Ad Agencies Partnering with Search Marketing Firms (or Not)

At the recent Search Engine Strategies Conference in New York, agency executives spoke candidly about their experiences working with search engine marketing (SEM) firms. What’s working? What’s not? And most importantly, how can agencies and search marketers work together to better serve clients?

Here’s a re-cap of “Outsourcing Anonymous: Why To Admit You Hired An SEM Firm (Or Not),” one of the many interesting and compelling sessions that went down at SES:

Agency Transparency

Sara Holoubek, a free-agent consultant, moderated the session. She asked the agency panelists to comment on the issue of transparency. Should clients be told that their Agency of Record is sub-contracting to a search expert? Should the search marketing firm have direct access to the client? Or should the agency keep the relationship under wraps and “white label” the search services as their own?

Amy Auerbach, former VP Group Director, Media Contacts feels that in general ad agencies and media buying companies just don’t have the search marketing skills and competencies required—particularly in the area of search engine optimization (SEO)—so she believes that partnering with search experts is absolutely necessary. But, according to Auerbach, the bigger question is, will the ad agency bring the SEM firm into the project at the appropriate time. She admits that there is risk associated with partnerships and when push comes to shove… many agencies tend to be conservative and keep tight control over the client relationship.

The challenge, according to Dori Stowe, former president of Tribal DDB Health, is that to be successful, the search marketing expert must be fully integrated into the project very early on. She believes that this requires transparency. Dori thinks it’s important to have a full disclosure policy and to be able to honestly say to your client, “Let me get my search expert on the phone.”

Aaron Geh, vice president of marketing and sales at The Karcher Group, finds that search marketers can better manage client expectations if they are able to explain search marketing projects and results to clients directly. This requires transparency and direct access.

All the panelists agree that regardless of the degree of transparency, it is critically important to set clear rules of engagement early—before the project is even launched, if possible.

Creative Disagreements

Another common point of contention involves the creative elements of an online marketing project. Ad agencies tend to be very focused on creative that WOWs the client. Often times this means creating websites that are heavy on flash (in fact, maybe all flash) and lean on content.

Search experts find this type of website very limiting. Especially if the site has already been created, finalized and approved by the client before the search expert is brought in.

Geh mentioned a situation like this where search engine optimization was virtually impossible based on the site design… and they ended up walking away from the project.

Cultural Differences

Holoubek asked the agency execs to comment on cultural differences they have experienced when working with SEM firms.

Aimee Reker, SVP global director of digital strategy & search at McCann Worldgroup mentioned significant differences in the areas of strategic planning and client exclusivity. Reker explained that most SEMs don’t have an appreciation for the rigorous and lengthy strategic planning and budgeting process an agency goes through with their clients. Many search marketers just expect to start work immediately without being integrated into this process.

Another big difference is working with competitors. In general, ad agencies guarantee their clients exclusivity and will not work with competitors in the same business sector—especially for large accounts. In contrast, most SEMs will, and do, work for competitors. Reker believes that this is primarily due to differences in the negotiation pricing model used by agencies and the competitive auction model used by search advertisers.

Is Search Lucrative for Ad Agencies?

A few panelists expressed concern that it is difficult for a traditional agency to profit from bringing in a SEM sub-contractor. More than one agency rep said that they had delivered search marketing services to their clients without adding any additional agency mark-up.

But most panelists believe that, if priced appropriately, there is plenty of room for both the SEM and the ad agency to profit.

They all warned that the desire to mark-up services should not be the primary reason for a “white label” approach. Delivering the best results, not pricing concerns, should dictate how agencies work together.

The “Coop-etition” Challenge

At this point, apparently there are no clear rules. Questions abound, mostly around issues of trust and control. In many cases this appears to be the classic “coop-etition” situation.

Geh summarized the realities nicely when he said, “It often feels like search marketers are educating traditional firms at their own expense. Sure you gain a contract in the short term, but are you training a future competitor in the long run?”

All the experts agree, there are ways to create a win-win-win situation; a situation that benefits the client, the agency, and the SEM firm. This works best when all marketers involved realize that they each bring different skills to the table, find synergistic ways to work together, and check their egos at the door.

