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Lights, camera… agent!

Nigel Lewis wonders what it is about estate agents that draws television audiences.

Nigel Lewis

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Estate agents doing their jobs on TV made global headlines during the pandemic following the unexpected success of US show Selling Sunset. First launched in 2019 but best known for its second and third series during Covid, its jaw-dropping viewing figures have been attributed to the pressing need for all of us to be distracted by glitz and glamour from the grim reality outside our lounges.

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Nigel Lewis

Its mixture of lip fillers and sales commission made household names of LA agency owners Brett and Jason Oppenheim and their retinue of mostly female negotiators.

Its success has been good news UK agencies such as Purplebricks, eXp and Keller Williams and their many imitators.

Agents who struggle to understand how these self-employed and often commission-only agents work only need to watch Selling Sunset; the US broker model offers amazing freedoms but huge financial pressures particularly at the low-volume, high house price end of the market.

But as we reported last summer, the Oppenheim brothers revealed they were not happy with the programme’s ‘shocking’ concentration on the personalities and in-house rivalry rather than their firm’s polished sales operation.

It is therefore worth considering whether, as an agency, you should get into bed with a TV production company.

Agents are loved

One surprising thing about the TV audiences is that, while they moan about estate agents at dinner parties or down the pub, they love watching them on the box.

Sotheby’s International has signed up to four-part series after an initial pilot last year, saying it wants the public to see the ‘day to day workings of the business’ and ‘take them behind the doors of the UK’s most amazing homes’.

But I guess they also have an eye on the free publicity that four hours of free advertising for their business will bring.

It’s worth considering whether, as an agency, you should get in bed with a TV production company…

These types of programmes come with a warning. Fly on the wall shows in general (and particularly about property) are popular with TV channels and production companies because they are cheap to make but have wide appeal – as Location, Location, Location has proved for the past 21 years and 35 series.

Despite the apparently glamour of television, most production companies want your time, stock, office space, research, clients and staff for free.

I have personal experience of this freebie approach. Asked by Channel 4 to help research a programme I spent two days digging out data and pulling in favours. In return I was promised by an earnest researcher that I would get time on air and a name check for my employer at the time, PrimeLocation.

All I got was a cheap glass of wine, a brief chat with Edwina Currie in the green room before the show (she took offence at having to discuss her eggs fiasco again) and a tiny mention in the rolling credits. Which I put down to experience.

Many people are prepared to do this sort of free work in return for a few moments on camera, as the stream of estate agency valuers featured on Sarah Beeny’s Property Ladder programme bear testament. I am sure that for half a day lost to filming it’s worth it – even if the company namechecks are ‘blink and you miss it’.

What’s more important is to consider the motives of the TV production company.

Sometimes they are honest. Everyone agrees that Hunters came out well from the When I Grow Up series, which featured a clutch of young children having a surprisingly successful crack at being agents in May 2019.

The firm’s boss Glynis Frew said at the time that three senior staff involved were asked to take screen tests before the project was given the green light and the business had to endure significant disruption as a huge film crew, chaperones and ‘tonnes’ of equipment took over Hunters’ HQ.

The company was protected by the subject matter; no TV company is ever going to take advantage of children so the only risk was that the kids proved to be better telephone salespeople than Hunters staff, which in one part of the programme, nearly happened.

The down side

Others have not fared so well – the BBC series Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job helped make Gary Hersham and Ed Mead industry figures overnight but overall tried its best to paint agents, particularly those south of Watford, as being inauthentic and deal-driven.

But if there is a ‘best practice’ model for doing TV as an agent then it’s Fine & Country’s jewel in the crown and Jersey franchise owner Margaret Thompson.

You may have seen her on Real Housewives of Jersey on ITV. Thompson said early on that being in a ‘scripted reality’ TV could be detrimental to her agency’s reputation but has since been reassured after the success of the first series – she is a fixture on the second series currently filming on the island.

She also had the advantage of being able to watch previous episodes of the original show in the US, The Real Housewives of Orange County before taking the plunge herself.

Like her, I would counsel asking some soul-searching about why you are getting involved, what benefit it will bring your business and its reputation and what are the motives of the producers involved. Don’t get seduced by the bright lights. TV shows generally want something for nothing.

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