PlaceTech Trend Talk London
John Wills of Savills likened data mining to alchemy

Savills: The making of an agile corporate

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Nicola Byrne

John Wills has no job title at Savills, where ingraining innovation throughout the business is valued over having a person or team tasked with that role. This is one of the notable differences between Savills and less entrepreneurial corporates in the advisory part of the property industry.

Wills comes from a tech background, specialising in product management, and is now in the process of transferring his skills into property. Speaking at PlaceTech Trend Talk London, Wills shared how he is doing that.

Change from within

With over 35,000 people working in more than 60 countries all over the world, scaling change in a behemoth like Savills isn’t easy.

Wills described the pace of change within property as glacial., citing the slow take-up across the industry for BIM. He added: “The reality is [change] does happen, just over a period of five or 10 years.”

He added: “It’s really difficult to try and understand the complexities of the models we have to operate in and that’s why it’s always refreshing to see developers, operators, other businesses coming from outside the industry introducing new models because it creates incentive and momentum within the industry to allow us to change.”

Savills is trying to become more like a small tech company, Wills explained, to increase the ability and speed with which decisions are made, to become more agile.

The best thing the organisation has done, he said, was to introduce a communications and collaboration platform. “The tool allows people to have conversations in real time, when something good happens on a scheme in Scotland or in Amsterdam, within about five minutes we have a scheme in London saying ‘oh that’s great, how can we implement it, how can we do it?’

“We can also promote additional thinking within the platform, we can ask challenging questions about the future of what we do, which means people who previously weren’t necessarily involved at a strategic level are suddenly influential.”

Property as a product

Wills came from the product management side of tech, having worked at Elogbooks, a facilities management software firm, and believes the idea of placemaking is a product-orientated term, “it’s about creating something that’s desirable.”

He continued: “Property has always been a product, property works best when you have desirable products. People might want to live in a 17th century French chateau but we can’t build any more of those. I bet it’s an absolute nightmare to keep it warm and to make sure there’s Wi-Fi in every single room, the reality of operating it would be horrendous.

“It’s interesting looking at the operating models of WeWork and Edge Technologies, what they are creating, and what they did with the Edge was create a building that people wanted to visit from China.

“They created a massively desirable product, so what can we do as property? Well maybe we can introduce product thinking into what we do.”

Wills referred to this as ‘design thinking’, a process which Savills uses and which he explained as follows:

  • Empathise: conduct research to develop an understanding of your users
  • Define: combine all research and observe where your users’ problems exist
  • Ideate: generate a range of crazy, creative ideas
  • Prototype: build real, tactile representations for a range of your ideas
  • Test: return to your users for feedback
  • Implement: put the vision into effect

Design thinking is putting customers in the middle. Wills said the analogy of the car industry worked well here. “Properties are around for a long time; cars are around for five years before a new model comes along and is upgraded.

“The process of doing that for property is happening over a much longer time, and people want different things. There are people who will live and breathe the light switch until they die despite Alexa, and we have to factor it in.”

Building bespoke apps

Savills has a team of software developers focused solely on developing specific custom applications to add to property management systems, because “we couldn’t get what we needed from the market,” said Wills.

“We’ve integrated and introduced, renovated and upgraded about 30 different software platforms over the past three years.

“I wish we could do more, but the reality is these roles are new, the industry is still getting used to it and they’re expensive. There’s probably a skills shortage as well, if I wanted to go out tomorrow and find five IT experts to recruit, where would I find those people? How would I get them on board?”

Culture + creativity

Creating a creative culture is often cited as a crucial element in modernising traditional corporates, and Savills is no different.

“Most guys will pick a haircut in their early 20s and then that’s what they have for the rest of their life. We are prone to becoming institutionalised, and it’s the same in our job,” said Wills.

“We’re all born creative. I’ve got a two-year-old and some of the things  he comes up with are brilliant, and it’s a real joy in my role to be able to bring some of that creativity out of people I meet.”

Savills actively engages with work experience schemes: the firm recently invited young people who had never worked in property before to come in and chatted to them about what they didn’t like about shopping centres.

Together they were able to gather opposite and analogy thinking: “We drove out a concept for an Alexa-type bubble where you can go and take some respite from the crowded area that is the shopping centre, get connected with the products you want and get some directions to the store you need.

“That wasn’t us feeding into them, it was someone coming up with an idea and a concept. Every single person is capable of this creativity.”

Data, the new alchemy

Alchemy was an ancient practice throughout Europe, Africa, and Asia, in which alchemists attempted to purify and perfect materials. Wills likened this to the race in property to produce tangible data for business intelligence.

“It’s really easy to assume what a customer wants. Having empathy for your customers is a really important step in design thinking. That’s where data becomes really valuable. That might be through collecting data with sensors, just talking to the customer, or recruiting someone who is a customer and bringing them into the organisation,” said Wills.

Savills relies on its suppliers to help them with that, while understanding the complexities of the business. Wills believes gathering data, is “what we have to do” for clients and customers because “they’re number one.”

The company is continuing discussions internally about how data can be shared with developers, operators, designers and architects, and ultimately allow a more joined-up industry.


John Wills was speaking at PlaceTech Trend Talk London sponsored by Mills & Reeve, Node, British Property Federation and FUTURE:PropTech.

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