Patricia Hursh is president and founder of SmartSearch Marketing, a Boulder, Colorado-based search engine marketing agency. You can reach Patricia at patricia@smartsearchmarketing.com.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Industry | SEM Industry: Conferences | SEM Industry: In House | SEM Industry: Outsourcing

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About The Author: is president and founder of SmartSearch Marketing, a Boulder, Colorado-based search engine marketing agency. You can reach Patricia at patricia@smartsearchmarketing.com. The Strictly Business column appears Wednesdays at Search Engine Land.

Connect with the author via: Email | LinkedIn



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  • http://www.newfangled.com Eric Holter

    Great post Patricia. I’m glad to see that the dialog between agencies and SEM firms is progressing. My company Newfangled Web Factory has been specializing in partnering with advertising agencies and design firms for web development for twelve years. We have lots of agency partners and I agree that the more transparent the relationship the better things go.

    I think a balance needs to be struck between the agency’s willingness to be transparent and the SEM/SEO/web partner willing to respect the agency/client relationship. One of the ways we try to encourage this is by ensuring each agency partner that we will never accept any work directly from their client for as long as they are a client of the agency. We’ve found that such reassurance in this regard goes a long way. From the agency perspective though, they need to see outside expertise as a necessary component to their overall services to their client rather than a primary opportunity for markups – though there should always be some room for reasonable markups.

    Thanks for the post!

    Eric Holter
    CEO – Newfangled Web Factory
    http://www.newfangled.com

  • Alan Bleiweiss

    Patricia,

    Thanks for covering this critical topic.

    One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in over 12 years in the web business has been coordinating with in-house account managers and outside agencies. More often than not, no matter how much time I expend, how many white papers, marketing materials, SOP manuals, or training I do, the minute I’m out of sight, they end up botching the communication of my work.

    Now that my primary focus is SEO, Analytics and PPC management, it’s even more challenging. I’m grateful that one of the topics at least mentioned when to bring an SEM sub-contractor into the process. Usually, by the time I’m brought in, the in-house account manager or the outside agency does not have the willingness to admit to the client that they will need to completely re-write the copy on every single page on the 65 page web site based on my deep analysis recommendations.

    When this happens, I shake my head in wonder and have to go the extra mile to once again express my concern that this is a most inefficient method, and that it’s vital for me to be involved from the gate DURING the site specification process because of this and just as much because of the WOW preference mentality.

    I am just glad that long ago I got in the habit of putting my position in writing so that nobody can come back later and jump all over Alan for failing to get the right results. (One too many times a client said – “But nobody’s buying my products – they can’t even find me on the search engines…”

    Now, as a normal course of my work I provide my five page SEO white paper up front.

    Fortunately, I am truly grateful when somebody DOES get it. I truly love working with agencies where there is enough mutual respect that we all understand each has our own areas of expertise and together we’re a powerful team.

    Alan Bleiweiss
    SEO Consultant
    Senior Web Analytics Engineer
    WebSight Design, Inc.
    Sausalito, California

  • http://www.receptional.com Receptional

    I think that with PPC, Agencies and SEM experts can work well – it’s no problem to measure and the agency only really has to build a site that can deep link (though many of them fail in even that task).

    Organic is harder. Especially harder at the top levels because the best approach for organic is to have the expert look at all the internal systems and help those systems leverage search. This means that the expert should be looking beyond the remit that the agency may have been given and we have found that politics works best if you continually give credit to another department rather than claiming it as part of the “SEO Marketing channel”. Indeed – it is the idea of SEO as a marketing channel that seems to lead to eternal frustration by all parties.

    Dixon.

  • http://www.receptional.com Receptional

    I think that with PPC, Agencies and SEM experts can work well – it’s no problem to measure and the agency only really has to build a site that can deep link (though many of them fail in even that task).

    Organic is harder. Especially harder at the top levels because the best approach for organic is to have the expert look at all the internal systems and help those systems leverage search. This means that the expert should be looking beyond the remit that the agency may have been given and we have found that politics works best if you continually give credit to another department rather than claiming it as part of the “SEO Marketing channel”. Indeed – it is the idea of SEO as a marketing channel that seems to lead to eternal frustration by all parties.

    Dixon.

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