By Diane Slawych

Why do real estate agents often use their photos on business cards? Are attractive agents more successful? And how did a hot air balloon end up as the Re/Max logo? Adman Terry O’Reilly answers these questions and more as he investigates the world of real estate advertising in a recent episode of his hugely successful and entertaining CBC radio documentary series Under the Influence. REM caught up with the multi-award-winning radio host for an email interview.

You’ve covered many topics in Under the Influence, from gender marketing to the “crazy world of trademarks” and brands that go political. What prompted you to explore real estate advertising for one of your episodes? (The episode is called Selling the Dream: Real Estate Advertising.)

O’Reilly:  I have always thought that real estate marketing is a world unto itself. It involves personalities, lots of advertising and the biggest purchases in our lives. There are a lot of staples in the real estate world – like using agent’s faces in lawn signage, billboards and print ads, employing the MLS, evaluating pricing, judging neighbourhoods…It is also an industry with intense competition. All of this was interesting to me and I wanted to go back in history to see how it all started – and why.

Why do real estate agents, perhaps more than people in any other service industry, so often use their photos on business cards and other advertisements?

O’Reilly: My research told me that this practice started in the late 1800s/early 1900s. People were moving to cities from the country and unscrupulous conmen would meet these people at train stations and sell them non-existent property. These land sellers were called “land sharks” and took advantage of good people looking to start a new life. The term “swampland in Florida” was coined in this period.

Legitimate real estate agents wanted to distance themselves from these scam artists, so they began to organize by creating real estate boards and they established standards of practice. Using a face in their marketing and opening offices with fixed addresses suggested accountability. No conman would ever advertise his face and they certainly didn’t want offices where they could be tracked down. In other words, the use of a face in real estate marketing was the ultimate sign of trust.

You say that real estate has its own rules, techniques and own breed of salespeople. How so? How is it different than other industries in terms of advertising and marketing?

O’Reilly: Generally speaking, a real estate transaction is the biggest purchase a person makes in their lifetime. So, the price tag is great. Real estate agents try to bring two parties together: a willing seller and a willing buyer. That middleman position is somewhat unique in marketing. Agents must be power listeners to understand what a client really wants. Virtually every transaction is a negotiation, and negotiating is an art. Agents love to use their faces in their marketing, as I mentioned earlier. Not many service industries do that. The advertising industry – which is to say, my industry – is a service business but we never use our faces to win clients. Real estate agents are not selling houses, they are selling homes. That makes it an extremely emotional purchase. Navigating that much emotion requires a unique skill set.

In your show you mention a fascinating study done by three American universities that looked at physical attractiveness as it relates to a real estate professional’s success. Could you elaborate?

O’Reilly: It was an interesting study because this is an industry that relies on faces. Essentially, it said that attractive agents had listings with higher selling prices and higher commissions. The study confirmed that physical attractiveness is an asset. But, there was an interesting side note: Less attractive agents had lower selling prices but more listings and more sales. Which I interpret to mean, they worked harder. Attractive people use their beauty in place of other work skills. Less attractive people must work harder and they do.

You discovered that real estate played an important role in the evolution of the advertising business. How so?

O’Reilly: To begin with, the very first advertising agency in North America was started by a Philadelphia real estate agent named Volney Palmer around 1837. Second, the very first radio commercial ever aired was for a real estate development. It was broadcast in 1922 on radio station WEAF in New York. Close to $14 billion is spent on real estate advertising in North America annually, so it is a powerful marketing sector.

What are some offbeat ways real estate agents or homeowners have used to gain attention, and do any of them work?

O’Reilly: I was very interested to see what novel techniques real estate agents are using these days. Many are employing humour. Signs that say, “Free pizza with house” and “zombie free” are examples of that. Remember, attention is the oxygen of any business, and more so in real estate marketing.

Some home sellers are offering potential buyers an Airbnb night in their home to give buyers a real sense of what it would be like to live in the house. That’s a smart insight – we sometimes spend more time buying socks than we spend in the homes we’re buying. Some Realtors are producing very creative videos. Some are creating songs! I have to say I like the fact agents are starting to break the traditional rules of real estate selling. Do all of these ideas work? Hard to say but standing out is job one in marketing. Fortune favours the bold.

You say that few real estate companies have readily identifiable logos, but Re/Max is a notable exception. How did it get a hot air balloon as its logo, which on the face of it doesn’t have much of a connection to real estate?

O’Reilly: Brokers sell agents. Agents sell property. I believe that real estate companies should be doing more branding to distinguish their businesses in the marketplace. When they do, they give their agents a powerful calling card. Most real estate companies have weak brand personalities.

