10 Reasons Why Clients Don't Pick the Right SEM Agencies

In my last column, I continued the thread around fixing the client/agency RFP process by listing 10 reasons why SEM agencies don't win new biz. However, the responsibility for ill-fated client/agency matchmaking does not reside solely with agencies. Now, I won't go as far as fellow Search Insider Janel Landis to say that clients are complacent, jaded, or near-sighted. Instead, I'll point out 10 symptoms that, if left untreated, could lead to those diagnoses.

1.       They don't know what they need. Many clients fail to do the requisite preliminary research before issuing an RFP. This includes taking inventory of the skills/avails of in-house resources as well as what's available in the marketplace.  Most of all, it requires taking a hard look in the mirror and being honest about your assets and liabilities and what type of outside firm is likely to complement these. For PPC, do you need a campaign management tool or full-service agency? For SEO, do you need a firm to just make recommendations or implement them, too? If you're not sure what you need, you can always send out an exploratory RFI to get a feel for what's out there and/or hire an experienced consultant to help you navigate the waters.

2.       They give unreasonable RFP lead times. The Sistine Chapel wasn't painted in a day. OK, comparing agency biz dev execs to Michelangelo may be a stretch. But as the late great Bernie Mac said in the movie "Friday," you've got to give to receive, my brother. It you want a customized RFP response with deep insights that shows how the agency will drive your business forward, you have to give them more than a week or two to work on it. Besides, if you hire the SEM firm that dropped everything to put all their greatest minds on creating your RFP response, imagine what they'll do once you're a client and the next RFP hits their inbox?

3.       They treat agencies like vendors. From an agency standpoint, the only thing worse than getting an RFP that requires a 5-day turnaround is one that's a "find and replace" version of the RFP the client's procurement group uses to source office supplies. If you're looking for a true partner to help grow your business in a transparent and sustainable fashion, don't treat them like the company you buy light bulbs from. Which reminds me of a joke -- How many ad agency execs does it take to change a light bulb?

4.       They simply pick the lowest cost provider. On second thought, there is one thing worse than getting the cut and paste RFP -- getting the one that requires agencies to bid against each other in real time to see who will offer the lowest price. Do I hear 4.9% media commission? Going once, going twice... sold to the unlucky agency that now has to go into the red to service the account. As Steve Baldwin pointed out, when it comes to SEM firms, you get what you pay for. After all, you'd be skeptical of the lawyer offering to represent you for the low, low price of $50 per hour, right?

5.       They don't provide access to historical data. In discussing the REAL problem with the Client/Agency RFP process, I pointed to a recent survey of 184 client marketing execs that surfaced such complaints as, "you're told so many things that you're not sure what to believe." This is a legitimate issue and one that's likely to materialize in situations like SEM RFPs where there's an unequal distribution of subject matter expertise between buyer and seller. As a client, the best way to invite the agency "smoke and mirrors" pitch is to not give them access to your current engine accounts and/or historical data. Without that information, the best the agency can do is create recommendations from guesswork and base projections on assumptions.

6.       They don't meet the right folks at the agency. For the client, the only thing worse than getting a dog and pony show full of vaporware is getting it from people you're never going to see after the pitch. While it's important to hear from an agency's execs to understand their vision, clients must insist on meeting the folks that will be working on their business before making a decision. I'd go so far as to say that clients should include an out in their contract that they can exercise should their lead account manager be removed from their business within the first 90 days without an adequate replacement.   

7.       They get wowed by demos. Clients love flashy blinky things. And when the flashing and blinking comes with data, they light up as if they just hit the slot machine jackpot. The problem with technology demos is that they focus on inputs, not outputs and features, not benefits. Do you really care what buttons your agency presses to adjust bids? Or do you care about the ROI that results from it? The next time an SEM firm offers you a demo, make sure it's accompanied by a case study.

8.       They don't get the right buy-in from the right folks. Some clients delegate the RFP process solely to an in-house SEM manager. As Gord proclaimed, no search is an island. And no SEM agency decision should be made on one. Furthermore, as a few readers pointed out in response to my last column, the ability to apply insights generated from search to other sales and marketing channels is one of the biggest differentiators among SEM firms. To generate the most value from your SEM investment, you need your agency to integrate with your other departments and partners. Accordingly, you'll want to involve them in the selection process.

