Considering An SEM Agency? How To Separate The Wheat From The Chaff

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Over the last month, I’ve had two clients send me email pitches from other agencies trying to “poach” business away from us.

The two pitches were from different agencies, but the message was the same: something is ominously, terribly wrong with the way your current agency is managing your account!

Here’s the pitch from the first agency:

“I’ve been doing research on your AdWords account and have come across a number of problems running live. These include but are not limited to:

  • Serving untargeted ads
  • Serving ads on irrelevant queries
  • Extremely poor page rank (not showing up on the first or second SERP)
  • Not serving ads on high volume, highly relative queries
  • Weak branded campaign
  • Lack of free ad extensions / site links etc.

As you’re well aware, these are all cyclical in nature and are more detrimental to your accounts health the longer they run, not to mention hindering your ROI.

And here’s a snippet from the second high-pressure sales agency:

“The bottom line, your current agency is not doing all that great of a job and it is definitely affecting performance of your account. I cannot tell you how bad those affects are without auditing your actual account.”

You’ll notice a common theme in both of these emails: allegations of vague-but-scary-sounding problems that are intended to create doubt, without any actual evidence of problems (e.g., “I cannot tell you how bad those affects are without auditing your actual account.”)

As one of my clients noted in an email to me: “Thought you might like to see how your competitors are cold calling. I like the tactic of telling us what we’re doing sucks. They must have a lot of clients with poor self-esteem.

So how do you really know which SEM agencies are awesome and which ones aren’t? Here are some general guidelines to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

Good SEM Agencies Sell Their Strengths

Bad Agencies Point Out Others’ Weaknesses

If an agency doesn’t start their pitch by telling you why they are great and instead tries to convince you that someone else (usually your existing agency) is bad, don’t walk away from that firm. Run. See above!

Good Agencies Have a Process for SEM Management

Bad Agencies Vary by Account Manager

Here’s a simple way to judge two agencies: ask each of them to let you talk to two or more of their account managers (AM) – in rapid succession.

Ask each AM one question: what is your process for executing SEM campaigns? If you hear the same thing from each AM, you’ve found a good agency.

If each one of them has a totally different approach and perspective, the agency is not really an agency at all; it’s just a bunch of people working in the same building on the same payroll system.

In other words, a good agency should operate like a good brand – you choose them because you expect a certain way of doing things that you expect to drive superior results.

Imagine, for example, if every McDonald’s restaurant had their own process and recipe for Big Macs – every time you went into a McDonald’s, your happiness would be at the whim of that shift’s cook!

And yet, many advertisers are OK with hiring an agency that operates in this fashion – hiring lots of smart people but not training these people in a consistent way that drives consistent results.

Good SEM Agencies are Transparent

Bad Agencies Hide Results

SEM is all about the numbers. Reputable agencies want their clients to know every relevant metric about their business and results.

This means building processes for client communication (such as using a project management tool like Basecamp), making it clear who in the agency is responsible for the client’s success, and giving full access to AdWords, analytics accounts, and any other reporting data.

Bad agencies do their best to separate clients from their data. One of the biggest warning signs that a potential agency is a bad apple is a request by the agency to ‘run your campaigns in our AdWords account.’

This usually means that a) the agency intends to share as little data as possible with you and b) if you ever want to leave the agency, you’ll have to start an entirely new account and lose all of your account history (which has a negative impact on your Quality Score and also makes it difficult to glean historical learnings).

Note: an agency request to add your account to their My Client Center (MCC) is different from a request to run your campaigns in the agency account. In the first case, the account is always under your control and is just being managed by the agency; in the second, the account is controlled by the agency.

Good SEM Agencies Keep Business Based on Results

Bad Agencies Keep Business Based on Contracts

Did I mention that SEM is a numbers game? Good agencies want you to keep using them because they are meeting or exceeding your business metrics.

From a contractual perspective, this means that the agencies are either a) compensated on a performance-based model, earning variable compensation based on the amount of profit they make your business, or b) include a very liberal “termination” or “out clause” in their contracts, enabling you to walk away from the deal if you feel the agency is under-delivering or has over-promised.

Bad agencies, as you might expect, try to force you into very long contracts with little accountability. I heard of one agency that asked clients to sign three-year contracts with no right of termination! That’s a sure sign that the agency’s incentives are not aligned with the clients’ incentives.

Good SEM Agencies Have A Sweet Spot

Bad Agencies Are All Things to All People

The adage “A jack of all trades is a master of none” is well-suited to SEM agencies. A good agency differentiates itself in two primary ways: a) by the types of marketing services they offer and b) by the size/type of client they accept.

For example, an agency that just focuses on SEM or just focuses on online direct-response marketing is going to provide you with much better SEM results than an agency that claims they can handle online, out of home, TV, and PR. Think of an agency like a doctor: if you knew you had a heart problem, would you rather see a cardiologist or general practitioner?