Re/Max is an exception because it is one of the few companies that has a powerful brand and a memorable brand icon. The Re/Max balloon is instantly recognizable, as is their slogan, “Above the Crowd.” Many years ago, two Re/Max franchisees in New Mexico approached head office with a drawing of a red, white and blue hot air balloon and said, “This should be our logo.” Management said a hot air balloon had nothing to do with real estate and turned them down. A year later, those same two franchisees came back with an 8mm film of a Re/Max hot air balloon they had flown the day before at a hot air balloon festival and said, “This should be our logo!” Again, management gave them a hard pass.

A year after that, Re/Max hired a consultant to gauge how well-known the company was in its hometown of Denver. The survey showed they ranked number eight. Clearly, they were in desperate need of some branding. Then somebody remembered the Re/Max balloon. So, they hired a plane, got some footage of the balloon floating in sky and created a TV commercial with it.

At the end of the eight-week campaign, the consultant came in with his annual survey and told Re/Max they were now the number one real estate company in the city. Re/Max said that’s great. Wait, the consultant said, you don’t understand, 66 per cent of the people surveyed said Re/Max has a red, white and blue balloon, and 36 per cent said your theme is “Above the Crowd.” After only eight weeks, this kind of feedback is unheard of. This balloon should be your logo! So, Re/Max took another vote and this time the unanimous response was… yes! And that’s how one of the most recognized logos in the real estate business took flight over 40 years ago.

As someone with extensive experience in the advertising business, what would you do today if you were a real estate agent in a tough market?

O’Reilly: Stand out. Amateurs think marketing is all about selling stuff. But the pros know marketing is all about differentiating your business. Once you can do that, once you become top-of-mind in your town or your industry, the real selling starts. I would analyze what other smart agents are doing in other markets. Other countries. I would look beyond real estate and see how other smart service-based industries are marketing themselves.

There is a reason most real estate advertising all looks the same – Realtors are inhaling their own fumes. But those boundaries are artificial. Push the guardrails back. Deliver above and beyond the services that your competitors aren’t offering. Identify the friction points in real estate transactions and eliminate them. Think big. When was the last time you wowed your clients?


  1. Without naming names, I know few agents who have used their Glamour shots only as a promotional tool of their profession
    Here is a video I posted about 6 weeks ago. Sound is a bit fuzzy, but it still gets the point across.

  2. Interesting article.
    Re the “physical attractiveness” quotient:
    O’Reilly says that “Attractive people use their beauty in place of other work skills. Less attractive people must work harder and they do.” Terry’s opinion is based upon studies conducted by three American universities. I came to the same conclusion many years ago whilst completing my university studies, which included a large dose of psychology courses. Essentially, attractive people, especially when youngsters, get by via their looks…which makes many of them lazy; they just don’t have to try as hard as the less attractive kids to be popular. Teachers even favour good-looking students. Ergo, good-looking people can become vacuous, hollow shells of mercenary glory-seeking robots intent upon domination of their less-than-deserving fellow humans. They learn to use their physical gifts in a selfish manner; their sense of empathy for others tends to be relatively undeveloped. Life is too easy for them and they simply remain lazy because they can get by relying mainly on their looks. Then they get older, and poof, their edge disappears. One only need look at the entertainment industry and the good-looking actors with empty heads for proof of this theory. Of course there are exceptions, but they are the truly intelligent/wise personalities amongst the heap of shallow personalities who posses no attributes beyond memorizing and regurgitating lines in front of a camera crew.
    Give me an ugly Realtor any day, and the odds are that he/she will appreciate my choosing him/her as my representative and will thence work diligently on my behalf. Am I displaying a prejudicial bent against gorgeous-looking Realtors who ramp up their looks with lots of flair and add-ons, whose glamour photos on their cards, advertisements and cars are twenty years old? Yup!
    I’ll take character over flash any day.

    • Thanks Carolyne and Carlos for your endorsements of my opinion on this subject.
      Post Script to my comments: Any Realtor, or any salesperson for that matter, for whom the concept of credibility matters, ought to consider the ramifications of misrepresenting themselves by offering photos of themselves on cards/advertisements etc. that are clearly misrepresentative of their current appearances. I speak of old, carefully prepared photos that do not represent their current, everyday appearances. One could say that this strategy (designed to impress the public with one’s now-not-applicable old photo) is a perpetration of a fraud on the public. This statement might seem like a stretch to some, but think about it for a minute. Just because so many commit this fraud—making it seem to be a mainstream practice—does not mean that it is acceptable behavior. If a Realtor is prepared to mislead the public via this strategy, then one might conclude that a Realtor for whom the guilt of this deceptive behavior holds little weight might also tend to mislead that same said public for said Realtor’s own short-term financial benefit at the expense of the public’s benefit.
      To conclude: If Realtors who choose to engage in such deception (there are far too many of them) want to be viewed as professionals, then they should actually act like true professionals for whom public display of their true faces is not regarded as a negative factor. Being two-faced simply does not cut it.

