Earlier this week, the Sellsius real estate blog published a picture of me as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, suggesting that Redfin’s criticism of the real estate industry is merely a marketing ploy.
The most recent case in point was my remark in the LA Times comparing the real estate industry to Big Oil or Big Tobacco, which I later regretted. In Sellsius’s reading, it was a calculated effort to reap a marketing benefit. But really it was a sincere comment, which probably did Redfin marketing more harm than good.
We’ll get to what was sincere about it. First, let’s explain our regret: we don’t think marketing anger works. Anyone who watched the SuperBowl could see that it has a new vogue. E-Trade, for example, encouraged its customers to give stockbrokers the finger:
In our business, this adolescent approach is especially short-sighted and destructive: Redfin will probably end up doing deals with everybody we’ve ticked off.
Our reputation was on my mind when I heard on the radio last week about a retired U.S. congressman voicing regret for having held open a vote so he could strong-arm support for a bill. The bill passed, but years later he said he felt that he had lost that night the good-will of his colleagues across the aisle.
We’d like to avoid the same mistake with our real estate colleagues, to the extent that being a consumer advocate allows. We won’t apologize for our disagreements, or pretend we don’t compete with other brokerages. We want to convince the world we’re better than other brokerages, if not that the others are worse.
But we still aim to be respectful. This is why, as a sound-bite, our Big Oil comparison made me cringe. I could cite the context, but I knew when I said it that newspapers only have space for a brief quote. I hadn’t intended to sound cavalier and disrespectful. I was, and I apologize.
But however much we regret the tone, we stand by the substance. The sodium pentothal truth is that brokerages recruit more agents than the market can bear, without sufficient regard for professional development or codes of conduct; brokerages pay agents to close deals first, not serve customers.
If all of us in real estate don’t initiate reform, we’ll end up like the drug companies — which shifted their focus from research & development to sales & marketing, flooding doctors’ offices with Viagra-toting sales people while asking consumers to foot the extra costs. Today, an industry that cures cancer is reviled. The pendulum of consumer emotion, once it swings toward distrust, never stops in the middle.
Since real estate is an asset in which people invest enormous emotion — emotion that brokerages have taken to the bank with treacly ads showing families smiling in front of yard-signs and crying over houses — our reputation can suffer the same vicissitudes.
Redfin, as an alternative to traditional brokerages, may benefit from such a swing. But we don’t need it and we didn’t start it. In a survey of 23 professions, real estate brokers now rank last in prestige. Bloggers’ fixation on attributing this resentment to Redfin’s “marketing machine” (two people, if you don’t include the person running Sweet Digs) seems to us like a form of denial.
Many will claim that we are trying to have it both ways, competing while cooperating on deals, criticizing brokerages while calling for civility, championing consumer rights while profiting as a brokerage. But these aren’t contradictions. We compete, we collaborate. We can serve the consumer first and try to make money, too. We can respectfully disagree with the industry.
I just wish there was a way to say all this in a civil, thoughtful way, without its being pared down to a sound-bite or a marketing stunt. It’s a fine line. We do our best to walk it.