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OTHER FEATURES

Seven unanswered questions about the OTM/CMA affair

By accident or design, the PR machine at OnTheMarket was beefed up last week. 

Just as well. With the portal still reeling from a mutiny by an estimated 200 rebel agents, so the Competition and Markets Authority sends an open letter warning to agents who – some, maybe, perhaps – might just have coordinated their choice of ‘other portal.’ 

Ironically it was a highly-combative former PR from Knight Frank who was, temporarily, wheeled out to deal with questions from journalists and issue statements. He was the same PR who three years ago helped sell the idea of an agent-owned portal to journalists.

If he’s come full circle, so has the portal – it seems it still has to sell itself to sceptics, after all this time. Who would have thought it would turn out this way? 

Well, actually, quite a few it seems: several agents alike said two years ago there was a risk this would elevate one portal, probably Rightmove, to domination. Do they advise on lottery numbers, too?

Yet if, as business newspaper City AM says, “anyone with even a passing interest in technology and its history could have predicted” the problems afflicting OnTheMarket, there remains unanswered questions about the CMA controversy and what happens next.

I’ve set out mine below: they’re not aimed at the portal, nor at the agents who founded it or joined it – but just questions which remain a conundrum to this property journalist at least. 

1. What’s triggered the CMA to contact an unspecified number of agents now, some two years after initial pitches by OTM? Surely collusion between agents – which has most definitely not been proved, at least yet – would have happened earlier? 

2. Is it appropriate that the National Association of Estate Agents has a representative on the Agents’ Mutual board, given that AM is itself instigating legal action against some agents – who in some cases happen to be NAEA members? Interestingly, Agents’ Mutual chose not to answer a question about this last week.

3. If there has been any cartel-like behaviour – a big if, for the moment – will any participants ‘grass’ on others to minimise their own penalty? This is what the CMA says on the subject: “A business which has participated in a cartel may receive total or partial immunity from fines if it comes forward with information about the cartel, provided certain conditions for leniency are met. The first cartel member to report and provide evidence of a cartel will be granted total immunity, provided the CMA is not already investigating the cartel, does not otherwise have sufficient information to establish the existence of the cartel and the other conditions for leniency are met.” 

4. Should some OTM decisions – perhaps the changes to fee structures, for example – have been voted on by member agents? Certainly many existing members have told me that should have been the case.

5. Is there reputational damage to some agents? Probably not, at least at the moment. Four of the founding agencies were truly messianic about OTM in its early days while two kept their distance from “our more publicity-seeking advocates”, to quote a senior director of one of the six. Perhaps luckily for them all, the portal’s’s low profile means few clients actually know about it. However, if the CMA eventually levies fines (which could be very high indeed) bad publicity will spread online and to national newspapers.

6. What will happen to Ian Springett? He’s a survivor, that’s for sure. Many bosses missing a heavily publicised target (‘number two by January 2016’), then facing an agent mutiny and a CMA controversy, might have walked. Those who work with him say he’s driven, and very keen to let colleagues know his own worth. Having met Springett several times, I have been struck by his scepticism about old-school estate agents - which of course makes his survival in his current position all the more surprising. 

7. Have the OTM controversies, even before the CMA’s involvement, scuppered the idea of a successful agent-owned alternative to Rightmove and Zoopla? Common sense may say yes but I have yet to meet an agent who did not think the principle of OTM was a good one, even if they openly mock Agents’ Mutual’s track-record. Can this idea still be salvaged from what City AM calls the “Luddites” of Agents’ Mutual?

*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn

  • Terence Dicks

    My thoughts on this are below.
    1. AM and OTM actually made public their desire to target Zoopla. Big mistake. If a large proportion of AM agents dropped Zoopla, they are in trouble. Big trouble.
    2. The NAEA should not be on the board of any company. How can they remain impartial if they are on the board of AM?? They are supposed to be representative of ALL their member agents.
    3. Who cares?? The ongoing CMA investigation will uncover collusion anyway.
    4. Of course the changing of the fee structure should have been voted on by all members. But then AM is all about itself, isn't it??
    5. Any reputational damage has been earned by the idiotic way in which AM and OTM has conducted their members business.
    6. Hopefully, this will see an end to dinosaurs like Ian Springett. The sheer arrogance of AM and OTM to expect Zoopla to roll over, and for the overpaid London West End agents to expect their agents to do their bidding whilst interested only in lining their own pockets appals me.
    7. I truly believe it can. It is an excellent idea in principle, and if it is run correctly there is a good chance it can eventually play catch-up and prosper.

  • James Scollard

    1. AM and OTM made public their desire to target Zoopla and Rightmove. That was one of the major deciding factors for the independent agents across the UK clubbing together to start On The Market. Rightmove & Zoopla sold out to the stockmarket and shareholders demand PROFITS and GROWTH which means squeezing agents further, increasing prices further. The reason most agents dropped Zoopla is because Rightmove is ten times better !
    2. NAEA has chosen to back the portal owned by Independent Agents and adds competition to the portal market. I completely understand Zoopla and Rightmove being bitter its been so successful.
    3. The CMA has openly said, On The Market exclusive arrangement to chose one other portal is sound. I personally dropped Zoopla like a brick because its weak in the marketplace and Rightmove is so much better. If most agents think the same way, its not surprising most have dropped Zoopla.
    4. So agents were sceptical how good On The Market is and a discounted rate to try On The Market seems a good idea to win the business. Lets just hope more agents move to OTM.
    Lets just hope OTM continues to grow and hopefully becomes the number one property portal in the marketplace.

  • Terence Dicks

    James, where on earth has OTM been successful?? Where I work there is absolutely no market awareness of OTM whatsoever. As I work in Birmingham, I can not NOT call that successful.
    OTM has been mismanaged from the beginning. What was a fantastic idea has been cheapened by the shoddy way it has been run by AM.
    The NAEA has no business endorsing anything that does not benefit ALL its members, instead of a chosen few and should not be sitting on any board that does not do so.
    The CMA investigation HAS found possible collusion with regards to cartel-like exclusion of Zoopla, and should they find solid proof, there will be trouble ahead.
    The CMA have said no such thing about the "one other portal rule". They have not endorsed it in any way shape or form.
    Surely the original members of OTM who were promised NO agent would get a better rate than them should have at least been approached by OTM about the so-called discounted rate?? Even you cannot think that was right or fair??

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