It would be easy—too easy—to interpret recent cases of media manipulation by Vancouver-area real estate firms as a sign of the industry’s desperation in a faltering market. But it does say something about the evolution of real estate marketing as a discipline distinct from development and sales during the city’s decade-long housing boom, and its symbiotic relationship with the media.
Mac Marketing Solutions is the subject of complaints that could result in disciplinary action by both the Real Estate Council of British Columbia and the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board, after it came to light that company employees were wrongly identified as prospective Chinese buyers in separate CBC and CTV news reports coinciding with lunar New Year celebrations. Next, Rennie Marketing Systems came under fire from bloggers over adulatory coverage of the Olympic Village development by good-news site Vancouver Is Awesome. The site’s owner and editor, Bob Kronbauer, was receiving free rent to live there, they noted.
Mac founder Cameron McNeill responded with an announcement that an unnamed senior manager has resigned from the project-marketing company. “I had to move decisively and transparently,” he says. “It was a terrible and regretful mistake.”
So-called condo king Bob Rennie is less repentant. His company, known for its one-day building blowouts held in hotel ballrooms, never attempted to disguise its involvement in what was clearly labelled a “sponsored series,” he says. Meanwhile, newspapers have long been in the business of running favourable coverage alongside advertising in homes sections. “When The Vancouver Sun does a story in its new-homes section, that’s because we bought advertising,” he says.
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These incidents took place as the market continues to soften, with February MLS sales running at only two-thirds normal seasonal levels and prices about 6% lower than a year ago. In early March, ratings agency Fitch piled onto a string of negative reports with an estimate that B.C. real estate is overvalued by 26%.
But the line between real estate reportage and marketing was blurry long before the market peaked. The Mac incident was predated by two similar situations in 2011 and early 2012, when an employee and a realtor associate of condo marketer the Key were identified as investors in television news clips. Those are also under Real Estate Council review. In 2004, The Vancouver Sun fired a business reporter who it alleged received a beneficial deal when buying a condo from Concord Pacific, a company he covered. That 19th-floor unit was purchased back in 2001, when the great Vancouver condo boom was little more than a twinkle in the eyes of developers and marketers.