At the time there was a real sense of anger that money which Savills, Knight Frank, Strutt and Parker and other well-heeled agencies felt should have been theirs was ‘lost’ to the portals who were selling advertising on the back of agents’ listings.
Worse still, those agencies then had to pay Rightmove and Zoopla ever-increasing fees to publicise those listings, too.
The same anger was obvious amongst many less highfalutin agencies up and down the country who were bitter that their work and their listings made money for Rightmove and Zoopla - with no real alternative for the industry or the public.
My sympathy was with those more modestly funded agencies rather more than with the posh ones and it’s easy to see how they were feeling exploited.
Then the landscape changed.
Enter OnTheMarket which in 2013 pledged to be agent-owned and agent-first with lower fees and a clever wheeze that those who joined had to drop one of the other portals. The abrasive chief executive of OTM at the time of its launch called this the ‘one other portal only’ rule and it was simultaneously highly divisive within the industry and potentially ingenious in terms of attempting to give OTM traction.
By coincidence (surely you’re not suggesting a conspiracy or cartel?) almost all of those new OTM member agents at the time chose to say goodbye to Zoopla, to abide by the OTM rule.
Many did so via what looked like cleverly orchestrated statements to make it seem as if OTM had fast-growing momentum on its side.
The problem was, not that many agents actually made the jump and that momentum existed in press releases but not in reality.
OTM never had the confidence of the industry that it would grow large enough, nor be well-enough funded, to displace either of the Big Two. There were charm offensives by OTM cheerleaders at that time - more skilled at the ‘offensive’ than the ‘charm’, some agents said - but by around 2016 it was clear the challenger portal would always be just that: a challenger.
But that was then.
Now there is a more successful boss of OTM in the form of Jason Tebb, who in addition to winning agents’ support has also developed a successful PropTech portfolio to add to OnTheMarket’s offer to the industry.
And of course last year - despite a little kerfuffle from a vocal minority of shareholders - he was central to the acquisition of OTM by CoStar, and now has the slightly cheesy stateside title of President of OnTheMarket.
The most important upshot is that, at last, the challenger portal appears sufficiently well-funded to be able to disrupt Zoopla and Rightmove.
Or should we just say Zoopla? Because to some people it looks like the old ‘one other portal only’ tactic might just be coming into play again.
Since the New Year both Leaders Romans Group and the regional chain Edward Mellor have featured in press releases from OTM to announce their listings on the portal - and, it seems, those same agencies have chosen to leave Zoopla.
In LRG’s case, it’s a recent departure from the purple portal. For Edward Mellor, the decision was taken some time ago.
OTM delisted from the London Stock Exchange at the end of last year so without the transparency of being a PLC it’s more difficult to see what’s going on. But is this the quiet return of the one other portal policy again?
Tebb is clear that there’s no policy and no conspiracy.
In response to my enquiry he says: “All our agents are free to make their own commercial decisions on their marketing strategy based on what they feel is the right choice for their business. We remain focussed on our target of becoming the market leader, leveraging CoStar’s industry-leading global expertise and significant financial firepower to help deliver even more value to current and future customers.”
So it’s not a conspiracy now, no more than it was a decade ago when agency after agency coincidentally dropped Zoopla for OTM.
That’s that then. It’s just a coincidence. Let’s see if it keeps happening…and if it does, whether Zoopla will fight back.
Portal Wars 2 - coming to a small screen near you soon…