It’s a headline from an Australian business journal this week but it has a familiar ring to it: “Estate agents’ attempts to boycott major listing portals denied”.
If you are an estate agent in the UK you can probably imagine the story without seeing any of the details but for the record the essential ingredients are, in this order:
(1) - estate agents generally unhappy at fees charged by portals;
(2) - large estate agency group specifically complains that two portals
(realestate.com.au and domain.com.au) have “significant market power, charging excessive prices and essentially forcing real estate agents onto premium contracts”;
(3) - competitions and markets regulatory body brought into the argument;
(4) - official declaration comes from that body that the two portals do actively compete with each other and a boycott - as suggested by the agency group - is not justifiable.
You can see the story for yourself on the Australia website realestatebusiness.com.au.
The formal legislation is different in Australia, and there is a further appeal process open to the agents, but that argument - with the core being that agents feel portals have too much power over price and content - is pretty much the same as that which exists in the UK.
The decision in Australia confirms, to me anyway, that it’s easy to understand the emotional distaste that agents have about portals while it being much harder to see the intellectual argument against them.
Emotionally, I think the estate agent’s attitude to portals has much in common with freelance journalists’ attitudes to publishers. In the case of both agents and journalists (so I’ll use the term ‘we’ to include both groups) we work to create the content - sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, but either way we scramble to secure the content.
The similarity continues - to a point - when it comes to how that content is then displayed. A freelance journalist could, for example, choose to display it on his or her own website (and some do) but the audience would be fairly modest: put that same story on the Sunday Times’ website, or on its printed pages, and the audience expands enormously.
Likewise many agents get good responses to content on their own website but - let’s be honest - most rely on portals to put properties in front of the biggest audiences.
The similarity breaks down now: of course, agents PAY portals to display the content whereas freelance journalists GET PAID by newspapers.
But the difference is not as black and white as that seems: my freelance contributions to the Sunday Times in 2016 receive the same payment as they did in 2006, and my freelance contributions to the Daily Telegraph receive LESS than in 2006 (in absolute terms, not just in relative terms). That’s where the similarity resumes because just as newspapers have the market control to pay contributors less, so portals have the market control to charge their contributors - estate agents - more.
So here’s the final similarity between agents and freelance journalists.
If both groups were unhappy with their lot, they could always take the publishers and the portals on at their own game - and set themselves up as a rival.
While publishers have tried to set up their own niche newspapers (the New Day earlier this year, lasting just a few weeks, for example) almost no journalists have tried: they just don’t have the resources to buy and sustain the massive infrastructure required to take on the big boys in the shape of Associated Newspapers, News Corp and the rest.
Estate agents have tried in the past, most recently with OnTheMarket falling short of its chief executive’s targets. Few agents could afford to fund something to challenge Rightmove and Zoopla (probably only Savills, amongst those agents currently involved in OTM, but it has taken a decision not to do so.)
So that brings us back to the Australian case this week.
In a free market (where agents are free to ignore portals if they wish, and where freelance journalists are free to not write for publications paying the same or less than a decade ago) there may be an emotional argument against portals and publishers.
But where is the intellectual argument?
For good or for bad, we - agents and freelancers - need big exposure. It sucks that we don’t get it at the price we want, but we still need it.
End of, surely?
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn