Meet the estate agents turning themselves into superstar

5 June 2020, The Financial Times

A new breed blurs the line between the personal and professional 

By Emma Jacobs

Fredrik Eklund, a property entrepreneur and real-estate TV star, was at his local grocery store a few weeks ago. Wearing a face mask and protective gloves, he fired up “Blinding Lights” by The Weekend, then danced — while pushing his trolley past the fruit stand and gyrating in the jam aisle. The video was uploaded to his Instagram account, which has 1.2m followers. It attracted more than 1m views and 14,000 comments. “People want a fun broker,” says the 43-year-old co-founder of luxury real estate brokerage Eklund Gomes Team, who lives in Los Angeles and is author of a book called The Sell: the Secrets of Selling Anything to Anyone.  Many comments beneath his post were appreciative; others criticised him for endangering public health with his elbow bumps. “I remember my heart beating as I pushed the button,” says Eklund, who is also a star of Bravo’s reality-TV show Million Dollar Listing. “I thought, this will make or break me. I have had some criticism — people feel it is tone deaf. That is OK — you can’t please everyone.”  Dancing videos are a trademark flourish to Eklund’s larger-than-life public persona. A previous post was set in a $29.9m house with eight bathrooms. Despite his fear of alienating clients by being playful in a pandemic, he posted it anyway. “In the competitive landscape of real estate, it’s all about being relevant and top-of-mind — as long as you can back it up with real results and knowledge,” he says.

Such logic underlines the risks for property-market professionals in building “personal brands” through social media, and the pressures of trying to sell luxury property in uncertain economic times in markets saturated with high-end developments. That risk was highlighted in January when the London-based property agent Daniel Daggers — a glamorous figure who calls himself Mr Super Prime — resigned from estate agent Knight Frank after posting a picture of a high-end property to his Instagram account, where he has more than 30,000 followers. The Daggers episode raised wider questions about whether estate agents should build personal brands by turning themselves into celebrities and influencers. In doing so, they hope to attract attention to their businesses and the properties they sell. But do they risk their credibility in the process?  It is alleged that Daggers shared images of a house without the owner’s permission. Knight Frank says in a statement: “We are constantly vigilant around our social media guidance and regularly update our policy.” Daggers declined to comment. 

Daggers’ social-media feed is crammed with posts about high-end properties, including a central London penthouse on sale for £12m; a nine-bedroom home with five reception rooms in Knightsbridge for just under £10m and a Highgate property complete with staff accommodation and lift selling for a cool £12m. It also features selfies of Daggers attending a black-tie film premiere, holidaying in Israel and Ibiza, pictures of a sumptuous suite where he stayed with his girlfriend, sports cars in front of hotels — alongside his reflections on the property industry and his career. His attempts at profile building have also highlighted the cultural disparity between the US and UK property market personalities. In the US, which has a property mogul as president in the shape of Donald Trump, reality TV has created a new breed of superstar real estate brokers. As well as Eklund, there is Ryan Serhant in New York (who stars in Million Dollar Listing: New York) and the Altman Brothers in LA (Million Dollar Listing: LA).

Eklund concedes he had reservations before appearing on television. “It was a scary decision. Everyone told me not to do it. In real estate it was meant to be about the property not the agent.”  But the career move paid off. “Reality TV has boosted me.” It helped to make the market more transparent, he adds. “Social media and reality TV has given insight into the agents’ lives and allows the viewers to feel like they are in the home with the agent. In a competitive market everyone wants more eyeballs on the property.” Eklund has no divide between his private and public life. His Instagram account shows him with his picture-perfect children and husband, dancing with his kids to “Let It Go” from the film Frozen (with comments from the actor Rebel Wilson), enjoying a birthday breakfast in bed with his family and splashing in the sea.  Then, of course, there are the houses. Some he owns personally, such as the 5,144 sq ft Connecticut summer home with a pool and sauna that he hopes to rent out for $150,000 for the warmer months. But most of the properties he is selling on behalf of clients, such as the $9.7m house in 150 acres of land near Stockholm and the $29m mansion in Los Angeles.

A profile is good for business, he says. “You show all the colours of your personality. I’m not saying it’s raw. It’s thought out. I choose and think about what to share. If you follow the account, you hire me and you know what you get. That’s really good in sales.” Mauricio Umansky, celebrity founder and CEO of the Agency, a brokerage that sold the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, has 400,000 followers on his Instagram account — though that is less than a fifth of his wife’s followers. She is Kyle Richards, star of the reality TV show The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. 
 

On social media, he too mixes the personal with the professional, showing pictures of himself working out in a branded T-shirt in his home gym, skiing and hanging out with his wife in a luxurious tepee.  The properties are there, too: a restored 1926 Hollywood home with a castle-like exterior; a Beverly Hills house that featured in The Godfather, offered at $125m. Umansky says his agents are independent contractors and not bound by employee rules. However, “If they were to break a confidentiality agreement and put [a property on] social media, that would be grounds for letting someone go.”
 