9.       They stick to the scorecard. The other extreme of getting the right buy-in is making the buy-in process too rigid. Many clients use scorecards to evaluate SEM agencies and RFPs but there's no way to score intangibles like chemistry, vision, and how in-tune they are with your business. Choosing an SEM firm this way is like marrying a person just because eHarmony's 29 dimensions of compatibility say you're a good match.

10.   They don't check references. It always amazes me how few clients actually check references. To continue the dating analogy, it's like getting married without meeting any of your significant other's friends or family. There's no better way to determine how good an agency really is than by talking to their other clients. It's the only way to cut through the BS of the pitch process and make sure you don't marry an axe murderer.

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10 comments about "10 Reasons Why Clients Don't Pick the Right SEM Agencies".
  1. Corby Fine from Rogers Media , March 4, 2009 at 10:25 a.m.

    PPC campaigns being run with a 15% commission on spend has to go the way of the DoDo bird. There is no justification for an efficiently run PPC campaign costing 15% of the total spend. Time spent is the only way to go and an efficient service provider can manage $100,000 or $1,000,000 in almost the same amount of time. It really comes down to the vertical, the volume of keywords and the initial setup. Once implemented and efficient, the amount of effort goes down and as such, costs should too.

  2. Carey Jernigan from re:group , March 4, 2009 at 10:33 a.m.

    SEM providers are not agencies (agents of the client), they are a marketing service provider, a media opportunity in some cases. To truly have an integrated marketing plan we believe the the client is best served by an unbiased marketing partner that looks at all marketing opportunities and considers SEM as one opportunity. Then they make the best choices for their client based on business objectives and available budget. They do understand SEM and can help guide clients to make the right decisions, because they provide this service for many, many clients who have validated their decisions. And just had to add our RFP whitepaper. http://www.regroup.us/povpapers/index.html

  3. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited , March 4, 2009 at 11:07 a.m.

    If I were a client or agency especially the less I know, I should paste your advise on my head.

  4. Gary Haffer from Haffer , March 4, 2009 at 11:32 a.m.

    Typically SEM providers are marketing agencies and as such I believe that they offer a service not a product. I strongly agree that references make the difference in really finding the right service for a company's online marketing needs.

  5. Cat Wagman from Working Words, Inc. , March 4, 2009 at 11:33 a.m.

    Great post, Gord! And you're right about clients that need to be more willing to do their part, before and during the RFP process, especially knowing what they are asking for in return. There is the underlying truth that a foundation built on mutual respect adds a powerful dynamic to any relationship.

    Personally, I get want I want more readily if I ask for it specifically ... just ask the gals behind the counter in bakery department at my Publix ... because they always know exactly what I want when I politely say, "May I have a corn rye bread, beautifully browned, nicely round, without seeds, and unsliced, please?"

  6. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions , March 4, 2009 at 11:46 a.m.

    Good points, Gord. Some of them are also good for agencies to use in reverse for evaluating clients. We've actually walked (and even run) away from prospects who present themselves to us with these symptoms. And checking references is always a best practice.

  7. Walt Guarino from Insight/SGW , March 4, 2009 at 3:47 p.m.

    This is an excellent article. Not only are the RFPs bad in a lot of instances, the understanding of how things work and what is needed is usually low. I can't figure out whether people don't want to learn more about SEO and SEM or they just are overwhelmed. Maybe it's a bit of both. Anyway, I would like your permission to reference this blog on my company's blog at www.sgw.com if that's o.k.? Thanks for a great read!

  8. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting , March 4, 2009 at 4:34 p.m.

    For all of you heaping praise on me for this column (which I agree is great) the bylines got mixed up. Aaron is the one that deserves the praise.

  9. Aaron Goldman from Kenshoo , March 4, 2009 at 9:10 p.m.

    Thanks for setting the record straight Gord. I can only hope MediaPost will repay the favor and give me credit for one of your masterpieces.

    Thank you all for the feedback.

    Corby - pricing SEM services is indeed a point of friction and contention in the space. Could probably dedicate a column solely to that topic.

    Carey - I disagree. By definition (in the media world) an agency is a company that acts as an agent to purchase media space on behalf of a client.

    Cat - you're making me hungry!

    Walt - feel free to link away.

  10. Tom Shivers from Capture Commerce , March 5, 2009 at 8:53 a.m.

    Thanks for the great piece Gord... err Aaron. I'll link it up.