Advertisers: Take Back Your Search Accounts!

A while back, we lost a fairly large client to another SEM agency. Naturally, we weren't especially pleased that this happened, but clients come and go: it's just the nature of the SEM agency business, and there were no hard feelings on either side.

Here's the odd thing: within a month of our parting, the client's CMO called us up, pleading with us to take his account back. The new SEM agency had -- in his words -- so botched up things that he feared that his whole business (much of which depended on revenues from search) would collapse if we didn't. The reason for this debacle was obvious: instead of simply taking over the client's pre-existing campaign and tweaking it, what the new agency did was to build the client's search campaign from scratch, with the ownership under the agency.

Rebuilding search campaigns from scratch has a lot of appeal, at least on paper. Using an analogy from real estate, it's often a lot cheaper to bulldoze an old house and build a completely new one than to try to restore an ancient structure. Figuring out why an old, complex search campaign isn't performing optimally, and applying the labor and analysis to the problem, can soak up a lot of time and effort. Why not scrap the whole creaky thing and start from scratch?



Well, the problem with starting from scratch is that every search campaign has a history, and its historical performance has a profound effect on its profitability. In the instance above, the first thing the client saw after the agency had rebuilt his campaign from scratch was a 40% increase in the price paid for his main traffic-driving keywords, throwing what were once ROI-positive campaigns immediately into the red.

If the client had been willing to wait for a while, Google would likely have eventually adjusted keyword prices downward and ROI would have improved. The problem was that the client wasn't willing to go for one or two months while the situation normalized: he had to cut his losses fast, hence the phone call to us and the plea to "take his campaign back," which we did.

The point of mentioning this anecdote isn't to blow our own horn. It's to surface the fact that many agencies seem to regard search accounts as their own, instead of belonging to the people who actually bought the clicks.

I understand why this stance serves the interest of the agency. After all, the agency was hired as the search expert and it can be awkward to have the client poking around inside the ad consoles, perhaps making changes that aren't justified. Furthermore, agencies have an interest in "owning" client data because it basically locks clients into using their services. This is great for the agency, but not for the client.

At the same time, however, it's vital that clients assert their right to own the data that they've bought and paid for. This data, including the all-important historical performance data that Google uses as a basis for establishing keyword bid prices, represents an investment that will only pay off if it is portable. Furthermore, having full control of this data provides clients with real negotiating power, because it means that clients can afford to walk without fearing they'll have to suffer losses when campaigns must be built from scratch. Knowledge, data, and search campaign history represent real power that clients should never yield to third parties.

One final word of advice for clients: Don't ever sign an agreement with an SEM agency that doesn't offer you a 30-day out. When things go wrong in SEM, they go wrong very fast, and you'll need the out if it turns out that -- as in the case above -- the only other option is to undergo a prolonged period of unprofitable results. Casual search spenders might be able to eat this kind of pain, but for those spending several hundreds of thousands of dollars per month, the consequences of inaction can have a serious, perhaps fatal impact on the enterprise's bottom line.

4 comments about "Advertisers: Take Back Your Search Accounts! ".
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  1. Matthew Saleski from Yahoo!, February 23, 2009 at 11:02 a.m.


    Good points raised here. There is a way to balance both perspectives, without throwing out the proverbial baby with the bathwater (from the client's perspective), but also seeing the value the agency brings to the table. And, with Yahoo, that can start simply at the Ad Group level-- employing Ad Testing to gauge the effectiveness of various advertising messages and Ad Optimization so that top performing ads are served more often. If the client sees that the agency is putting together more effective ads, they are going to win their trust to start making changes at higher levels, including major account restructures.

  2. Wilf Barnes from Local Search Leads, February 23, 2009 at 11:15 a.m.

    Hi Steve,

    Coming from the editor-in-chief of an agency it was both interesting and refreshing to read your very frank commentary (aka ~ confession) that:
    "agencies have an interest in "owning" client data because it basically locks clients into using their services. This is great for the agency, but not for the client."

    When your agency took back this client's campaign, did you;
    a) restart from scratch (again) with brand new campaign data?
    b) takeover from where the competing agency campaign left off?
    c) or - was your agency able to resurrect the historical campaign data that had been established prior to losing the account to the competing agency?

    Thanks for your comments and refreshing honesty!

    Wilf Barnes
    Local Search Leads (Toronto)

  3. Scott Lambert, February 23, 2009 at 4:49 p.m.


    Good points but let's not assume that all agencies price and package the way you do. It really boils down to how the service is offered and packaged. I don't suppose that my way is the only way, or that all companies should operate the way we do. Maybe you would agree that your way is not the only way or that all companies should operate they way you do.

    While a 30 day out clause is nice, there are ways that a very experienced agency can control the risk factors. Of course, bid and account management is only one aspect of performance. Landing page optimization (and better yet - visitor pathing optimization) has a significant impact on campaign performance. If the client has a small budget, it is difficult within 30 days to do all the testing that you should be doing in order to generate the best results. Heavy campaign testing is an ongoing endeavor and needs to be taken into account.

    Not all clients or campaigns are equal and there are circumstances that even you may agree that warrant differnet contractual and performance agreements. I agree that your points are good ones but is dependent upon your type of agency and how you price and package your services.

  4. Larry Kim from WordStream, Inc., February 24, 2009 at 8:04 p.m.

    Steve: I hear what you're saying - clearly historical account performance data is valuable, especially if you have a good account history. But sometimes, I think this goes too far - believe it or not, I've heard of people not wanting to make *any* changes to their account fearing that they'll somehow ruin everything. I think that this is just as bad as the agency who blew away everything with no regards to account history. Overall, I think some kind of compromise is needed between preserving account history and re-structuring/organizing/optimizing under-performing ad groups, and creating new ad groups/campaigns.

    According to Google AdWords: "A few bad days of test performance will not ruin your Quality Scores. In order to optimize your clients' accounts, we encourage you to run targeted tests on your bids, creatives, and keywords. These small tests are a useful way to measure the impact of changes before applying them more widely. You should carefully track the performance of your experiments. If you find that the changes you've made don't perform well after a few days, you can revise your experiment or delete those changes and the short term impact on your Quality Score will soon be outweighed by the positive performance you have accrued in the rest of your client's account." -Source: The Official Google AdWords Agency Blog (December 22, 2008).

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