Confession: I’ve been writing this blog post since April, 2012. I’ve truly hesitated to publicly say these words. I lost my biggest client, that I had for 6 years this year. I made this client wildly successful to the tune of many millions of dollars a year in revenues attributable from natural and paid search. I lost that client because they got fed up with dealing with multiple agencies for Branding, Print, TV, Display, Web Design, Digital Creative, Web Development, E-mail, SEO and PPC. I’ve also lost another client that is a major national brand to the Digital Agency of Record model in the last week. 2012 has been the year of getting our butt kicked by the Bundled Services Agency of Record model for big brand clients. In both situations the direct contacts we worked with were completely against our elimination from their accounts, but their superiors forced them to let us go. I’m not a sour-grapes kind of guy and I wanted to make sure my emotions weren’t clouding my judgement if I put this out for the world to see. Time and sore feelings are put aside and this is how I see the situation.
One Throat To Choke
The “One Throat to Choke” philosophy seems to be born (at least from what I can see online) from debate in the IT industry. The philosophy suggests that you get all your technology and vendor support from or through a single vendor so that you have one vendor to appeal to when you have issues. When something goes wrong you supposedly have “one throat to choke” to resolve the problem.
With the advent of the digital age, there are apparently 3 models mostly being employed by marketers with their agencies:
The first model is one in which a client selects one lead entity — at either the holding company or agency level — and grants it the power to oversee all marketing efforts and partners. The second model is one in which the client itself assumes that leadership role. And the third model is one in which a client hires a slew of agencies and tells them to go collaborate.
I’ve been in situations with the third model, where the multiple vendors are told to collaborate and somehow make it all work out. That doesn’t work at all. Everyone has their own competing interests (usually not based on data or in the client’s interest). It is the equivalent of a confederate government of independent states – chances of consensus are hard to come by.
The other two methods at least have a central leader, be it an agency or marketing manager. Success or failure depends on that Central leader to ensure that work gets done in the most optimal way.
It’s About the Money. Not the Client or Result.
The big budgets in marketing are still for the Creative/Branding/Mass Media parts of the marketing mix. For large companies, search is often just the afterthought in the grand marketing mix. Even on the digital side of the marketing mix the Web Design and Development costs are the biggest piece of the budget pie. So by bundling services into a “one throat to choke,” companies or digital agencies of record are often hoping to achieve significant cost savings as well as putting accountability under one roof. My personal opinion is that it’s the cost savings more than the accountability that makes this model appealing.
Here’s the problem with this strategy when it comes to Search: Top talent in older traditional advertising mediums is easy to come by, so is design and development, and to a certain extent, Display Ad buying is more than adequate in the large agencies. The same is not true in Search Engine Optimization and Pay Per Click Advertising, and it’s honestly an afterthought thrown in to complete the marketing mix.
If these agencies were truly “digital-focused” and were seriously looking at search it would be transforming them at a faster rate and search / web analytics would be leading the strategy, instead the high billable service offerings like creative and traditional mass media drive the marketing and everything else in the marketing mix takes direction from it.
We’ve worked with some of the largest digital creative agencies in the world and they all had the same thing in common: A fundamental belief that Creativity takes precedence over results. Website after website, we’ve seen them ignore and shun data that didn’t mesh with their creative vision – despite the fact that their design and development creativity often kept their clients’ web pages from even being found by search engines.
Designers have their portfolio of pretty pictures to show potential new clients as their priority and have continually put that interest ahead of what makes the client money.
The Biggest Sins
– Ignoring how search engines look at web pages and only focusing on the users
– Budgeting to what makes them the most in management fees, instead of what gets the client the biggest return on investment.
-Ignoring Web Analytics and Customer Data in favor of the “Big Creative Idea” or Ego.
-Failing to recognize the value of search in being the media that “closes deals.”
-“Cowboying” off without even consulting their search team on digital content and strategy. Oftentimes search is completely left out of the major discussions.
-Failing to hire and retain top talent in Search Marketing (When it comes to search “Good Enough” is the best they can do).
Why Would Top Search Talent Ever Work For These Guys?
Finding top talent in search marketing is hard. Training time is extensive. Experienced help is hard to come by. The best talent in search is doing the work in their own search agencies or they are doing it in-house working directly for companies. There are financial incentives that make it more lucrative to go this path versus working for the big all-inclusive Ad Agencies.
Even if big agencies were willing to pay to get top talent, top talent likes to get things done and accomplish things. Because the model favors the big creative and traditional media (due to the large sums of money they bring in) search is still an afterthought. Any Search Engine Marketer worth their salt wants an equal seat at the table when it comes to planning strategy and digital strategy. Being ignored isn’t something top talent in search is going to put up with.
Search engine marketers can’t be handcuffed by the ill-thought strategies and websites that the big money creatives hand down to them to “make it work.” I still see disastrous ideas, like cool-looking Parallax design websites and the completely unindexable flashy site content employed everyday from digital agencies that also offer SEO in addition to design, development and creative. Often the strategies and “branding messages” these agencies come up with are completely the opposite of what search data, web analytics and customer data says. Search Marketers live by this kind of data and depend on it to be successful. But frequently that kind of data is the last thing that the creatives at these large agencies ever consult or even comprehend.
The age of marketing with analytics data as part of the mix is here, but the “Big Idea” seems to usually trump what the customers are actually looking for. Any self-respecting search marketer would have to get sick of being put in bad situations that easily could have been avoided had they been consulted and listened to.
The Pendulum Will Swing – HARD
In 2012, I’ve gotten my butt kicked by this model. But, as ad Dollars shift away from traditional media to digital media, it’s only a matter of time until the digital strategy starts dictating to the traditional media strategy. Agencies are being forced at the demand of their clients to re-allocate and start justifying the expense on every form of media. Large ad agencies honestly seem a little like deer in the headlights right now. They know the shift is coming, but they don’t know how to handle it. I keep getting brought into clean up the SEO messes that these super-large digital agencies create – often the answer is to completely start over again from scratch, because the websites are designed in a way that just can’t be patched from an SEO perspective.
I fully expect that they will not be able to “Hire” their way out of this shift. They are going to have to buy best of breed Search Marketing Agencies and rely on those agencies to transform the old model into the new one. Internal revolutions will have to take place within agencies to turn them upside down and bring them up to speed. It won’t be easy, but it will have to be done.
At some point, survival of the digitally fittest will have its way on the businesses that don’t use the best tactics and strategies. Being “big” won’t be enough. More nimble and digitally savvy competitors will beat them, and they will do it with the best of breed digital marketers.