      • I heard that CREB has a 5-year rule on an agent’s photo. Now I don’t know how to take this, but often at open houses people meet me and then see my photos on the marketing materials and tell me I look much better in person! Usually I try to diffuse back to the home I’m selling “I put more dollars into the pics of the house than the pics of me,” but I would love to get feedback on a snappier one-liner. Too much emphasis on appearance.

        • The reason why you look better in person is due to the fact that a camera takes a picture with only one lens, which makes people look fatter than they really are. We humans take pictures with two lenses (our eye balls) spaced about three inches apart which eliminates the fatness quotient.
          Tell people that the cops didn’t prep you properly for the mug shot.

          • Gary:
            CREB officers likely did read your advisory, and I would not be surprised if it did have an effect on them. Messages delivered with humour tend to have a deeper effect than do negative, “Tut,tut,tut…don’t do that!” missives on target readers.
            I especially like the before-and-after Nick Nolte comparison, wherein he appears to have just painfully passed a bowl full of old, hardened devil’s donuts.
            When I reentered the business in 2008 after a long hiatus doing many other things (mostly real estate related) I wondered about how to market myself without spending much money. I drafted an eleven by eight-and-a-half information/promotional sheet and included four pictures of my face. In the upper left corner I appeared at eighteen months old; in the upper right corner at sixteen years; in the lower left at my then current age, and, in the lower right at ninety hard years with a question mark below. I made myself up at ninety to look much like Nolte’s mug shot with hair all askew, except that I had a goofy smile, a blacked out a front tooth and I stuck two bandages in a cross formation on my right cheek; I was also four days unshaven, just for good measure. I received all kinds of great feedback from many who laughed their guts out even after having viewed that cheap promo numerous times, and yes, I did receive business as the result of that memorable piece. Some said that anyone who would be that outrageously self-deprecating would be OK with them.
            We do tend to take ourselves a little too seriously sometimes, don’t we?

          • Most of the good stuff I submitted over the years in a humorous vein never made it this far, and ended up in Jim the-Editor-guy’s special drawer of flammable material. (He didn’t wana git sued. I wonder if he’s stashing it all up in order to use it in his next life as a politically-incorrect stand-up comedian?) Do you mean that Jim has a special drawer for your stuff too?
            Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

      • LOL. Yes, that’s right Jerry, but, being an equal opportunity-driven guy at heart, I never won an ugly contest either.

    • Brian

      The topic could be like a tippy canoe three-legged unstable stool or that undefinable three-sided coin or three-sided pancake no matter how thin still has only two sides.

      Who would know better than the CBC man; no one ever makes a point of saying Mr. M. appeared today at his radio interview wearing his Versace pinstriped suit and beautifully polished cognac colour Italian leather low rise boots, and we took note that his stockings, (not referred to as socks) were of a professional length so that his muscular legs didn’t show when he sat down and crossed his legs, and they matched the colour of his slacks; and he even remembered to unbutton his suit jacket when he sat down for his interview.

      See the insanity… Yet were it be a woman, not just on TV, some reference would be made to her attire; point of reference Trump’s wife and the wearing of her now famous (was it?) 53k priced jacket with the designer label.

      Why does a woman’s shape, size of various body parts and what she wears become part of the reporting procedure? The more so since that topic never applies to men, in any circumstance?

      But note that no one comments on the gear a woman astronaut wears. And we now even have such as our Governor General. “Girls” were steered away from the math and science subjects at one time, didn’t need that set of topics, much less physics and chemistry to have babies and get dinner on the table in a timely fashion and don’t forget the slippers at the door and the newspaper ready. “What kind of day did you have, dear?” the mother:housewife: little woman says.

      I recall a few years ago while meeting with clients, both the husband and wife: it was a hot spring day. I was wearing a crisp white linen two-piece suit, a pantsuit. The wife commented on how nice it was. BUT! There’s a big difference in saying “you look nice in that white linen pantsuit,” and, “that’s a really nice pantsuit, it must have been expensive. Business must be very good.”

      Not unlike the type of vehicle an agent drives. Should he or she have to apologize for driving a Aston Martin, and retain a Volks for going to listing appointments? I know a lawyer who owns several high end vehicles but parks his “everyday” van at his office. Guess it doesn’t just apply in the real estate business.

      Years ago I found myself in Cambridge. The older middle-age man pumping gas had poked his head in the window where my ex was in the passenger seat and said: “nice of you to let the little woman take the wheel.” And I was dressed for business! Oh, my! What a thing to say! That was in the early 80’s. Today I would have said something. Then, not so. It wouldn’t “have been polite” to rebuff. The world has changed. Seeing as how I had been the one who paid for it, maybe just maybe I had earned the right to drive it?

      Carolyne L ?

    • Brian – your thoughts?

