David Ogilvy once said ‘clients get the advertising they deserve’.

Having been COO of a search agency for each of the last 10 years, I can tell you with some authority that Ogilvy’s quote is as true in the digital specialisms of SEO, PPC and Social Media as it is in the broader advertising discipline.

My opening quote is from Ogilvy’s seminal ‘Confessions of an advertising man’ within which he covered various examples, ‘confessions’, in support of that quote, so it is perhaps fitting that I illustrate the same but focusing on search advertising, with some of my own.

Confession #1: Your click through and conversion rates are far more important than my ability to get you rankings

I can secure a ranking in natural search for whatever search terms you’d like. If you have a sufficient budget, I have the resources, the ideas, the experience, and the sheer tenacity to give you the rankings of your dreams, and within a timeframe that most would consider impossible.

I can take a paid search campaign that you believe is already optimally operated and double your ROI and sales volume without breaking a sweat. I can get you 300,000 Facebook ‘likes’ faster than you ever thought physically possible.

However, whilst I can do this and make you visible to hundreds, thousands, millions of potential customers on search engine results pages and within social networks, it doesn’t mean potential consumers will click on your listing or engage with your brand, let alone part with their time and money.

I once pitched to a prospective client who had grand ambitions of using SEO and PPC to make a bold land grab for market share during the economic downturn.

I explained to them, in the pitch, that we’d be able to achieve the visibility they needed, within three to four months, but that my concern was that they lacked the brand awareness, amongst the populace, to convert that visibility into a sufficient number of paying customers.

Compounding this further, our initial research found that their inventory levels were worryingly low in the product areas that would drive the lion’s share of any new revenue.

Their response was enthusiastic, positive and very welcome indeed:  they had secured budget from their senior management to engage in brand building activities in TV, radio, display, and more.

They recognised their brand deficiencies and were willing to catalyse its amplification. They were less convinced about my concerns over inventory levels, even though I had spent four days compiling the substantiating data by querying their very own inventory feeds with some software that my team had built specifically for that task.

However, they agreed to conduct a further investigation internally and resolve any problems they found. 

I was excited, the brand building using other channels would mean that any rankings we achieved for them in natural search would enjoy a healthy, robust click through rate.

Our paid search would benefit from higher click through rates too and, therefore, a higher quality score that would reduce our CPA and increase our keyword scope. In addition, with the inventory issues fixed, we’d also be able to push a volume of product to accumulate some serious revenue volumes. We signed contracts and got stuck in, with gusto.

We built them half a million new pages, complete with unique and optimised content that added value to the human user experience. Furthermore, we provided search engines with a reason to like the client’s website for literally millions of search terms.

We extended our own proprietary technologies to prioritise keyword targets based on artificial intelligence and insight on keyword-level profitability. We did this in multiple languages and had the whole gambit live within eight weeks. We took the bull by the horns and built them something that they could take to the bank, or so we thought.

The client, however, never received that brand building budget, a combination of bad management, poor forward planning and an unhealthy dose of corporate politics meant they had mismanaged our expectations and neutered all our hard work.

Furthermore, the inventory issues were acknowledged and the deficiencies put into a production queue to resolve, but they never were.

We had delivered an SEO and PPC solution that was driving hundreds of thousands of daily visitors; even with the poor click through rate we had to work with we drove staggering volume.

The conversion rate, however, was far less forgiving – less than 0.01% of all visitors to the site parted with their money. This was 100 times less than the sector average. Unsatisfactory inventory levels and pricing that didn’t reflect the competitive landscape made the bottom line of the campaign a farce.

We resigned the account, one of only two accounts I have resigned in 10 years. The client got the search advertising results they deserved, however much brain power and sweat we invested and however ingenious our solutions might have been.

Ultimately, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.

Confession #2: Some of you have awful products and services, but we’re often loathe to tell you

I’m known as a pretty blunt marketer. I run my own agency so I have the freedom to say what’s on my mind at all times, and I use that freedom fairly liberally. This is a freedom that your own staff and, indeed, my own staff who work with you, typically do not enjoy.

The bearer of bad news, the proverbial ‘messenger’, gets routinely killed in action and thus represents a role that people don’t typically aspire to fill.

So most people are careful with what they say, often preferring to see something crash and burn than put themselves in the firing line to try and pre-empt a possible disaster.

I once pitched for the search account of a major FTSE 100 brand. The prospective client had allocated a monumental budget to promote a new product that they had just recently released. They were looking for a strategy to spend this money within natural and paid search.

In preparation for that pitch we ran some numbers and built a forecast based on some assumptions. The crux of our assumptions was that we did not believe that they would achieve a click through rate above 0.5% from the search engine medium – and therefore their targets were simply impossible to meet.

Essentially, some recent bad press over how they had dealt with a major issue with their new product, poor product ratings and reviews, and their pricing being 30% higher than their competitors, simply did not fill us with confidence.

