Steal This Book

Every year, agencies give away millions of dollars of free information. Go to virtually any agency website and you’re likely to see dozens of whitepapers, webinars, blog posts, and interviews chock-full of free information on how to improve online marketing. And most of this isn’t high-level, vague garbage but rather detailed tactical techniques that should actually drive real value to anyone who digests them.

Similarly, most SEM agencies offer free audits of potential clients’ AdWords accounts as a way to show their expertise and (hopefully) win a new client. These audits usually require several days of work and would normally cost between $10,000 and $20,000 each, but are given away during the sales process.

Of course, not everyone who downloads a whitepaper or who receives an audit from an agency ends up becoming a customer. Most of the time, this is totally fine; in the case of the whitepapers, they’re publicly available on a website, so there’s absolutely no obligation for a downloader to do business with the agency. In the case of a free audit, the potential client sometimes decides to work with another agency, or just doesn’t see enough value in the audit to move forward with the auditing agency – again, that’s just life.



There are times, however, where agencies feel like we’ve been taken advantage of. Recently, for example, the CEO of a large SEM spender called me up to tell me he was considering hiring an agency. I told him we’d do an audit and he provided his AdWords credentials. He also told me he was considering several other agencies, so I assume he was getting audits from these firms as well. My team completed the audit and found a ton of opportunities for improvement (to directly quote my team: “Their account is basically a hazmat scene”).  

We met with the client in person to present the audit, and then answered a few follow-up questions. The client then asked me for a proposal, which I sent. After a few weeks of limited communication, the CEO told me he had decided to just use his in-house team.

When a CEO proactively reaches out to several agencies, at least one of them finds enough problems to label the account “a hazmat scene,” and the CEO then decides to keep the account in-house, that to me sounds like a “fishing expedition” – a planned effort to collect information with no intention of actually executing a commercial transaction.  Assuming there were four agencies in the hunt for this business, and each agency provided $10,000 worth of auditing, that’s $40,000 of free information – not too shabby.

Unfortunately for the CEO, there are a few problems with this scheme. First, it’s unlikely that any of these agencies will fall for the same ploy twice. Indeed, if this company approached us again, I would take a pretty hardline approach to our contract – I’d probably insist on a guaranteed long-term contract, with high minimum monthly fees.

Even more importantly, however, the CEO is confusing information with actionability. Giving great SEM tips to a lousy internal team is like putting a tarp on a hole in your roof: it will keep you dry for the first few days of rain, but eventually the leak will come back. The truth is that great SEM is the result of a combination of knowledge and experience – simply having the knowledge will only get you so far. And this is true for any profession, really. I could give you a very detailed manual on how to fly a 747, but would you feel comfortable taking the wheel after a few weeks of study? Would you let a medical student who had read for hours about open-heart surgery but never actually been in the operating room operate on a loved one? Of course not.

So if you want to learn about the practices that make an agency’s campaigns so successful, please – visit a website or two and download whitepapers to your heart’s content! And if you call up an agency and ask for a free audit with the intention of taking the findings and running, you are likely to get that great content gratis (at least the first time). But if you expect to replicate an experienced team’s performance with a few pages of instructions, the joke, my friend, is on you!

1 comment about "Steal This Book".
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  1. William Hoelzel from JWB Associates, April 21, 2015 at 11:35 a.m.

    Your message is something that needed to be said.  Ad agencies have long worked on spec, but the understanding is clear that prospective clients won't use a creative concept unless they hire the agency.  Perhaps firms that ask for an SEO propposal ought to sign an upfront contract that they will review agenies X, Y, and Z and choose one of them -- but not use any findings with an internal team. Free consulting isn't free. (But, no, i dont know how anyone could enforce that upfront contract, even if it were subject to arbitration, not litigation.)

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