Have the agents missed the chance to ‘find their happy’?

As the hangovers cleared following Peter Knight’s impressive EA Masters Awards do in Battersea last month, I looked at a couple of LinkedIn posts relating to the event. I was amused to note that the Principal Partner was none other than Rightmove, a long-time backer of the organisation.

Now, I’m sure it can’t just be me that’s noticed, but if anything tends to stoke up emotions when two or more estate agents congregate in the same place, it’s the subject of the property portal once described by Patrick Hosking of the Times as a “cash generating gorilla” with “Herculean pricing power”.

So, it came as a bit of surprise to see they had such a high profile at the event. As Principal Partners, I’m guessing there would have been a Rightmove table at the dinner – a great opportunity for some of the more vocal dissidents to let them know first-hand how they felt about their relationship. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall. I’m assuming the amiable and much-liked Miles Shipside would have been in attendance, presenting the human face of the much-maligned portal.

True success for any commercial media channel, is achievement of ‘critical mass’. Coined from the phrase meaning the minimum amount of fissile material needed to sustain a nuclear chain reaction – in the media world, it’s when you command an audience of a size where your advertisers need you, more than you need them. A bit like the London Standard back in the 90’s.

As the first UK property portal on the scene with any meaningful inventory, Rightmove achieved this blissful state relatively early in its life – and has never really looked back. Their strategy of promoting the site direct to the consumer was key, and their iconic campaign featuring former England footballer Ian Wright, exhorting homebuyers to “make the right move” is still talked about today – in stark contrast to the bland or off-target ads that followed, both from them and their competitors.

After their estate agent founders took the business public in 2006, it stepped up the leverage of its market share, demanding ever larger fees for the use of its shop window. The agents cried “foul!”, but it’s tough to play hardball when your prospective customers invariably say to you, “you will be putting my house on Rightmove, won’t you?”.

So, with their ARPA (Average Revenue Per Advertiser) growing way beyond inflation year on year, and with the challenger brands never quite building the momentum required to dent their market share, Rightmove thundered on, deaf to the pleas for price restraint from their advertisers and oblivious to criticism from the industry generally. They were the darlings of the City, hardly surprisingly, and they are comfortably inside the FTSE 100 with a market cap. of around £6B. They looked invincible.

Then, along came Covid.

Even the mighty Rightmove had to make concessions as the first lockdown hit the property market hard and income for the agents pretty much evaporated. Along with the other portals, they had genuine concerns that half of their advertisers might cease to exist otherwise. During the spring of 2020, the property market was a dark and gloomy place.

Then an extraordinary thing happened. When the first lockdown ended in July 2020, after a couple of extensions, the house-buying public came out in their droves. Working from home had resulted in thousands of people reassessing their property priorities, interest rates were nailed to the floor, the Government introduced a Stamp Duty holiday and the combination of all that was the most unexpected bull market I can remember in 40 years in the business.

Suddenly, agents didn’t need Rightmove to sell their precious inventory. They had endless lists of people on their books begging to be given first dibs on anything that came on the market. Asking prices were met, or exceeded, anything decent was sold within hours of being listed, and the Nationwide was registering double digit inflation. The agents, almost suicidal just a few weeks before, were enjoying a boom beyond their wildest expectations.

So, you’d think that, at last, here was their chance to negotiate hard. “I’m not happy with your rates and I won’t be using you – I’m switching to Zoopla!” All those agents that had complained for years that, if only they could, they’d be off – this was their moment. But, in the event, it was a little bit like Brooks Hatlen in the Shawshank Redemption. He spent years locked up in that hellhole, but when he was finally set free, he couldn’t leave. He’d become institutionalised and, in his mind, he couldn’t survive without it.

Countless agents have said, both to me directly and in endless published comments on the subject, they would be off – to Zoopla or On The Market, or even one of the smaller players, if only they were able – and then Rightmove would realise the error of their ways and step into line. But if not this summer – when?

Rightmove recently published their half-year results and normal service was resumed with an impressive set of post-lockdown figures. Revenue was up on 2019 at almost £150m with underlying profit a mouth-watering (or eye-watering depending on your view) £117m and, crucially, an ARPA of £1,163 – 8% up on the pre-covid number. They were able to boast an average 1.7 billion minutes per month spent on site.

Most important of all, despite the fighting talk, very few of those disgruntled agents and developers jumped ship, in a market so hot that they could have attracted buyers by waving a flag from the bathroom window.

Despite the arrival of the likeable and industrious Jason Tebb at On The Market, more impressive technology and investment from Zoopla and even the debut of the Bruce brothers’ latest brainchild, Boomin, the juggernaut thundered on. Even when the market presented a golden opportunity for the subjugated to vote with their feet, they mostly stayed put.

There is of course, the other nagging fear that lurks at the back of every agent’s mind; an agitated Rightmove, under pressure from their shareholders, watching their market share slide and their income fall, turning directly to the consumer and offering to sell their home without the need for an agent at all – the thing that nightmares are made of!

Do you remember the old saying, back in the 80’s, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM.”? That is a pretty good summation of where we are. It’s an aversion to risk. Whatever else you say about Rightmove, there’s no denying they are going to deliver you more eyeballs, for longer, than anybody else and that doesn’t look like changing any time soon. The ‘short-termism’ that characterises the industry means that the need for new instructions this weekend outweighs the need to rein in the owners of their main channel to market over the longer term.

It doesn’t matter how vocal the agents might be, if changing portals means risking losing instructions, or reservations for the developers, there aren’t many who’ll chance being the first to dash for freedom.

Although it might be a while before we see such perfect conditions for mass escape again, some brave souls will recognise the opportunity to take a stand is still out there. Savvy homebuyers know that looking at property porn on the portals is one thing, but in this febrile market, where demand far exceeds supply, chances are, by the time it’s online it’s already been sold. Perhaps, when the next potential client asks if their home will feature on Rightmove, the agent should say – “No need, I have a string of buyers standing by!”

So, my message to the agents and developers for 2022 is, don’t complain if you haven’t found your happy – you had your chance.