OPINION: Dodging scrutiny – the portals won’t face proper questions

Russell Quirk

Why haven’t the UK’s multi-billion-pound property portal players ever sat in a room debating together and answering questions that are pertinent to their value, their proposition and their attitude toward their customers? Banks do. The retail industry does. The automotive sector does. Financial services. Health. Energy. Logistics. Electronics. Fashion…. they all do. Why not the property portals, especially the largest ones?

This is the question that I posed to Eddie Holmes of Unissu and Raj Nayyar of Fixflo over drinks a while back. We were three property types musing over our sector and concluding, rather quickly, that the portals should indeed face some scrutiny. After all, two of the top five are publicly listed companies and one other used to be and so you’d think they’d understand what ‘public’ means.

So therein lies the birth of this week’s Property Portal Panel, organised and chaired by yours truly. ‘Question Time’ – an hour of probing and cajoling to get under the skin of a sub-sector that, after all, is there by the consent of the agents that it serves, don’t you think?

Messages were duly sent to senior individuals at Rightmove, Zoopla, On The Market, Boomin and One Dome many weeks ago and a press release distributed to the trades to set out the event, its date and its purpose and as a live streamed session also recorded for later digestion and reference.

The result of those initial messages and the various communications since is that two portals refused to play ball. Various excuses prevailed. Some weren’t even remotely plausible and the excuses then altered as the weeks rolled on and as pressure mounted to say yes.

Boomin, One Dome and Zoopla did say yes and, in that order, although Zoopla later withdrew when it became apparent that Rightmove were washing their hair that day. This is perhaps testimony to Zoopla’s position as perpetually subservient as the tail to Rightmove’s dog. Nonetheless I thank them and in particular Michael Bruce and Babek Ismayil for agreeing to participate in a forum designed to test their attitudes, their vision and their relationship with their agent customers but which would also have benefited those participants that shone on the day. That, of course, would have been up to them to do.

Transparency. That is what the ‘Question Time’ session was conceived to provide to you, it’s thousands of customers and against a backdrop whereby certainly Rightmove and On The Market and to a lesser extent Zoopla, have been lambasted by estate agents for their apathy, lack of empathy, their self-serving nature and blatant one-sided commercialism and not to mention their lack of innovation.

So the answer to the simple and reasonable question ‘Are the portals scared of scrutiny?’ has to be a big fat YES. Mostly at least (Boomin and One Dome excepted).

Are they worried that they may not know the right answer to “Why are agents so critical of you? They think that you are taking advantage of them, don’t they?” And “What are you doing about that?”.

When posed with “Name five innovations that agents have asked you for that you are now going to incorporate” can you set out what those things are and why they are important?

“Who actually ‘owns’ ‘your’ listings stock?”

“How do you balance pleasing shareholders and consistent revenue growth with ensuring that you provide genuine value to your agency customers at the same time?”

“Who do you actually view as your customer? The public or the agent?”. (No, ‘both’ is not an acceptable answer because only one of them pays you).

And so on…

It seems odd to me that professional CEOs are unwilling or indeed unable to answer straightforward questions about their ethos, their strategy, their financials, their proposition and their future direction and likely innovation. Especially as you’d think they’d want to set the record straight against fierce criticism. And, no, flaky, set piece, one-sided events that are PR’d to within an inch of their lives are not a substitute – no matter how spun that message becomes to the contrary. For the record, listening is not the same as agreeing nor is it the same as doing.

True transparency is unadulterated and uncorrupted, not contrived.

Anyone would think that they had more to lose by abstaining than having the good grace to open up and participate? If that is indeed the case, then do something about it and be better. Or else this all feels a bit ‘Prince Andrew’ in its avoidance from further inspection.

The consequence of the ‘big three’ running scared is that the Property Portal Panel this week is now cancelled, a spectacle that hundreds had signed up to watch on the Unissu channel and would have been covered extensively by the trade media. Sadly, if there are not enough players willing to brave the spotlights on the pitch then the game can hardly go on. Of course, the portals know this and may even have conspired in abstaining? ‘Weakness in number’ indeed.

And so the show is postponed for now. However, these giants of our industry in a sector they control worth £9bn with thousands of customers (agents) and millions of consumer eyeballs, will eventually face scrutiny – I am determined to see that.

Meantime, it is you as their hard-trodden customers that will be disadvantaged by their glib refusal to be accountable to you.

 

Russell Quirk is co-founder of property PR specialist ProperPR and regular commentator on the industry and the housing market for broadcast media. The opinions expressed are his own.

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33 Comments

  1. watchdog13

    It is astonishing that the portals have not jumped at the opportunity to be grilled by Mr Quirk.