Similarly, good agencies focus on a particular type of client, rather than trying to service any client that comes along. For some agencies, this means focusing on a particular vertical; for others, it means focusing on a certain amount of SEM budget.

The budget range of an agency is actually a lot more important than people think and is worth discussing further. Assume you work with a company that spends $50K/month on SEM and you are considering three agencies – one that mainly has clients spending under $500/mo, another that has clients spending between $25K-$100K, and another that mainly deals with clients spending more than $1M/mo.

The $500/mo agency is used to assigning 20 clients to each AM, which means that you are unlikely to get the service your account merits. Similarly, the $1M/mo+ agency regards you as a small fish in a big pond – one that will always play second fiddle to their key accounts.

While this is certainly not the only relevant factor in considering an agency, hopefully you can see why this is a factor that should not be taken lightly!

Good Agencies Make You Feel Like Family

Bad Agencies Make You Want to Hide Your Daughter

My last point is basically about trust. A good agency tries to build partnerships with clients and tries to align incentives so that everyone wins or loses together.

An agency should be considered a friend and ally of your company. This should be apparent in the sales pitch, the kick-off and after years of working with the agency. Good agencies are built for long-term relationships instead of short-term profit.

Bad agencies make you feel dirty. They use high-pressure, deceptive sales to get you “in the door,” do their darnedest to hide results, lock you in to unfair contracts, and build adversarial relationships between account managers and marketers.

If the golden rule for life is “do unto others as you would have done unto you,” perhaps the golden rule for agencies should be “would I want to sit next to an agency’s sales rep or AM on a cross-country flight?” If you aren’t genuinely excited about this prospect, you have chosen – or are about to choose – the wrong agency!

Those are just my top tips. There are many other ways to evaluate SEM agencies that make a lot of sense (asking for references, asking to speak to your account manager before signing a contract, looking up their clients’ results in the SERPs), but for the sake of brevity, I won’t detail all of them here.

The truth is that there are a lot of awesome SEM agencies out there, but there are also an increasing number of boiler-room sales shops masquerading as legitimate SEMs that are more than willing to sacrifice your results for their bottom line. I hope this article helps you differentiate between the two!

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 founder and CEO of 3Q Digital (formerly PPC Associates), a position he has held since the Company's inception in 2008. Prior to 3Q Digital, he held senior marketing roles at several Internet companies, including (2000-2001), FindLaw (2001-2004), Adteractive (2004-2006), and Mercantila (2007-2008). David currently serves on advisory boards for several companies, including Marin Software, MediaBoost, Mediacause, and a stealth travel start-up.

Connect with the author via: Email | Twitter | Google+ | LinkedIn


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  • George Michie

    David, we’ve always argued that the ultimate indicator of agency quality is the existence of deeply knowledgeable, smart, long-standing clients who are happy. Every agency can point to happy clients, but in many cases happiness is produced by ignorance not excellence. If the sharp clients like an agency the agency has to be doing good work.

  • Mike Campolattano

    Great article I totally agree that selling your strengths is far more productive than saying whats wrong with a competitor. I always say “If we tell a better story for our clients and thoughtfully approach each metric our family will win”

  • David Rodnitzky

    Agreed George! One of my favorite quotes: “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king!”

  • David Rodnitzky

    Thanks Mike. I just find that the weak agencies are the ones that have nothing to sell other than criticism of others. It is easy to conflate the notion that your current agency is not doing well vs. your current agency could do something better. Weak agencies prey on in-house teams by trying to confuse these two concepts.

  • robthespy

    Nice one, David!

    About five years ago a ling-time client of ours forwarded me one of those ridiculous emails. With it was a note asking “…is this true?”

    That was a wake up call for me! We were doing a good job managing our customer accounts but a horrible job communicating with our customers.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Just keep in mind that there will *always* be something a snake oil salesman can use against you. If you were Michael Jordan, the snake oil salesman would try to convince the bulls to trade you because you had a weak left-hand dribble!

  • David Rodnitzky

    I agree, Steve, it’s sad. Hopefully there is some “economic darwinism” that eventually crushes scum agencies over time, since they can’t actually provide results!

  • Kerstin Recker

    David we couldn’t agree more and your comment was spot on. If you have the right tools that are effective than there is no need for an external agency to harp on the negative aspects of competitor while using those to “scare” clients into working with you. A good agency focuses their efforts on their strengths and stands firmly behind the positive aspects of their service.

  • David Rodnitzky

    Thanks Kerstin. Ultimately, I comfort myself by concluding that clients that fall victim to these agencies are probably not a good fit for a good agency (like yours or mine) anyway!

  • LeandroMunhozMoreira

    Good afternoon!

    I have a small agency in Sorocaba, São Paulo (Brazil).

    Loved your article and as I’m starting the SEM business, I prefer to start right! Really want to become a “specialist in heart” because I’ve seen any adventurer in the market that was up to prescribe to make that choice (focus on SEM).

    Big hug and Success!


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