      One of the peculiarities in the real estate world is the raison d’être for being in the business in the first place.

      Some agents start off seeming to be wanting to collect “friends.” I had this discussion at length years ago with an American (d) colleague/net friend. We were sharing marketing ideas. A most wonderful woman who brought home all her buyers and sellers, fed them, went to movies with them, wined them and dined with them. She was indeed very popular and a really good person.

      But not everyone doing business with you wants to be “your friend.” At least in the beginning. I think it is, from a business perspective, inappropriate and frightfully disrespectful to start off any marketing material, or point of contact in letters and such, with “Dear Friend, or Dear Friends.”

      It is just just a preparatory assumptive close, and it might put off a lot of people who simply think of you as “doing business;” they are not your friend, have no intention of ever being “your friend.”

      They are in your company, in your personal business space, “to do business.” Nothing more and nothing less. It’s just my opinion, of course. And I could be all wrong. But I was born and brought up in Canada, where typically it was and perhaps maybe still is, presumptive in the very least to assume everyone you meet in business wants to be your friend.

      I love and respect everyone equally until given reason not to and I don’t criticize their reason d’être. But if I receive any sort of marketing material addressed “Dear Friend,” it would promptly be deposited in a trash bin.

      Just curious about the thoughts of others. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing to want to bring clients and customers immediately into your most inner circle, and into your private at-home space. Am I wrong to think the proper presumptive course of action is: we’ve come into each other’s space “to do business?” And if per chance a friendship were to develop, it would be a bonus?

      Prior to going into the real estate business nearly four decades ago, I had bought several homes for personal use. I don’t recall any agent approaching us with the idea that we were automatically now “friends.” And to have done so, would have been off-putting. And there wouldn’t have been an ongoing business venture. I would have found it an aggressive MO.

      Don’t misunderstand. I don’t mean my concept to seem or be “unfriendly.” But in the start of any business interaction, I for one, as your REALTOR(r), am “not your friend.” Servant, business confidant, advisor, guardian of the keys in a business sense.

      Occasionally a long-term business friendship evolves, and even the odd personal friendship develops. But I think it is a serious business mistake to begin a business association by starting off either a conversation or in print by assuming I want you to be “my friend,” using those words.

      There’s something called “personal space” often defined by “arm’s length.” We each have it, and that space, in the real world terms is if you put out your arms, and rotate in a circle, that space allotment is “ones own personal space,” not to be invaded by others except by invitation, whether standing in a supermarket line, or at a bank teller line, or in any public space, should never be entered without a direct invitation, one to the other, as to be interpreted: I invite you into my space; come closer; I’m “inviting you into “my space.”

      To wit: there’s a lot of current news coverage on this very topic at the moment. I wrote about this ages ago. In business a man should never shake hands with a woman unless she offers her hand, “first.” And certainly not put a hand on her shoulder, or any place else, and or presume the “business” of doing business is an automatic okay to say, “good day my friend(s).” It just might put off more opportunities to business than gain new clients.

      I summit that I do understand that all cultures have their own ways of doing business. But I add that last time I wrote about this topic, I heard from several people (men and woman) privately, thanking me for this information. No one had ever told them this. So I more or less repeat herein what I had said years ago.

      And clearly I do acknowledge the world… she is indeed a-changin’ … in permanent motion. And business is conducted far more informally. It’s fine and accepted by many, but for others is not deemed appropriate to automatically assume because I’m doing business with you, that I am automatically your friend. By definition it diminishes the true value of the meaning of the word friend, as in being invited into my inner circle, my personal space, and in particular, body-language speaks volumes.

      Until a few generations of Canadians die off, it might be prudent not to use the word “friend,” loosely in business.

      With respect
      Carolyne L ?

      • Carolyne:
        I believe that many people think of becoming a real estate agent because they want to be a “somebody”. They hopefully see themselves as movers and shakers, looked upon with awe by others who don’t have the gonads to giver ‘er a try. It is after all the “big league” when it comes to sales. If you can make it in real estate, you can make it anywhere (true). Those who know that they have the looks feel that they have an automatic advantage (also true). The real risk-takers are the less-than-good-looking sots who try it with nothing in their arsenals but grit, determination, smarts and a sense of public duty (altruism); that’s a lot of nothing to be proud of.
        Regarding the fallacy of looks: It is amazing how good a non-glamourous Realtor looks to a client after having done a bang-up job for him/her vs how ugly a good looking Realtor looks to a client after effing up or forcing a transaction, either by negligence, incompetence or worse, by mercenary design. This phenomenon is similar to how ugly a gorgeous woman can look to an initially besmitten man after she has shown her true scandalous colours, which are much darker than initially revealed. The same holds true for a woman who too quickly falls for a good-looking peacock of a male scoundrel.
        Like they say, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

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