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    1. Chip Wiffler

      It would be like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Ganesh being interviewed by L Ron Hubbard

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    2. MarkRowe

      Haha! Comment of the day and it’s only 9am.

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  2. Countrybumpkin

    Is that really you standing outside number 10 🙂 I like your blogs. This one hits the mark and if you’re listening rightmove come on down and answer what are relatively sensible questions. Rightmove kept quiet at the start of COVID until the pressure built where they had to give cost holidays. Now they have ramped right back up with a vengeance. Many buyers who have missed out on properties this year didn’t realise that onthemarket had many properties exclusively first. These buyers were very pleased to learn of this ‘secret’ and didn’t know this was happening. A REAL opportunity right now for you onthemarket to feature adverts of disappointed buyers versus jubilant buyers who successfully bought ahead of the rest. Now there’s an idea

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    1. Russell Williams

      Clearly (to me, at least), just a black door that happens to be a Number 10.  Not “the Number 10”.  Lots of differences.

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  3. MarkJ

    Sorry Russell. Its the Competitions and Markets Authority that needs to be doing the interviewing. This a market dominated by one single player and the rest is just window dressing round the edges….

    The CMA have been washing their hair for years when it comes to this…..

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    1. Mrlondon52

      Sadly this is not true. Agents have a choice – there at 2 dominant players. They don’t have to be on RM but they choose to be. So I just don’t think the CMA would find any market abuse. Now, if RM tried to buy ZPG then it might get interesting……

      You’re right that this is a CMA thing, not a regulatory thing. These portals are marketing channels, no more, no less – why should they be regulated?

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      1. MarkJ

        Theoretically agents have a choice but locally to us the agents general perception is that if you left RM you’d be dead in the water. You’d be the wounded animal that the rest of the agents turned on…Its happened in the past

        So agents could leave but they dont….and dont RM just know it

        Its a situation perpetuated by the CMA who warn agents not to collude on portal choices etc

         

        In London I believe that Zoopla are more of a competitor to RM than possibly elsewhere….so local perception may vary

         

         

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      2. PeeBee

        “These portals are marketing channels, no more, no less – why should they be regulated?”

        Here’s your three ‘starters for ten’, MrLondon52:

        Because they can be gamed.

        Because they encourage and facilitate gaming.

        Because they game themselves.

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    2. singing agent

      We had a guest speaker from the CMA at the South Wales NAEA/ARLA Conference a couple of years ago.  He was bragging as to the fact that they had handed out some very large fines to some estate agents who had colluded in a couple of towns, trying to maintain a 1.5% commission fee.  When it came to questions I asked why they had not taken action against Rightmove for imposing 10% annual price increases, year on year.  He said there was nothing they could do nothing about it.  If the residents of those towns had not wished to pay 1.5% Sole Agency commission they could have used an agent out of town, or online.  WE DON’T HAVE A CHOICE!

      Ironically, RM were also had a guest speaker, but did anything change?  I had a phone call from a research company doing research on what agents thought of RM.  I gave them both barrels, but even if everybody else said the same they will no doubt just ignore us to maintain their 75% profit margin.

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      1. 456Lets

        What are you talking about we don’t have a choice.  Of course we do.  We can choose not to use Rightmove, and go to one of the other portals, or no portals at all.  We choose not to as we don’t believe as an industry that the other portals provide the same service and exposure.  Whether that is true or not is another question.

        Also whether or not the alternatives provide a good enough alternative service is not up to the CMA.

         

        For consumers choosing a local estate agent, there is a massive difference when they all collude together to price fix in the local area .

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        1. singing agent

          We have never used RM for lettings and have always had a plentiful supply of good tenants.
          It is a lot different on the sales side, RM have increased fees by 550% since I joined in 2002, but the sole agency commission in this area is down by 33%.  Property prices have risen, to help compensate but with so few properties coming to the market over the past 18-months it is difficult to justify the cost of RM.

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  4. frostieclaret87

    And herein lies the biggest challenge of all to the industry. Whilst it’s good to have some barriers to entry this should be qualifications not an unregulated compulsory cost.

    Estate agents are their own worst enemy. They won’t work together because they view everyone else worse than RM. They followed the crowd to Boomin and OTM based on FOMO with no scrutiny on the marketing plans to gain market share. They cut their own throats slashing fees   in a desperate need to gain listings.

    What is actually the solution because until there is one nothing will change?

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    1. MarkJ

      Im my opinion RM have a dominant position that they abuse and market forces havent changed that over time. I dont know many other industries where someone can hike your bill by 15% whilst offering you the same product under a different name and get away with it.