Like Eklund, building a profile makes business sense, he says, citing the sale of a $35m estate to a celebrity who first saw it on Instagram. Jenna Drenten, assistant professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago, researches social media and professions. Instagram, she says, stokes the property appetite, allowing everyone to see seductive behind-the-scenes images, many of which were once only accessible through physical tours, with agents as gatekeepers. The UK does not have a breed of superstar agents like in the US, despite Britons’ appetite for property television programmes such as Grand Designs. Andrew Perratt, head of country residential at Savills, says this is in part due to the nature of the industry.  The whole influencer thing is so big that brokers have seen it and applied it to their own world Melanie Everett “The UK doesn’t have a US-style brokerage system, in which independent contractors work together under a brand. In the US, [agents] are their own brand, so they have to promote themselves.” At Savills, a UK-based business that operates all over the world, individual agents are discouraged from building their own profiles. One London agent, who prefers not to be named, sees a cultural difference between the US market and UK. In the US, he says, there is no difference between private and business life. Instead, there is a preference for “perfectly conspicuous”. “If you sell self-deprecation in America it’s like selling soiled underwear.” Henry Pryor, an independent UK buying agent and commenter who is active on Twitter, believes this is an outmoded view of the UK industry. While agents do not have profiles like their US counterparts, developers have hardly been shy and retiring.  The Candy brothers, for example, are British property developers who were often photographed at celebrity events, with one marrying an actress-turned-pop star. Nicholas and Christian Candy, the developers behind the development One Hyde Park, opened in 2011 and once the most expensive residential development in the world, portrayed a flashy lifestyle that was key to marketing their high-end properties. “The property business is based on people rather than brands,” says Pryor. “People want individuals — they pay a premium in America to get them. It’s like getting celebrities to turn up at an event.” There are signs that social media is changing the property industry in the UK. Grant Bates, associate director at Hamptons International, is based in north London and has an Instagram following of more than 10,000. A sharp dresser, he posts his musings on the property market, video tours on interiors as well as details of Georgian town houses and Victorian villas. 
 

Bates says he is encouraged to create his own brand as well as his employer’s. While in the UK the employer’s brand is king, he says that social media allows employees to personalise it. “Much of our business comes via word of mouth or personal recommendation and social media can certainly help in this respect.” In north London, Bates says, 15 per cent of his sales last year were generated via Instagram. Chicago-based Melanie Everett, an independent agent who specialises in urban residential property, says her Instagram account is half private life, half property related. Her Instagram stories include buyers in their penthouse, a “chill dude” and his first condo, and a couple in their town house. Another is about her life, including Bible study, a manicure and a four-course restaurant dinner.

Everett detects a generational difference in attitudes to social media, too. “The whole influencer thing is so big that brokers have seen it and applied it to their own world.” Millennials, she says, see social media as an extension of working life. Younger buyers want to know about the local community and lifestyle, not just the property — that is easier to portray through social media than brochures and web postings. Eklund adds: “In the beginning people were so horrid at [social media]. Not everyone should do it. It’s a skillset. I have more followers than some big real- estate magazines have readers.” He is unconcerned that most of his followers are unlikely to buy one of his properties. “No one knows where the market’s going to come from,” he says. “It used to be that you knew all the buyers in the area and controlled the area. We don’t know where buyers are going to come from. You need more eyeballs.” In recent months the coronavirus pandemic has suspended luxury-property markets, many of which were struggling with oversupply, including in London and Manhattan. The virus hit just when New York’s luxury market appeared to be recovering after a slowdown brought on by a glut, as well as a disappearance of Chinese and Russian buyers due to geopolitical tensions. Developers and agents were also dealing with a rise in the city’s so-called mansion tax last year. 
  

The virus has also interrupted the normal business of client meetings and viewings — although in some states in the US, including California, the rules have been relaxed. Social media has been an effective way to reach housebound sellers and buyers in lockdown. Over the past few months in Chicago, Everett’s social-media strategy has been honesty. “I don’t want to send the message that business is booming and everything is great, because it’s not. Coronavirus has been a gut-punch to my industry. I’ve been open about my anxieties online, and will continue to do so.”  In one post she talks about her week being “filled with anxiety and fear”.

Another problem for agents, of course, is privacy. Drenten points out that social media increases visibility and “potential criminals can see what the layout of a house is and can determine if it is vacant, in just a few clicks. They can even virtually walk-through the home through virtual-tour technologies.” In the UK, says Camilla Dell, managing partner of Black Brick, an independent property agent, some high-end sellers do not want an online presence due to “confidentiality and security . . . The property might have artwork and family photographs. Private individuals don’t want that kind of exposure or need that kind of exposure.”  Then there are the rude posters, whom Umansky brushes off. “They can say, ‘I hate the rich’. We’ve had properties, with people saying, ‘I hate that house, I hate that style.’ “The more followers you get, the more negativity you get.”

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