Central Park West, such flashy gestures seem an assault to the dignity of an august enterprise.

“Maybe in the condo market you would advertise like that, but for certain co-ops, the last thing the boards want is someone with a big mouth,” Mr. Kaiser said. “They want brokers who are discreet and don’t disclose their services. Lots of people with new money might respond to a broker’s advertisement, but the co-op market remains different. I think explicit advertising to a certain degree is almost a detriment. Some people think: big ego, big mouth. People who are discreet don’t want that.”

It’s the great schism in Manhattan real estate between the arriviste condos, and those who develop and sell them, and the old guard of the Upper East Side (where “co-op” is the operative term). Guess which side is winning out?

“It used to be frowned upon in certain Manhattan circles to let people know you were in real estate,” said Paul Purcell, the former president of Douglas Elliman who now runs the relocation and consulting firm Braddock and Purcell. “But now, this is becoming more of a business, and brokers are realizing if they approach it like a business, there is a value in self-promotion.”

Recently, moviegoers packing the seats at the United Artists Theater on Broadway have been viewing screen advertisements run by Douglas Elliman broker Darren Sukenik that carry his picture and the slogan: “The Star of the Downtown Co-op and Condo Market.”

“You have a very discerning moviegoing audience. These people are youngish professionals who want to be in luxury properties downtown. And the best way to reach them as a captive audience was in a movie theater,” Mr. Sukenik said. “It’s incredibly important to create a lifestyle. My lifestyle mimics both my buyers and sellers. It’s a very easy thing if you’re on the same page of the people you’re working with-you gain their trust and respect,” he said.

Last month, Reid Price, a former sales director at the Sunshine Group who handled sales at 60 Spring Street in Soho and the Philippe Starck–designed 15 Broad Street development in the financial district, joined the Corcoran Group and decided to “rebrand” himself as a specialist in the city’s new boutique developments in Chelsea, Tribeca and Clinton. With his partner GiGi Madl, he has formed the Price-Madl Group, a sub-brand within the Corcoran Group. They recently hired a top Manhattan advertising firm that has done campaigns for companies including Marc Jacobs and Newsweek to develop a proprietary Web site and brochures and mailings that get distributed to prospective clients. Mr. Price said the branding costs were split between himself and Corcoran.

“I think that in the market that we play in today, it requires you to be proactive in your branding. You have to separate yourself from the pack,” he said. “It’s never difficult to become a broker; what is difficult is to grow in this business and build a lasting name and a reputation for yourself.”

It’s a profound reversal: In Manhattan real estate, “reputation” used to be the thing you developed precisely by keeping your name out of the public eye.

“I don’t use marketing, I just get referrals. I’m from a different generation,” said Alice F. Mason, who runs the eponymous Upper East Side boutique brokerage and most recently made headlines for her $24.5 million sale of Woody Allen’s 40-foot-wide Georgian townhouse to Goldman Sachs executive Barry Volpert. “I never advertise. I never did. I really don’t want strangers for clients. How do I know who they are? I don’t want them to come in off the street from an ad they saw.”

“I build my reputation on trust and honesty,” said Carrie Chiang of the Corcoran Group. “I don’t need to market myself in that way. It’s like any good doctor. It’s word of mouth among the right clientele. I gain a lot of respect in the community.”

“I want boards to take me seriously. When you’re selling on Fifth and Park, I’m dealing with a lot of boards that say, ‘I don’t want to deal with the person whose picture is all over town’,” said Michele Kleier, the president of Gumley Haft Kleier, who specializes in high-end Upper East Side properties.

Brash marketing, of course, has been a presence in the Manhattan real-estate world for two decades: ever since Barbara Corcoran began splashing her photo across billboards, newspaper spreads and city buses. Perhaps signaling the birth of the broker- cum-power-player, Ms. Corcoran ran a full-page ad in The New York Times in the early 1990’s touting her firm’s new “power brokers,” featuring imposing photos of her company’s top producers. In doing so, she added the real-estate broker to the Manhattan power-status hierarchy. More recently, Donald Trump has used The Apprentice as a self-promotion bonanza to resurrect the Trump name and transform his brand into a cavalcade of Trump products.