      The only way to change this is outside intervention….but the CMA is absent without leave

      The public obviously like RM because its familiar /Free (to them) / and all the properties are in 1 place/ Perceived as necessary

      They dont know that its 5-6 times more expensive than alternatives (in my experience) and sellers are actually paying for it indirectly.

      On the bag of a fag packet Id say £100 a sale ….

       

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    2. Robert_May

      14000+ agents on  On the market  somewhat contradicts that. On a #local level there is strong and fierce rivalry between agents but put a few miles or a slight difference in the properties they’re selling and agents will and do work together.

      If Ric and Smile Please were both operating in the same town they would be bitter enemies but they’re far enough apart for their common thinking to make them respectful colleagues.

       

      The reality is that Rightmove is what it is and while it can perpetuate the myth of audience it will find support from the passive intermediaries, portal reliant estate agencies, lazy negotiators and  corporate agencies whose subscriptions are subsidised by ‘over-ARPA’ independent agents. That isn’t enough to secure Mr. Brookes Johnson his £2500 a branch ARPA  but RM is here for a bit longer.

      Zoopla is what Zoopla is;  with the Duopoly broken it isn’t what it was and that’s left it wrong-footed as a portal and struggling still as a CRM provider. (Alto is effectively 20 in October but it still hasn’t migrated all Vebra, Core, CFP, Jupix and Expert Agent users onto a common platform)

      On the Market have found new impetus under Jason Tebb to the point where I believe he’s not far off achieving  what Agent’s Mutual set out to do. He is free of the legacy CRM issues that are weighing down ZPG and can do as he pleases if it achieves his aims.

      I think agents can work together, even on a local level if they change their mindset and think back to when they competed hard but shared a page in the local newspaper. Jason Tebb can make that happen, Michael Bruce can make that happen, Peter Brookes Jonson can’t nor can Charlie Bryant.

       

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      1. MarkJ

        Robert I dont disagree with your saying but in reality….

        RM have 18k (?) branches  …OTM have 14K…etc

        Unfortunately Ric and Smile Please do live in the same town….

        Everyone else can catch up but RM is still entrenched….for many its still going to be RM plus another type scenario…

         

        If the CMA stop Ric and Smile Please discussing the matter ….how is it going to change?

        Im scratching my head as to where the seismic change is coming from……

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        1. Dick Value

          The seismic change is coming from the next phase of the market; worrying levels of inflation, interest rates rising, continued low stock levels, too many agents, etc. This next market will make the choice around Rightmove for agents.

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        2. Robert_May

          Would you mind if I showed you Mark?

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          1. MarkJ

            Apologies for the late reply Robert, I’d be pleased if you would.

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            1. Robert_May

              I have asked nick to forward my email address alternatively  I am on twitter Robert_May_

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  5. Ostrich17

    Dodging scrutiny ?

    Or just don’t want to take part in a three-ring circus ?

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  6. 456Lets

    of course rightmove are going to dodge scrutiny.  they are making a crazy profit, and not having to innovate all that much so why would they want to change?  I mean the obvious answer would be, to increase and improve the service they are providing, but whilst we are all so addicted to them, why would they bother?

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  7. Chanel298

    Looks like a toys out the pram rant from RQ. clearly thought that he was important enough to call all the big boys to heel and theyve told him otherwise… Reads like a very personal dig at one of the portals in particular, even though of the big 3 under Jason Tebb OTM are now the most transparent even though they are a plc. Russell isn’t the ‘player’ in the industry he thinks he is and this ‘non-event’ proves it….

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    1. Woodentop

      Totally agree.

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  8. Woodentop

    Another questionable article by Quirk. They are answerable to their shareholders. Customers vote with their feet. To make out that competing companies should sit around a table to discus their operations does not serve their purpose, so its no surprise if anyone of them says no.
     
    Trouble with RM they tapped into the consumer demand, who love them and the customer (agents) recognise the downside of leaving them, though many have.

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  9. PeeBee

    Irony of the decade – bloke who made a career out of dodging proper questions from an entire industry wibbling on that a couple of companies are “dodging proper questions” from him.
     
    Like I’ve said countless times – more chuffin’ neck than a tower of giraffes.

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    1. Woodentop

      Noted the No.10 Disconcerting is some seem to think he is speaking for the industry and even more alarming, possibly believe he is an expert while trying to make a name for himself. He does not represent anyone in this industry as far as I am aware and these are only his personal opinion. This article is a non-event as far as being useful or made any possible movement for change.

