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The relationship between a client and an SEM agency generally falls into two categories: partnership or servitude. These definitions are pretty self-explanatory, but I’ll go ahead and further describe them.
A partnership relationship is one where the client and agency consider themselves to be equals. Each is equally enthusiastic about driving success, each brings great ideas to the table, and each respects the work of the other. Of course, the client always has the final say on how much budget gets spend, whether landing pages get built, and what the ROAS/CPA targets are, but the agency is asked for input into all of these, and the agency’s opinion is given great weight.
A servitude relationship is one where the client considers him/herself superior to the agency. The job of the agency is to do whatever the client wants. The agency’s opinion is not necessary unless it is requested by the client. The agency’s role is to wait for instructions from the client, and to report results. In many servitude relationships, tactical activities – like keyword creation and ad text – are done by the client – the agency’s job is to simply implement the client’s work.
Most client-agency relationships are a hybrid of partnership and servitude. In even the best partnership relationship, there will be times when the client has to treat the agency like a servant (for example, in a period of crisis, like a server outage or a public relations disaster). And most servitude relationships are not so Draconian that the agency has no latitude at all for independent thinking or creativity.
At PPC Associates, we work hard to develop partnership relationships with clients, and we also tend to reject clients we think are going to want servitude relationships (one of our underlying principles is that we “don’t work with jerks”, and anyone who wants to treat us like servants is a jerk in my mind!). But this is the type of agency we’ve decided to create: we hire very senior online marketing pros, we charge clients more money than many smaller agencies, and we offer lots of value-added services like landing page design and attribution analysis. Any potential client that wanted us to just do what he said would be wasting his money!
There is a role for the servitude model, and I think it exists at the very top and the very bottom of the food chain. For example, I’ve heard (anecdotally) that there are large financial institutions that have so many legal, trademark, and regulatory restrictions to internalize that their outside SEM agency can do nothing more than act as an order-taker for the internal SEM team. Similarly, for small businesses (SMBs) spending a few thousand dollars a month on SEM, it’s unrealistic to expect an agency to give you a lot of proactive strategy. The best use of an SMB agency is generally going to be execution of specific tactical requests.
If you are considering hiring an agency, understanding the difference between a partner and a servant is a good first step to helping you decide what agency will be right for you. If you want a partner, please consider PPC Associates. If you want a servant, we’re always happy to recommend our competition!
– David Rodnitzky, CEO