Is Your Search Agency a Partner or a Vendor?

By Tom Kuthy, VP, Strategic Partnerships

Most agencies talk about “partnering” with their clients but what does that really mean? Having worked 14 years on the client side, and 10 years in various agency roles, I have seen this relationship from many vantage points and come up with a list of three key “tests” to determine if an agency is acting like a partner or a vendor:

  1. Proactive versus Reactive: In any client/agency relationship, the agent serves at the pleasure of the client, and is ultimately bound to do what the client wants. However, that does not mean that the agent should wait around for the client to tell the agent what to do and then meekly go do it. A good agency should be anticipating the client’s business needs and proactively recommending actions that will improve the client’s business. If an agency simply waits for instruction form the client, they cannot claim to be a true business partner, because they are acting more like an order-taking vendor.
  2. Strategic versus Tactical: In search marketing, it is easy to find tactical people who can run bid management tools to drive an existing account towards optimization. But how many search marketing agencies routinely staff their accounts with folks that can totally restructure an account around new target audiences in order to take an account to a whole new level after it has been optimized over time? Or how many agencies have account people who can recognize when the limits of paid search have been reached and advocate that it might make more sense to divert some paid media budget into SEO? If an agency wants to really partner with their client, that decision starts with the kind of people they hire and staff on their client’s accounts.
  3. Aligned with Client Goals versus Agency Goals: Agencies are businesses like any other. They have revenue and profit goals that they are held accountable for, so it is sometimes tempting for agencies to focus on their own goals, even if that may not be in the best interests of their client. However, an agency that is truly partnering with their clients always puts their client’s business goals ahead of their own. If this means recommending a justifiable cut in media at the expense of agency fees, so be it. In the long run, client’s value the integrity shown by these recommendations and reward the virtuous agency with more business. Moreover, the client will take all of the agency’s recommendations more seriously, further strengthening the partnership.

The rewards of partnering with an agency for the client are extraordinary. The client will get the best people the agency has to offer, and a continuous stream of proactive, strategic recommendations that are aligned with the client’s business goals. However, whether or not a client achieves such a relationship with its agency is not entirely up to the agency. The client’s actions can determine the nature of the relationship as much as the agency’s. In my next blog post, I will discuss how client’s actions can sometimes subvert the partnership relationship and turn it into a vendor relationship.


dgould said...

No doubt that the term partnership gets thrown around quite a bit with little substance behind it. This is a great diagnostic toll to evaluate your real relationship with a partner (client). Not only that, but a useful checklist to use when initiatially laying out the working relationship with a new client.

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