Making his mark
by Clare Bettelley
Mark Milner has made a smooth transition from newspaper advertising to digital advertising, spearheading more than a few well-known websites along the way. Clare Bettelley speaks to the man behind FindaProperty.com and Primelocation.com to find out what makes him tick.
Mark Milner’s sales pitch about the value of The Digital Property Group’s portal proposition is compelling, but ask him about his personal contribution to the mix and he’s stumped. This is somewhat baffling given the career history of the group’s chief executive in the dizzy heights of media land, which gives him lashings of the advertising nouse to rival the likes of former agent, Miles Shipside, who, as commercial director, bolsters the service offering of TDPG’s closest rival, Rightmove, with his agency expertise.
Milner could, for example, share the fact that after a stint in the Royal Air Force after school he started his career at News International in 1988 – now a major stakeholder in Globrix – working across its titles, including the Sunday Times.
He could also explain his move to Express Newspapers and then Associated New Media, the consumer digital division of the Daily Mail General Trust Group, where he rose to chief operating officer in 2004.
Part of his remit was to help the group’s multiple newspapers establish and streamline a multimedia strategy, in line with their print offering. ”The whole point was for those guys to have their own product; each editor of the website had to be in tune with the editor of the paper, and be preferably the same person, because all it is to them is distribution channels rather than different products.”
Sound familiar? For any agent who’s had their head stuck in the sand since the inception of property portals, more than 10 years ago, portals, trainers and leading agents themselves have been hammering home the importance of taking a blended approach to marketing, warning against the dangers of an over-reliance on either print or digital media and stressing the importance of developing tailored marketing strategies for each medium. Thankfully, agents are waking up to the fact that, according to a TDPG survey, some 47% of people polled said that the first place they visit when house hunting is a property portal, with 12% claiming to first visit an agent’s site, so the majority of buyers start searching online. Nevertheless, many agents have yet to overhaul their marketing strategy to cater for this shift in approach. Enter portal reporting tools; but more on those later.
Portal rates are a major bone of contention for agents who already understand the power of portals, and have uploaded their stock in the hope of boosting their lead generation.
TDPG’S four portals were originally offered to agents as separate entities. FindaProperty caters for renters and first and second-time buyers; PrimeLocation for third and fourth-time buyers, and often for those who own their properties outright; FindaNewHome caters for new-build buyers; and HomesandProperty for readers of London’s Evening Standard newspaper. Agents were charged a flat monthly rate, per brand.
As any salesman worth his salt knows, it is far better to increase the value of a proposition than reduce its price, and TDPG is no exception. Hence the launch of the group’s new rate card, as exclusively revealed in The Negotiator on October 29, which charges agents according to their location, stock volumes and average property price. This means that agents in Wales are, in theory, likely to be paying far less for their subscription than those in London where, given the difference in property prices – £135,155 in Wales in January compared with £253,751 in London, according to Halifax’s House Price Index. Happy days for agents with few, cheaply priced properties in affordable regions; not so for those at the upper end of the scale.
A number of agents remain locked in discussions with TDPG about their subscription fees, which many believe should be reduced in view of the market downturn.
Milner refuses to be drawn on individual agency fee scales, but says: “Where I think this [rate debate] has come about, and I don’t think you can point the finger at us on this...some people have forced the price [up], regardless of the situation of agents, regardless of the situation of the market, just to satisfy shareholders.
“If you understand our rate card, you’ll see that we’ve tried to come about it with a fair, value-based model.”
Milner says that a field sales team and a phone-based customer support team are available to discuss rate queries with interested agents, but it is difficult to see how this works, given that TDPG has a field sales force just 100. It also makes it difficult to understand Milner’s aversion to dealing with buying groups, which have been attempting to create buying power for smaller, independent agents, who want a reduction in subscription fees, for some time.
Milner explains: “We’re set up to have individual conversations, not to deal with buying groups.” End of conversation.
TDPG’s rate card underpins a newly-bundled offering of all the brands, which means that an agent can list their stock across TDPG’s four brands for one subscription fee, ranging from £160 to £799. But some agents question the claimed value, given the specificity of their client base.