“Doing a reality show is much better, because the ad is within the show. I get paid for the ad, as opposed to the other way around; it’s a great trend,” Mr. Trump said. “I’ve been able to expand the Trump name. I have an Estée Lauder fragrance, the Trump magazine. My book went to No. 1 on the best-seller list. It tells you about branding.”

Advertising experts say the personal branding trend in real estate largely mirrors the cult of personality that has infused consumer marketing in everything from Martha Stewart 200-thread-count bedding sold at Kmart to Michael Graves kitchen wares on sale at Target, and even to luxury residential real estate, where architects like Frank Gehry have been licensing their names on projects around the globe at an ever greater pace.

“[Personal branding] is taking a leaf from the fashion world, and what designers traditionally have done. Like P. Diddy using the cult of personality to drive sales in different markets,” Richard Welch, a managing director at Crystal, the leading-edge marketing arm of Ogilvy and Mather, said. “The market has this obsession with V.I.P. Everyone wants to live their life as a celebrity. Today, traditional signals of success have been eroded. It’s the old Andy Warhol 15 minutes of fame.”

But while Ms. Corcoran and Mr. Trump constructed powerful real-estate brands based on personality-driven marketing, real-estate experts tussle over just what value celebrity brokers bring to the firms that employ them.

“A lot of these firms seem to have brokers promoting themselves and not the firm. I see lots of benefits to the individual broker, but what’s the benefit for the firm?” said Jed Garfield, of the Upper East Side townhouse brokerage Leslie J. Garfield. “I would never let anyone at our firm do something like that. It’s purely ego-driven.”

This shift may be tied to the markets in which you need to sell, as the Corcoran Group, which does the lion’s share of the downtown condo and loft market, clearly sees a positive impact of having their brokers circulate among the city’s downtown glitterati.

“[Branding] is what we teach and train our brokers. We push the concept that we are their employees, and we work for them. We have 2,000 small businesses under our umbrella. We drive the bus that has the ad that they’re on. We know that the Corcoran name will always be the sign-off; our name will always be the tag line,” Scott Durkin, the chief operating officer at the Corcoran Group, said.

But some fail to see the value in promoting celebrity brokers.

“That was the big dilemma when I was at Insignia. We didn’t like our brokers building their name. Once you’re a brand, you are portable,” Mr. Purcell said. “The brokers were promoting themselves and we were becoming tertiary. We were also very nervous about teams. Once brokers start to amass a group of people, you can leave and take those people with you. The more power you give the team, it’s a double-edge sword.”

But, with brokers becoming celebrities, they now find themselves open to media scandals that roiled similar new arrivals into the celebrity ranks, such as Lizzie Grubman’s infamous S.U.V. smash-up. Perhaps illustrating the potential dangers for real-estate celebrities, when Douglas Elliman broker Jennifer Crisafulli landed a role on this season’s Apprentice, the firm soon vaulted her photo onto the Elliman Web site and took out full-page ads in the New York Post promoting her skills as a broker and hoping to turn her star power into new business. But Ms. Crisafulli learned firsthand the risks of personal branding when her remarks that two restaurant customers were “two old Jewish fat ladies” and “jaded old bags” got her sacked from the show, and fired from her job at Douglas Elliman two days after the episode aired on Sept. 29.

Still, Mr. Mangone said he retains a cautious view of the fine line between personal branding, wanton self-promotion and the fickleness of a post-reality-television-era Manhattan. He says his billboard is a conservative effort to further his name in Manhattan’s hyper-competitive real-estate market, much like his upcoming marketing trip to the annual Art Basel international art show in Miami on Dec. 2.

“I can understand why people do this type of marketing. But it can be a risky deal,” Mr. Mangone said. “I believe because of the type of business I’m in that I have to be careful and use discretion. I want customers to associate me with these marquee buildings, but not overexpose myself” he said, before adding: “I’m in this for the long run.”

Meet the Celebrity Broker, Latest Boldface Aspirants