Why The Days of "White Labeling" Are Over

By Janet Driscoll Miller | May 8, 2009
More Articles by Janet

A few years back, I used to give a talk at Search Engine Strategies about partnering with ad agencies and why it may be a great channel for SEM agencies. Over the years, Search Mojo has worked with several different partners, and one of the discussions that often arises is the desire by some agencies to have Search Mojo “white label” our services.

White LabelWhite labeling, in the ad agency world, involves the a vendor or consultant appearing as the ad agency’s representatives, as if the vendor has put a “white label” over his own brand. In the past, white labeling was a fantastic way for an ad agency to appear to have a wider offering and more employees through the use of vendors. Agencies were able to offer a wider breadth of services while still appearing to be one cohesive company.

However, the dawn of transparency may bring the end of the white label approach.

Challenge 1: Search Engines

It began with the search engines and personal branding. As consultants and industry experts build their personal brands over time, through blogging, articles, or public speaking, they are more likely to have more content in the search engines either that they have themselves written or has been written about them. Take Rand Fishkin at SEOmoz for example. Rand has a fairly unique name — likely more unique than Danny Sullivan even outside of the SEO world. A search for “Rand Fishkin” in Google yields 65,900 results and readily displays Rand as an SEO expert and CEO of SEOmoz. If Rand were being white labeled under an agency, one quick Google search would expose that he actually runs an SEO comany that is not part of a larger ad agency.

Challenge 2: Social Networking

Then came the advent of social networking. As sites like LinkedIn and Facebook grow in popularity and usage, the more common it is for business colleagues to freely connect. All businesses want to build their brand identity, and Facebook and LinkedIn are just two more tools to accomplish that goal.

But what happens when an SEM firm is white labeled under an ad agency? There’s no way to hide your profile from certain searchers — nor should you be asked to. This scenario actually happened to me a few years back when a client, through no prompting from me, searched my name on LinkedIn and found out my actual background wasn’t part of the larger ad agency.

Challenge 3: Twitter

And now Twitter makes it even more difficult to white label. Twitter simply extends a personal brand even further as subject matter experts post news, blog post announcements, and more.

The Answer: Transparency

So what can ad agencies do to combat these challenges to white labeling? Shift thinking and embrace transparency.

Stop worrying so much! Ad agencies fear that clients will not want to work with various vendors, even if they are unified under a single point of contact or account manager. But I’ve seen a shift happening in marketing of late. Clients have tried the “one big agency” approach, and many have found that one big agency to do all types of marketing isn’t always the best answer for them. They readily embrace a combination of “best in breed” organizations who come together to achieve top results.

A great analogy I heard from a colleague the other day compared the “best in breed” approach to a accomplished runner in a triathlon. If a runner participates in a triathlon, you would expect the runner to do well in the running portion of the triathlon. But will can the runner do just as good of a job in the swimming and biking portions as an accomplished swimmer or cyclist might?

The same holds true for agency partnering. Bring the best in breed partners together. Instead of trying to accomplish the entire triathlon yourself, use the relay approach, where the strongest runner does the running, the strongest swimmer does the swimming and the strongest cyclist does the biking. It makes for an overall stronger team with better results in the end.

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