They had a terrible product. As Lee Clow, the Chairman of TBWA once said –

 I’ve never found a client’s business problem that could be solved solely through advertising

I think client-side marketers should print that quote out on a 50×5 canvas, put it across the most visible wall in their offices and chant it aloud, as a group, every morning. It would noticeably increase our national GDP within a few months.

So, I boarded a cross country train, armed with my research and plans. I raised my concerns early and forcefully but in a professional and constructive fashion. The Marketing Director became visibly annoyed –

I need you to look at those numbers again Andreas – I think you’re forgetting who we are here. We’re a household name and have been for years

Being my own worst enemy my initial response was to say that Betamax was also once a household name, and it might have remained so if they’d heeded the warnings of those who were most candidly advising them.

Ultimately, I said that I would stand by those numbers until they were proven otherwise empirically, and that I’d be happy to take responsibility and, indeed, without remuneration, for running that research.

I suggested we take a small portion of their budget and put it into a paid search campaign to see what the CTR and CVR looked like and, from there, we could then decide how best to proceed.

I suggested that, if our assumptions proved correct, that we should look at possibly undertaking some research to identify, from the social media sphere, how the product could be improved. We could then use the remaining money to promote the other products in the range, which were all incredibly well received by consumers.

They declined the approach and we failed to secure the account. It was awarded to an agency that told the Marketing Director everything he wanted to hear, took his budget, and subsequently squandered it rapidly and dramatically.

The product failed within three months, heads rolled like I had not seen before, or since. If the Marketing Director had listened to me we would at least have had a fighting chance of making that product a success, but only if they were willing to reflect honestly about their product.

If not, then engaging my agency to deliver great advertising would have been the worst of all eventualities, as Jerry Della Famina once said –

There is a great deal of advertising that is much better than the product. When that happens, all that good advertising will do is put you out of business faster.

I met him again years later, (the Marketing Director, not Della Famina), and he acknowledged that he should have backed our approach. However, the politics and pressures of the role meant that what I was telling him wasn’t something he could take to his board, what with the deadlines and targets they had given him.

Regardless of the reasons, they got the results they deserved, and you’d be surprised by just how often this actually happens.

In this instance they had someone to tell them their product was terrible. In most cases client-side marketers don’t have that luxury but you can, at least, create an environment of honesty so that people feel comfortable sharing their concerns with you.

Confession #3: Bullying clients always receive substandard service

I’d love to say that we service every client to the best of our abilities, assigning the best brains to each and burn the midnight oil for every single one. We aspire to that ideal of course, and have created processes and codes of conduct in an attempt to formalise that desire.

However, in truth, I know that when a client treats us badly we don’t produce our best work. Instead we will typically go on the defensive, thinking of the account in terms of short term battles to appease the rude or bullying client, as opposed to thinking of the big picture and allocating resources and ideas in an enthusiastic, contemplative and strategic fashion.

We had a client back in the early days of the agency – a client whose company no longer exists in the same form as it did then, a client that was an absolute nightmare to work for.

The Marketing Director would routinely call us into meetings and beat his own staff into submission in front of us, shouting, screaming and essentially using the meeting as a platform to show everyone who was the boss.

Every idea, perspective, and contention from us, or his staff, would be interrupted mid-sentence, misunderstood and manoeuvred to a soul destroying smack down.

However, this Marketing Director would treat me incredibly cordially and with, ironically, more respect than any of my other clients at that time. Viewing me as someone at a more equal level of seniority as him, he would let down the defences and be a reasonable human being.

His fallacy here, of course, was that as a business owner my allegiance first and foremost is to my staff, then to my client, and then to myself and the rest of the board.

The reason for this is that happy and productive staff is a prerequisite to having happy and productive clients – it simply doesn’t work the other way around.

This doesn’t mean that I will side with my staff if they are wrong, or not be critical of what they might say or do, it means that I acknowledge that it is my staff that deliver great work and they need an environment conducive to producing it.

In essence they must want to make a client happy for their work to really come into its own and result in happiness and productivity for the actual client. Morris Hite once said ‘no agency is better than its account executives’, and that’s why they are so important to me.

Treat me badly if you like, I have skin as thick as rhino hide, but treat my people with respect and they’ll swing for the fences for you every time.

Do the contrary and you will, once again, get the results you deserve. This was only the second time I have ever resigned a client and I’ve never regretted that decision one iota.

The three client-side prerequisites to achieving great results

The above confessions unveil anecdotally what I believe are the three prerequisites that must be satisfied to deliver a successful search campaign and, perhaps, any advertising campaign, regardless of medium.

  • You need the services of a competent agency which can bring the experience, strategic insight and resources to move quickly and proficiently towards your goals.
  • As a client you need to be honest about your limitations; the utility of your product, your budgets, your internal resources and your financial and political challenges. Only then is the strategy employed likely to work.
  • A relationship that is based on respect and not fear is paramount – people do their best work when they want to, not when they are coerced.

All these prerequisites are satisfied by the client, not the agency. The client selects an agency, communicates to the agency what they are working with, and defines the civility of the relationship.

But once the client has satisfied these criteria, practically everything else is down to the agency.