10 Reasons Why SEM Agencies Don't Win New Biz

I never thought this day would come, but I'm in complete agreement with Steve Baldwin for two consecutive columns. Indeed, as Steve points out, we need to move towards rationale SEM agency procurement because SEM is a service, not a product. After all, as I posited, the REAL problem with the Client/Agency RFP process is that it asks the wrong questions of the wrong people at the wrong agencies with the wrong engagement parameters -- leaving many folks, like fellow Search Insider Janel Landis, asking, "When is enough, enough?"

Clearly, fixing the Client/Agency RFP process is no small task (nor small blog post) and my proposed overhaul of the system will take more time (and buy-in) than most of us can afford right now. So what can clients and agencies do differently within the confines of the current RFP system to better align expectations and create satisfactory outcomes for all parties involved?



Let's start by looking at the main reasons SEM agencies don't win new business. In my next column, I'll cover why marketers don't always pick the right SEM agency.

1.       They don't build personal relationships. Too many agencies send prospecting emails, get a nibble and then follow up with more email correspondence. Or, in a formal RFP setting, they fall back on written responses rather than trying to secure meetings to get to know the client and what really makes them tick. The old adage with sales is that you're selling yourself as much as your product or service. Most clients will make time to get to know you and your team as long as those interactions provide value. Which leads me to...

2.       They talk about themselves. Another rule of Sales 101 is that the buyer should do at least 80% of the talking in any intro call/meeting. SEM firms need to be great listeners and lead with questions. Don't dive right into your capabilities, and resist the urge to explain why your bid management tool is the best thing since sliced data. Everyone in search seems to have "smartest person in the room" syndrome. Take the time to understand the true drivers of the client and show them how your firm can help them meet their goals. And above all, don't fall into this trap...

3.       They let their technology do the talking. I won't rehash the whole SEM man vs. machine debate. Suffice it to say that any good solution has elements of both. That said, too many agencies devote the bulk of their presentation to tech demos. No technology can determine which LOB should own which keywords. No technology can write copy that will stand out on a crowded SERP. No technology can determine the appropriate weight various conversion activities should receive in an ROI calculation. No technology can take insights from search and apply them to other marketing channels. Accordingly, no technology can make clients forget about all your competitors and choose your firm -- except maybe this one.

4.       They focus on features, not benefits. Our tool does this. Our reports have that. Our keyword development process is this. Our optimization approach is that. So what? What does this mean to the client? What's the benefit of automated technology? Cost efficiencies through faster optimization. What's the benefit of a portfolio approach to optimization? More sales volume by bidding on higher volume, more-expensive terms. And ultimately, there's no greater benefit to the client than you (the agency) making them look like a hero. And that's what'll happen if you can deliver those cost savings and increased revenue.

5.       They don't include the right folks in the pitch process. Some SEM agencies have dedicated sales teams dialing for dollars. When they hook a prospect, it's a scene right out of "Boiler Room" -- "Recooooo!" Salespeople are not in tune with evolving algorithms, nor can they analyze campaign data to find specific opportunities. On the flipside, some SEM shops rely solely on executive management for new-business pitches. The end result is that clients get sold on folks that are not likely to touch their business on a regular basis. Agencies need to find the right balance of sales, management, and day-to-day personnel to contribute to new client pitches.  

6.       They don't go deep enough on the prospect's business. It takes time to craft the right solution. Too many SEM firms pursue any client that makes eyes at them, er... is actively spending on search. This scattershot approach spreads agency resources thin juggling multiple pitches at once. The result is that presentations go no deeper than agency creds and top-line observations about the client's business. SEM shops need to identify the type of client that would benefit from their solution and dive deep into their biz to develop insights and present a customized strategy that can achieve sustainable, scalable results. Which reminds me...

7.       Their pitch is littered with buzzwords and jargon. The only thing worse than letting the technology do the talking is letting the talking do the talking. This is the "smoke and mirrors" effect, where search shops cobble all the hot SEM buzzwords together and sprinkle them over the prospective client like pixie dust -- "You can fly, you can fly, you can fly!"  