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  10. flockfollower102

    CMA will not be interested in the portals because:
    1. They are free to the consumer public, so no public interest in spending their budget investigating
    2. Estate agency fees continue to bounce along at rock bottom, so the consumer is not losing out and again, it will not fit their investigative requirements. The price that Rightmove and the other portals charge has so far made absolutely no difference to what the consumer spends.
    3. Therefore all it is as far as they are concerned is a group of businesses complaining that they are not making enough profit whilst at the same time offering heavily discounted and historically low pricing. What would you spend your limited budget on if you were in charge of the CMA?
    The main problem is that working with groups of estate agents is like herding cats. You can be sat in the same room as several hundred of them, make a presentation, take a vote on the way forward that everyone agrees on and in no time at all, it is ancient history in many of their minds. Common strategies that were agreed for the greater good are discarded quickly and in no time everyone is back to going in their own uncoordinated direction.
    It is a waste of time Eye running anti portal stories and getting the regulars on here moaning about how hard done they are feeling about Rightmove. Spend money promoting your own website, or social media channel, delay listing your properties with the portals, remove lettings from the portals, even leave them! Whatever you do, do something, but stop ******** and moaning about it, do something! I have.

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  11. PeeBee

    In the article above, The Quirkster states

    “two portals refused to play ball. Various excuses prevailed.”

    EYE have allowed this to be published on their site – have they sought to substantiate any of the information in the article?  Have they asked the two portals concerned for comment?

    If not – why not?  I don’t think for one second that “The opinions expressed are his own.” makes for a particularly good ‘get out of jail free’ card.  Surely in order to provide balance, the points made should have been addressed with the companies concerned?  If they had failed or refused to respond then the readership could have come to their own conclusions based on multiple points of reference.

    Had this happened in Frau Renshaw’s day, I have no doubt whatsoever that thie would have been the case.

    Your comment must not defame an individual or entity nor bring them into disrepute.”

    Seems to me that this is the whole point of the entire piece – at very least to stir up ill feeling.  We all know Mr Quirk and OTM have a history of bad blood – which must gurgle in his throat every day now that his KW business advertises there.  And if I’m not mistaken, same bloke is on record in his past life chuntering about what great value for money Rightmove is – so why the ‘180’ on that?

    This is nothing but a kangaroo court, held on a website with what some might see as double standards for posters and columnists, with a giraffe playing judge and jury.

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  12. htsnom79

    It also has to be said, and I type as a non user of any form of social media personally ( never have never will and I don’t think PIE counts ) that our facebook page is putting all portals to shame at the moment in terms of profitable engagement, its free and we boost for tens of pounds when we want to. I would go as far as to say that there is a differentiating business case to be made in coming off all portals and just use introducers, facebook, our own website and replace the portal spend on hard advertising billboards/busses/roundabout or football team or theatre sponsorship and maybe some radio spend.

    If you’re brave enough to try, you could put around 30k pa back into the local economy which would win a lot of friends and result in unparalleled in your face name awareness within your patch, subliminally touching future sellers of all generations who are neither looking at portals currently to buy/sell or just doing it because its property porn or they’re nosy.

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  13. Woodentop

    Some interesting posts today and frankly nothing new from anyone. Portals are here to stay, the public want them. Who the agents uses is down to them and what they are prepared to pay. RM however, as we all know act like a monopoly and everyone needs to go back to the beginning as how that came about …. agents made the success. Add in the later adopted ‘fear’ of leaving and losing business to competitors that stay with RM was and is still a mind set that some cannot get over. Many have left and they are still trading and saving a fortune with other portals …. who the public also go to.

     

    I have yet to meet a customer that only uses RM if you tell them that you advertise on another portal. Fact Check: Looks at the stats of Z and OTM see that is happening.

     

    If you don’t like a particular portal for whatever reason, it is down to the individual business to decide to stay or leave. Remember the public will and do follow you, just as they chose between agents in the high street. (I was going to add in the on-liners only but seeing as 95% of the public stick with the high street … enough said).

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  14. atheman94

    LOL the picture… Russell would never be anywhere near no. 10 because unfortunately for him no one takes him seriously.

    Tbh this think-piece is probably his best because the core idea here is correct – the listing sites do have a monopoly and they aren’t transparent about their practices. But that’s not to say this is any good, actually the points here are so basic and child-like that I don’t think it justifies an opinion piece at all. Why does Russell Quirk have this platform on PIE?

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  15. PeeBee

    Oooohh lookie here – Russell Quirk standing outside No. 10.
     
    Just don’t ask which ‘No. 10’.  It certainly ain’t the one he’d have you believe it was.
     
    The downcomer is his downfall on that little piece of subterfuge and bluff.  As is the offset letterplate.
     
    Just like snow on the ground on a listing “Just added” in July.
     
    Pictures paint a thousand words… just not always the words some would choose to convey or hide behind.

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