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.