8.       They don't demonstrate that they've done this before for a client with similar needs. Every SEM firm has case studies. But, if I'm a mid-sized Internet retailer, I don't care what you've done for a Fortune 500 CPG. And vice versa. If you haven't worked with a mid-sized retailer before, that's fine. If I'm direct-response focused in a very competitive vertical, show me what you've done for someone in a similar situation. Of course, the flip side of this is...

9.       They don't disclose conflicts up front. Sometimes, SEM agencies have case studies that hit just a little too close to home -- ie, they work with a direct competitor of the prospective client. This is a highly controversial topic in the SEM space. As the saying goes, "Two is a conflict, three is a specialty." Some shops have built their business around one particular vertical. Others steer clear of any potential conflicts by turning down business or creating internal firewalls and/or spin-off groups. Regardless of what you do as an agency to handle conflicts, just be upfront about it.

10.   They weren't a good fit. Yes, it happens.

10 comments about "10 Reasons Why SEM Agencies Don't Win New Biz".
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  1. Jeffrey Ogden, February 18, 2009 at 10:21 a.m.

    Aaron's post is spot on perfect! As David Meerman Scott preaches -- No one cares about your product except you.

    SEO's talk in technospeak, don't build trust, dial for dollars rather than building relationships, etc. It is a wasteland.

    Thanks for speaking up.


  2. Frank Dobner from The Startup Source, February 18, 2009 at 10:24 a.m.


    These are some very good things. Thanks for the MIB video. I expect to have the presence of mind to stick to these principles.

    Thank you.


  3. Marc Engelsman from Digital Brand Expressions, February 18, 2009 at 10:26 a.m.

    11. They aren't presenting their solution as part of an integrated approach -- integrated with offline marketing tactics and/or integrated with other search marketing tactics like SEO.

  4. Philip Sievers from Seiter & Miller, February 18, 2009 at 10:36 a.m.

    I suggest that almost all of your reasons apply to all advertising agencies and their new business efforts, not just SEM shops.

    Excellent food for thought and action

    Phil Sievers
    Director of Business Development
    Seiter & Miller

  5. Gene Sower from Samson Media LLC, February 18, 2009 at 10:42 a.m.

    Well, glad to hear I'm doing something right! SEO work is a growing part of my business, overtaking "design" work. In fact, as an Internet marketing consultant, with an emphasis on CONSULTANT, no amount of fancy tools and buzzwords will offer a good substitute for good ol' fashion meetings (whether phone or in person) and, in the end, human judgement. Yes, the tools I use such as Web CEO and others will give me the "numbers". But it's up to me to filter that data through my understanding of what the client NEEDS based on in-depth conversations with them about their business leading up to the research phase. No one knows your client's business better than they do. I take my cues from them and overlay the research results I get with a huge dollop of personal judgement followed by good keyword writing. Even the mention of META tags has them glazing over. It's benefits, benefits, benefits with small doses of explanations about the actual process that I find works best.

  6. Aaron Goldman from Mediaocean, February 18, 2009 at 8:32 p.m.

    Great point Marc. Can't believe I forgot that one given all the preaching I've done about integration over the years. Thanks for chiming in.

    And thanks to everyone else for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Armando Carrillo Jr, February 18, 2009 at 9:09 p.m.

    I feel you Gene! In my 10 years in the search game, Numbers 4 and 10 seem to always surface as weak spots, from both the client side (getting pitched to), and consulting side (doing the pitching). It's easy for SEM agencies and consultants to get caught up explaining the technicalities and features of SEM, because they/we understand it so well. Clients care more about the benefits they'll get, versus how it all works. Having practical experience and a proven track record within a client's own industry, and with related products and/or services, is only icing on the cake. Great post Aaron!

  8. Simone Katz from Simone Katz Consulting, February 18, 2009 at 10:23 p.m.

    These are all excellent points. What is interesting is that this can be said of all agencies selling their expert services to a client and not specifically SEM.

    Thanks for the great reminders.

  9. Jeff Campbell from Resolution Media, February 24, 2009 at 10:30 a.m.

    11. SEM's look at SEM in a vacuum. They rarely integrate with offline marketing or consider offline impacts like in-store sales or lifetime value of a customer.

    Good stuff, AG.

  10. Susannah Richardson from Wordstream, February 26, 2009 at 12:46 p.m.

    Great post and convo!

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