Lisa Martin, spokesperson for Sussex-based Leaders letting agents, says: “They’re [TDPG] not as good as Rightmove. There’s quite a big gap between the numbers of responses we get from Primelocation and FindaProperty. We don’t get as much response from them combined as we do for Rightmove and we pay a similar amount [for both]. So they’re not as good value, is what it comes down to.”
Though she adds: “It does vary quite significantly from area to area, we find. FindaProperty does particularly well for us in the Surrey area but not as well as others. The other thing that is a slight downside is you do have to be on both [FindaProperty and Primelocation] and you don’t have the choice to be on one or the other.”
Milner suggests that the portfolio of brands offers agents the opportunity to capture a wider range of prospective clients, or the same clients with different needs. For example, consumers most suited to Primelocation for their primary residence might opt to search FindaProperty for investment properties, such as student accommodation for children at university. For agents concerned about consumer duplication – ie. the same consumers searching across the brands with the same needs – Milner says that there is an overlap rate of clients of 18%, which is based on data from web analytics provider Intellitracker and marketing research firm comScore.
Love them or hate them, portals are offering agents, particularly the smaller agents, the distribution power they can never hope to achieve alone. But whether they are offering the value they claim is a different matter. The definition of value is multi-faceted, and can refer to anything from lead generation, competitive rates, portal presentation and premium services to reporting tool availability and customer service provision.
Milner believes that TDPG delivers value in the form of consumer traffic, its new reporting tool, Insight, and its customer service. As The Negotiator revealed on January 21, TDPG has designed Insight to enable agents to monitor the consumer traffic it receives from TDPG’s portals, including user preferences relating to property type, price and location. Agents can also use the tool to monitor the number of property viewings achieved; average property prices according to individual postcode areas; and the ability to benchmark business performance against competitors’ in up to five other UK postcodes listed on
Milner says that the tool aims to put in the hands of estate agents the same media tools that TDPG has, so they can measure their return on investment with its portals. But by his admission, the education process with agents will be long, which means that it will be some time before some subscribers understand TDPG’s claimed value.
But there are always consumer traffic statistics for agents to scrutinise in the meantime, to help assess the value of TDPG’s portals. That is, of course, if agents have the time to plough through the minefield of statistics currently available from a vast range of sources, including Hitwise, comScore, and portals’ internal data. Moreover, the diversity of portal models makes comparisons futile in many cases.
Nevertheless, by way of guidance, the latest statistics from marketing research firm Nielsen reveal that the volume of unique users to TDPG’s portals increased 30% between November to January and 60% between December and January, with December alone suffering a seasonal dip of 36%. Milner claims that lead generation has increased 53% across the brands in the month to the second week of February.
“The encouraging sign, if we’re looking for green shoots, is that the consumers are re-engaging and looking at property and talking to estate agents; actually picking up the phone. We’re seeing such a big increase in numbers, I can’t believe that it’s all investors; that’s people starting to think that it’s a good time to buy.”
He adds: “The other unknown factor is the lettings market. A lot of people who rented on a six-month tenancy agreement last year will be thinking about looking for property to buy when this expires.”
No doubt toeing his media empire parent company’s line, Milner is insistent that print media still has its place in estate agency.
Milner says: “There’s a lot of talk about value of regional press. I think that every medium has a value. It’s slightly contradictory to say all other media are rubbish because I use them all.”
As for the future of the agency market, Milner predicts that only those with diversified services stand the greatest chance of survival. And on the evolution of the branch agency model, he adds: “I don’t think the overall [agency] model will change. I think a lot of people will try and use this market to change it, but at the end of the day we are dealing with a transaction, which for most people is one of the largest transactions they will ever make. And we want to deal with qualified professional people, and that is where we will see changes.
“I think they [agents] provide enormous value, but I think it’s just making sure
that consumers see that value, so it’s about confirming the role and need of estate agents.”
Milner says it’s for agents to determine their own definition of value in terms of portal choice, which is no doubt a thought process being had by portals’ parent companies, too. It will be interesting to watch how long the owners and investors of property portals are prepared to continue injecting cash into divisions positioned within a saturated market place that is ripe for consolidation. Then again, if you’re TDPG, with a parent company who has just reported a 2% rise in revenue to £568m for the three months to December 31 2008, with operating profit only marginally below expectations, as DMGT did on February 10, this is of less of a consideration for now.
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