Time To Rally For An Advertiser’s Bill of Rights

In the US our most basic rights as citizens are codified in the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to our Constitution. James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, actually opposed adding this Bill of Rights. Madison believed that the Constitution itself made it clear that the government lacked the power to abuse its citizenry, and that the Bill of Rights was therefore unnecessary.

200 years of history suggests that having an enumerated list of rights was probably a good idea.

In a similar vein, 10+ years experience in online advertising suggests to me a need for an Advertiser’s Bill of Rights. Too often we encounter horror stories of abuse suffered by advertisers at the hands of the agency charged with managing their paid search efforts. This space has been the Wild West for too long. Advertisers have been misled, mistreated and overcharged; the standards of service must improve lest all firms — good, bad and indifferent — be tarred with the same brush.

The Paid Search Advertiser’s Bill Of Rights

We, the third party managers of paid search programs, hereby promise to abide by the following expectations for transparency, service, and contractual understandings with our client advertisers.

The advertiser shall have the right:

  1. To access any and all data associated with their account. This includes impression, click and cost data from the engines at the most granular level as well as any and all post click behavior tracked by the management firm;
  2. To access their accounts with the search engines. Ideally, the advertiser should own their accounts so that transition to another management firm does not involve loss of Quality Score history. When ownership is maintained by the management firm unlimited access to those accounts must be granted to the advertiser.
  3. To be free to leave with reasonable notice. Absent extraordinary circumstances, an advertiser should be able to part company with their management firm with 30 days notice or less. The management firm is entitle to compensation for the extra work associated with starting a new account but for long-standing relationships 60 or 90 day notice is absurd.
  4. To be charged reasonable fees. A management firm is entitled to fair compensation for their work, and the advertiser is entitled to service levels commensurate with their fees. Fees should not be based on sales driven by other channels (brand sales, broken attribution systems), nor should fees scale without limit at the holidays;
  5. To revealing reports. All performance reports should separate brand/trademark search performance from non-brand/competitive keyword performance. Keyword level data should be provided over requested time periods for any and all keywords in the account. Truncated “top keyword” performance reports should be the top spending keywords, not the top selling keywords.
  6. To be told the truth. Management firms will not knowingly spread misinformation under any circumstance. They shall provide data to back up any dubious claims about the the buying cycle, the display to paid search spillover, etc.
  7. To responsible promises. Management firms shall not promise massive improvements to a prospect’s paid search program without seeing data from their existing program. They shall not promise massive improvements if the data suggests limited opportunities for improvement.
  8. To attentive management. An advertiser should not have to hire someone to manage their paid search agency. The point of hiring an outside manager is to outsource management. This implies proactive attention to the account, and — minimally — demands prompt responsiveness to requests, commensurate with the management fees paid.
  9. To a clear understanding of a manager’s capabilities. An advertiser has a right to a solid, accurate understanding of the capabilities of an outside management firm. Whether this is an issue of managing huge keyword lists, bidding frequency, algorithmic sophistication or reporting capabilities, transparency should be the rule;
  10. To a clear understanding of the agency’s business model. Are the account reps commissioned based on the amount of advertising they sell to their clients? If so, they may be working as much for the engines as they are for their clients. What is their client retention rate? What is their analyst retention rate? Just as a real estate buyer must be told that “their” agent is actually paid by the seller, advertisers have a right to understand whether the agency is providing marketing services to them, or simply selling advertising on behalf of the publishers.

Brad Geddes wrote a terrific post a few weeks back on the challenges faced by aggregators — those who manage hundreds or thousands of tiny accounts — as distinct from traditional large-account agencies. Granted, #1, #2, and #5 might prove legitimately problematic for those folks.

But I’m not really aiming at that part of the industry. The most grievous offenders of advertiser’s rights are often the largest players in the space, not the smallest.

One could also object that this is a case of “buyer beware.” If advertisers get fleeced, it’s their own fault.

I don’t agree. Each time an agency behaves recklessly and under-delivers on promises we are all tainted. Mature service industries don’t behave this way. When you hire a law firm you can pretty-well be assured that they are licensed to practice, that they are competent, and that they are working for you. Same with an accounting firm. We have enough experience under our belts at this point that ‘ignorance’ of how the channel works can no longer be a valid excuse.

Are there other rights that should be added? Are there problems with some of the ones I’ve listed? Will you and your firm support this initiative?

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

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Paid Search Column


About The Author: is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Scientist of RKG, a technology and service leader in paid search, SEO, performance display, social media, and the science of online marketing. He also writes for the RKG Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @georgemichie1.

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  • http://www.searchwarrant.ca bogrady

    Great column – I couldn’t agree more. The amount of snake oil sloshing around in this market makes it harder for all of us to deliver good service to justifiably jaded and cynical customers. Is your column inspired by Harvard’s Ben Edelman and his proposed advertiser’s bill of rights? It was covered here in SearchEngineLand by Matt McGee, Sept 21, 2009: http://searchengineland.com/harvards-edelman-proposes-a-bill-of-rights-for-online-advertisers-26212
    All the best,

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Brian, I don’t remember seeing that piece and if I did see it I certainly would have given credit to prof Edelman for the phrasing though neither of us could claim any terrific novelty in the notion.

    I do have a sense that each discipline within online marketing should have its own list with appropriate specifics. Certainly the SEO community could develop a list centered around understanding methodology and practices employed; the display folks could include notions of testing to measure incremental lists, etc.

    Glad to have you on board, though I suspect you’ve been on board all along. As with many of these rants, it may resonate most with the folks who need to hear it the least!

  • Andrew Goodman

    Fair enough, especially around account transparency and telling the truth. You’re right — it will resonate most with the folks who need to hear it the least…

    On the other hand, isn’t throwing (more) mud at other agencies just a way of getting clients? You’re actually contributing to agencies “being tarred with the same brush”.

    Although we happen to follow 90%+ of your bill of rights, there are plenty of business models out there that diverge from it somewhat — whether that be on price, account ownership, or letting someone I don’t know very well reverse-engineer my business model. In some sense these are individual decisions and the market is free to advocate for different models.

    Much of the list isn’t about “rights” at all. It’s about price. You are essentially negotiating (in reverse, on behalf of other agencies) fair prices and terms for top quality work that often drives the best ROI of any channel going. Yes, there are some bad apples… but once again, I can’t quite see the logic of you standing out here and negotiating for lower prices and a one-way approach to transparency. At the in-house panels at SES, some clients joke that outsourcing to an agency is “out-house-ing”. Ha ha! Might be nice to hear a bit more respect for the concept in general. Solidarity, brother!

  • http://www.rimmkaufman.com George Michie

    Andrew, I’m certainly not claiming that RKG is the only reputable agency out there; there are many, of course. And, it’s true that there is more than one pricing model that can make sense. “Fairness” has different definitions to different people.

    That said, I’m absolutely trying to draw a bright line distinction between Marketing Service firms, and Advertising Brokerages. Perhaps it shouldn’t be framed as the former is good and the latter is bad, as much as: advertisers should know which one they’re hiring.

    The fact that bad actors are prevalent in our space has already tarred us all in the eyes of many, as your SES anecdote shows. I’m hoping to shine a spotlight on those agencies that really do work for their client’s best interests in a competent fashion so advertisers recognize that we aren’t all the same. I would like to see those firms bury the bad actors in the space. Yes, that would help my firm and yours financially, but it would also help advertisers and third party marketing vendors in general rehabilitate their reputations.


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