I’ve been in France for the past few days and depending on your viewpoint, I made a spectacularly good or singularly bad choice of week to take a holiday.
For it may well be that the events of the past seven days or so will be seen as pivotal in determining the landscape for the agency industry in years to come.
Three things have made these few days so important.
Firstly, online agencies and related digital activity have never appeared more important.
Online operators have never been backward at using public relations so high profile announcements do not always appear as significant as some stories suggest - but the difference this time is that it’s traditional agents that have ‘come out’ for online.
So LSL Property Services is revealed to have put £20m into YOPA which itself has already secured substantial funding from Savills - and YOPA’s latest press release leads with the description “Savills-backed YOPA...”. Belvoir says it will launch an online platform before next spring after most of its franchisees were “very much in favour”, and easyProperty has relaunched with a bold commitment that it will be one of the last two budget online offerings standing when the sector consolidates.
Meanwhile Hunters Group boasts (in a difficult trading statement showing a substantial pre-tax profit fall) that it is particularly pleased about its digital facilities now available to customers. And eMoov - although not yet backed by a traditional agency - is back in the news again with its £9m fund-raise and a key hire to boost its future marketing.
So it’s been a strong week (perhaps a uniquely strong week) for onliners and digital supporters, especially those explicitly with the backing of traditional agencies.
And all the while, both Countrywide’s and Foxtons’ share price hit all-time lows within the same few days as online agencies - with mainstream backing - were making headlines.
Of course onliners will soon be consolidating (eMoov claims talks have already taken place amongst some) and a few of this week’s high profile announcements have been timed with that in mind. But consolidation tends to make a sector stronger, not weaker.
Secondly, this week suggests in the long-term portals may become less important than online agents or other platforms when it comes to pure internet listings.
All credit to those who masterminded the Agents’ Mutual float decision (planning for which now appears to have been in the minds of the ‘mutual’ from day one). And even if portals pale in significance, there’s money to be made - see Agents’ Mutual directors for details.
However, given Purplebricks’ current market capitalisation of around £1.26 billion - already close to ZPG’s £1.59 billion - it is easier in my mind to imagine that Purplebricks will be a future challenger to Rightmove (on £3.77 billion) than OnTheMarket.
And if agents will soon feel obliged to pay three portal bills per month instead of two, perhaps the Bruce brothers will see their next opportunity as an all-industry listings service, undercutting all three of the incumbents? Stranger things have happened - perhaps it could be called Purplebricks Mutual?
Thirdly, one’s heart has to go out to independent high street agencies facing enormous challenges - and again, it’s been this week’s news that has made uncomfortable reading from their point of view.
There is no doubt that many...make that most....independent traditional agents offer excellent service, and without the need to be reassured by endless online reviews.
But the figures involved in marketing online and corporate agency activity now make it a big ask for a real independent to succeed in the long-term; they have neither the budget nor the reach. With Savills, YOPA and easyProperty all launching TV advertising this weekend as part of autumn-long multi-media marketing campaigns, how likely is it that an independent can compete effectively against that?
With Purplebricks’ (so far) highly successful marketing campaign, how likely is it that an independent - even with a peerless reputation and expert knowledge sitting behind a high street desk - can combat full-page broadsheet displays, TV spots, bus shelter advertising and sponsored social media exposure?
No individual one of these developments is brand new, of course, and some of this week’s announcements will fizzle. But such a blizzard of investments surely signifies the time when the online ripples of recent years begin to make significant waves.
This is especially so when, at the same time, digital ancillary services - think Goodlord, Viewber, Angels Media-owned ValPal and the rest - are transforming agency work around us.
It’s an exciting time for agency, with change to the fore. In another week we may have more industry-defining news. No time for another holiday this year, I fear...
*Editor of Estate Agent Today and Letting Agent Today, Graham can be found tweeting all things property @PropertyJourn