It's portal deja vu all over again

When it comes to property, it’s certainly untrue to say nothing changes.

In this year alone high street brands have entered the estate and lettings industries, yet more online agents claim to be ‘disrupting’ the traditional business model, and redress regulation of a rather modest kind has been introduced into the rental sector.

But when I recently re-read an industry interview I did 14 years ago I was struck how, with very few tweaks, it could have been published today.

That interview, published back in September 2000 by trade magazine Estates Gazette, was with Ian Springett. He’s known now for being the chief executive of Agents’ Mutual, the firm behind what is to become OnTheMarket; 14 years ago he was the chief executive of Fastcrop, the firm behind what was then to become Primelocation.

The similarities between then and now are at first sight amazing.

The agencies demanding a new agents-owned portal back in 2000 were the high-end ones of the day - Knight Frank, FPDSavills as it was then known, Strutt & Parker and so on. The key firms behind Agents’ Mutual today are the high-end ones again in the shape of Knight Frank, Savills, Strutts and three other London-centric agents.

In the year 2000 the main hate figure in the eyes of Fastcrop was one portal, Assertahome (remember that? - it was a leading portal owned by a financial services giant, CGU). Nowadays, of course, Agents’ Mutual has two hate figures - Rightmove and Zoopla.

Fourteen years ago the big disruptive claim by Fastcrop was portal exclusivity. Any agent advertising its properties on Primelocation would have to come off the rival portals of the day. And if any agent tried it on, either by promoting properties on another portal or not keeping its details updated on Primelocation, Ian promised that “we’ll kick them off.” The 2014 version is the same, but different - agents can go on one other portal only.

The language used in 2000 is strikingly similar to today, too.

When describing what Primelocation would be like, Ian told me: “There’d be no other site like it - and we could not do anything which would not be in the agents’ interest.” And as today with Agents’ Mutual, there was a persuasive incentive. Just as agents now will benefit from lower portal fees and long-term income, so Ian had a promise when I asked him what they would get from Primelocation: “a lottery ticket” he said.

There was also much emphasis on co-branding in 2000. “We’ve got a unique brand here and we must make it familiar - a sign people will trust” were Ian’s words. The agents were expected to do much of the heavy lifting in 2000, with Ian anticipating they would put the new brand on their own websites and on their For Sale boards. It’s much the same now with, to date, little free-standing marketing for OnTheMarket but expectations that from the launch day, participating agents will be expected to spread the word, logo and brand.

So much for all those similarities. There are also a few differences of course.

Back in 2000, Ian’s interview with Estates Gazette was outspoken about the industry, notably when he said: “Some agents are frankly a bit sleepy which is why something like Fastcrop has not happened before.” There has been no repeat of that this time.

And while Agents’ Mutual may be perceived as a portal serving mostly high-end agents now, at least it does not have the minimum price policy which Ian advocated for Primelocation - no home under £150,000 in London or £100,000 outside London would be allowed. The figures seem ludicrously small today but remember this was 2000

Likewise, back then there was a different media relations approach for the new portal. Fastcrop instructed one of the industry’s leading PR firms and it showed - Primelocation was getting substantial press attention. To date, Agents’ Mutual appears to rely on borrowed time from Knight Frank’s PR team and a small group of cheerleaders on Twitter.

Such similarities and differences ‘prove’ absolutely nothing, of course.

Fourteen years on Primelocation is, after all, a broadly successful portal: one leading agent I interviewed in the Sunday Times last weekend said it was the ‘go to’ portal for London buyers, and that sellers in the capital should urge their agents to advertise on it.

But Primelocation, of course, has long stopped being owned by agents. Instead it’s part of one of the two hate figures which have provoked the apparent need for Agents’ Mutual.

If AM continues to follow the pattern of Primelocation, might it go the same way. And if so, would it really matter to the majority of agents?

Probably not. Except if that happened, in about 2028 we’ll all be back again discussing a really ‘new’ idea - an agent-owned portal. Perhaps nothing changes after all.

*(My interview with Ian Springett about Primelocation was published in Estates Gazette on September 9 2000; my interview with Ian about Agents’ Mutual was in EG on October 12 2013).

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This post first appeared on the Industry Views section of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today