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The Advertiser’s Bill of Rights

My monthly paid search column at SearchEngineLand in case you missed it:

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 the advertiser’s 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 be pretty-well 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?

Comments
9 Responses to “The Advertiser’s Bill of Rights”
  1. Hi George,

    I would argue that #3 is not always in the advertiser’s best interests. Being able to count on the value of the contract over time is what lets many service firms in many industries invest *ahead of time* in order to staff positions that will be used for other clients at a future date.

    More than anything, this post underscores the extent to which the Forresters, ClickZ’s, Gartners and SELand’s of the world have been horribly incapable of providing accurate, meaningful & up-to-date ratings on SEM firms. Collectively, they appear to be several years behind the curve.

  2. Chris, thanks for your comments. I certainly agree that staffing considerations matter, and that agencies invest far beyond their revenues for the first few months of a new account to build/re-build the proper foundation for success. I’m not opposed to having a tiered “out” clause that lets the out drop from something longer to something more reasonable after 6 months or whatever. Our MSA at RKG has a 15 day out, and we seem to be doing fine without that caveat :-)

    Everyone in the industry thinks the various ratings of “top agencies” are a joke, oftentimes listing the worst-offenders at or near the top. Not clear how those folks have stayed in the dark for so long.

  3. George, Great stuff. It is amazing to me that everyone can’t agree to live by these rules.

  4. I most agree with #2 George. I had this problem when my team, in-house, took over the account from an outsourced SEM company. We can’t get hold of the Google Analytics account associated with the Adwords account. The transition was a big hurdle.

  5. Tomas says:

    Hi George,

    Although an advertiser should not hire someone to manage their search agency, it is in their own best interest to have someone internally who can liaise with their search partner on a knowledgeable level in order to streamline all the advertiser’s marketing channels. We experience all too often that without such a person, search (and other digital advertising) is all too often an ‘oversight’ for many marketing departments.
    So I agree there shouldn’t be a dedicated person to manage the search agency, but there should be a dedicated person to coordinate all (digital) advertising.

  6. Pablo, Jun, thanks for your comments and for sharing your experiences.

    Tomas, you’re right, certainly. The best relationships require active participation from both sides. The feedback we get on inventory, new product offerings, promotions, etc is incredibly valuable. My point was simply that an advertiser shouldn’t have to bark at their agency to get them to pay attention to the account.

  7. Tim says:

    I was on the fence with #3 as well, for reasons pointed out by Chris above. George, I am very satisfied with your response. Thanks for clearing that up!

  8. Thanks for stopping by, Tim. Glad to have you on board!

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