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Charleston Business

Real estate phenomenon Jeff Cook talks sales, ads, and becoming a brand

Jan 16, 2019 10:49AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Kinsey Gidick

You have to appreciate the audacity of including “Crush It” in your company’s core values. Coming from most business owners, this kind of “go big or go home” attitude might sound like a joke, but it doesn’t when it’s coming from Jeff Cook Real Estate. Especially when you see the numbers the company is pulling in.

Founded by real estate phenom, billboard celebrity, and surprisingly unassuming guy Jeff Cook, the statewide real estate firm with offices in Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville has closed on 966 homes as of Oct. 16. The goal is to finish the year at 1,300. Jeff Cook Real Estate also came in at No. 23 in the 2018 South Carolina 25 Fastest Growing Companies contest. Not bad for a company started by a guy who got into real estate after getting laid off from Circuit City. 

That’s right. Long before Jeff Cook made himself the punchline of a dozen different ads in the Charleston area, he was just a college student, well, crushing it. According to Cook, back in 2003, he was one of the Columbia Circuit City’s top sellers. But Cook says that when the company changed employee pay structure from commision to salary, he got the boot. 

The shock of the layoff was devastating. But it came with one important epiphany: Jeff Cook never wanted to work for someone else again. 

“I looked at my father’s friends. There was an insurance salesman and real estate agent… The real estate agent drove a Jaguar,” he says. And that decided that. A 90-hour real estate course later, he was ready to enter the business. 

Success, however, didn’t click like it had at Circuit City.

“I couldn’t figure out how to get my first sale,” Cook says. Desperate for commission, he stayed every single day at his first real estate office until 9 p.m. answering the phones for a year. “It was rare the phone even rang, but I figured if I put time in, it was mine,” he says. Finally someone called. “Sure enough, that guy’s $250,000 was my first house sale.” 

Of course, a lucky break on a first sale does not a real estate mogul make. The Jeff Cook South Carolinians know today—the one with the jovial smile—confesses he never planned to make his name by becoming the larger-than-life face of the company, even though that would become one of the keys to his success. In fact, after two low-traction responses to typical billboards with a picture of a house, his company’s marketing team approached him with the first mockup of a sunscreen-smeared Cook cheesing it for his first billboard ad. He thought it was a gag. 

“I showed it to my wife, and said ‘Don’t you think it’s super unprofessional?’” Her response: It is, but it makes you a real person. Begrudgingly, Cook agreed to run the ad, and lo and behold, the phone calls started coming in. “It was a turning point for marketing and our entire business,” he says.

Using humor in home sale marketing, of course, isn’t new. Advertisers in every field have turned to laughs to sell products. And it’s easy to see why. According to a study by the Netherland’s Radboud University Nijmegen, humor triggers buyers to put down their defenses and numbs them to the fact that they’re being sold to. At the same time, a good laugh elevates people’s mood, thus making the individual associate good feelings with a product. 

Case in point: Cook’s wildly successful post-2016 election ad. Following the presidential election, Cook’s savvy marketing team put up billboards with the image of the Realtor next to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The message: “Moving to Canada? We can help.” Needless to say, the ad went viral in every sense of the word. 

Cook’s Facebook page hit one million views, and he found himself the subject of nightly news on Fox and CNN. The company even received calls from news stations in Australia and Japan. 

But developing a personal brand based on humor is not the same as turning that recognition into sales. That, Jeff Cook Real Estate employee Kris McDonagh says, is the result of her boss’s work ethic and leadership.

“What really drives him is to help other people figure it out and be successful,” McDonagh says. “That’s what fills his cup.”

At Jeff Cook Real Estate, all 91 agents essentially fish from the same pond—Jeff Cook’s leads. “If you do what we prescribe, you’re going to be successful,” McDonagh adds. She cites her husband Mike as an example. 

Mike McDonagh met Cook in 2015. At the time, McDonagh was trying to sell Cook copiers. Impressed, Cook began courting Mike to recruit him to the Jeff Cook team. Kris McDonagh was reluctant: “We had just had a baby. It wasn’t really a great time to start a new job.” But after six months of convincing, Mike joined the firm.

“And he crushed it,” she says. “I want to say he sold 30 houses that first year.” Mike McDonagh received the company’s Rookie of the Year award and has since gone on to win Jeff Cook Real Estate’s King Kong Award for the highest volume or transactions two years running. McDonagh did so well, Kris left her own job in publishing to join Jeff Cook Real Estate, where she’s been equally successful. What’s Jeff Cook’s secret potion? Teamwork.

“We are a team. We have at our operations center a team of people who help our agents—listing coordinators, closing coordinators, accounting, compliance, and a marketing department,” Kris McDonagh says. The idea is to give the agents in the field all the support they need so they can keep selling, while the staff back at HQ handles the paperwork. 
But, McDonagh maintains, it’s not all about putting up big numbers. The company’s motto is “A Family Served,” not a home sold. And that concept is what she says makes Cook work so hard.  

“My name is on the sign and face on marketing,” says Cook. “That’s the leads. But what’s important to me is the relationship between the agent and the client. When an agent gets a paycheck, their family succeeds. Then their family can buy cars, get loans, send kids to college. My goal is to empower people within.” 

Cook’s mission seems to be working. With six offices statewide and a team of 24 full-time staff members and two interns at their operations center in North Charleston, his next goal is to “help 4,000 families annually buy or sell the biggest investment of their life by the year 2025.” In other words, crush it.