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It’s been a strange week for PPCAdBuying, my up-and-coming paid search consulting juggernaut. To be specific, I had several meetings with potential clients and I managed to persuade all of them that they should absolutely, positively . . . not hire me!

So how did this happen? Well, let me give you a little background on each of these potential clients and why I steered them away from hiring me. Client #1 is a hot young start-up poised for success. They’ve got great funders, a super-smart founding team, and a really interesting idea. Problem is, they’re a good six months to a year away from having a business model that will be profitable via paid search. So I told them to keep working and call me in a few months. Strike One.

Client #2 is a VC-funded company trying to break into a highly-competitive vertical. They’ve never been successful at paid search, but they wanted me to give it the old college try. In talking with the CEO, I explained that there were no guarantees in paid search; I’d do my best to set up a profitable campaign for them, but the first month would likely be unprofitable and I really wouldn’t know how we were doing until the second month. He didn’t like the sound of that and wanted me to basically guarantee I could get him to at least break-even immediately. That’s a promise I’m not willing to make. Strike Two.

Client #3 ran into trouble with Quality Score. Their entire campaign was basically rated a “1” on Quality Score, which means Google thinks you really, really, suck. Their current SEM agency had done extensive research trying to find out what the problem was, but nothing worked. So they wanted to hire me to spend 15 or 20 hours digging into the account and looking for the problem. In preparing a pitch to them, I reviewed a few things about their site and in about 20 minutes found what appeared to be the likely problem (in essence, they were blocking the Google AdBot from spidering their site!). Rather than submitting a proposal for 20 hours of work and then actually just doing 20 minutes of work, I sent them an email with the answer and saved them a lot of time and cost me a lot of money. Strike Three.

So why did I reject these clients? Is it because I am just that ethical and good-hearted? Well, sure, I try to be ethical, but that’s not the only reason. In each of these cases, taking the client on would have been penny-wise and pound-foolish. In case #1, I would have taken on a project set up for failure. The client would be unhappy with my work and they’d never hire me again. In case #2, the same would likely have occurred – even if I had done a bang-up job, if I didn’t turn straw into gold and make a previously unprofitable campaign profitable immediately, I would have been chastized by the CEO. And in case #3, I guess I could have twiddled my thumbs for 15 hours and collected a big paycheck, but that goes against my belief in the categorical imperative (there’s the ethical part of the story).

The bottom line is this: there are plenty of people who need SEM help. If you’ve got a few years of SEM under your belt, you should be able to build a decent SEM business. But part of building a business is building it with the right clients. The wrong clients result in extra work, extra stress, and take away time from the right clients. Here are a few rules of thumb I’ve learned over the past year about what makes a good client:

  1. They’re not jerks. Working with jerks is always more trouble than it is worth. Even if a jerk wants to pay you $250,000 a year for a few hours a month, it isn’t worth it. Read The No Asshole Rule if you don’t believe me.
  2. Their business has back-end economics that give you a fighting chance to succeed. If your client doesn’t have the same economic foundation as their competitors, you will lose the paid search battle. Part of your role as a consultant is to understand the market and assess whether paid search should even be a part of the marketing strategy.
  3. They have reasonable expectations. Understand the goals of your potential clients. Are they reasonable? It’s OK for a client to be aggressive about goals, but there is a difference between aggressiveness and fantasy. Make sure you and they understand it.
  4. They see paid search as part of the overall business strategy. Paid search does not exist in a vacuum. Landing page optimization, tracking, sales process, uptime and many other parts of a business all factor into paid search success. Make sure your clients are willing to talk to you about their entire business and how you can help improve it, not just whether the right keywords are being purchased.
  5. They’re open to change and constructive criticism. You need to be confident that you can build a relationship with a client that is build on trust. You both have the same objective – to grow their business – if you sense that there’s internal politics or too much “accepting credit and delegating blame,” reconsider whether this is the right engagement for you.
  6. They’ll get real value from working with you. Your clients should look at you as a “profit center” not a “cost center.” If they don’t wake up every day excited to hear about how much money they’ve made from their paid search campaigns, your relationship is not sustainable.

The final point I’ll make about consulting – in particular paid search consulting – is this: Its a small Valley. Though it seems like a new Internet company pops up every five seconds, in Silicon Valley you will continually run into the same people over and over again. Serial entrepreneurs start new companies, VCs invest in new firms, marketing managers transfer to new employers; burning bridges is a bad idea in the Internet world. Which is all the more reason to not take on clients that aren’t going to be overwhelmingly happy with your work. Even if it isn’t your fault that a PPC engagement didn’t work out, a bad client experience can come back to haunt you. So choose your clients wisely and happy rejecting!