Dave to ad agencies: Do your homework or get out of my office

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A new study by the Intelligent Business Group, a UK-based marketing think tank, provides a devastating critique of the performance of most advertising and marketing agencies. The study, based on interviews with top-level marketing executives at 150 US corporations, illustrates how far out of whack today's advertising industry is.

One hundred percent of the survey respondents stated that the most important factor governing their selection of a marketing services agency was its ability to provide insights into their customers. In other words, clients want their agencies to do much more than produce fancy, award-winning creative. They want their agencies to function as full partners with expertise into who their customers are, how they think and how they can be reached.

But here's the scandalous part: Eighty-five percent of the survey respondents believe that the agencies pitching them do a lousy job of researching their basic business issues before making their pitch. Astonishingly, 61 percent believe that the agency did no research at all.

Can you imagine this situation occurring in any other professional field? What would you do with a doctor or lawyer who walked into your office to solicit your business, uttered a bunch of smooth verbiage, but couldn't answer even the most basic questions about your legal or medical situation? Chances are you'd toss this charlatan out of your office within 60 seconds. And yet clients - and I'm talking about Fortune 100 clients - tolerate this behavior from ad people. If anyone's looking for the reason why so many accounts churn or why so many CMOs last only a few months in their jobs, you've found it.

Search marketing is rife with this kind of shoddy, uninformed agency behavior. Most SEM agencies court their clients by blathering about their gee-wiz technology, the agency's size and the millions of keywords they're managing. Instead of listening to the client, or doing any research beyond a few Google searches into the core problems faced by their prospects, they talk endlessly about themselves.

But clients aren't interested in how great an agency thinks it is. They don't care. Clients want to know how well a given agency truly understands their business and its unique challenges. They want the agency to provide insight into who their customers are and to offer strategies to enable them to reach these people, online, offline or wherever else they exist.

In truth, clients have to share some of the blame for this sorry situation. Clients hurt themselves when they treat their ad agencies like low-paid temp help, denying them the vital CRM data required to design a truly winning and interactive campaign for fear that they will give away "the family jewels." Sadly, keeping your agency at arms length makes as much sense as keeping your defense attorney in the dark after you've been accused of a serious crime.

The SEM agency business will never grow and mature until the trust level between clients and their agencies improves. Right now, I'm not so optimistic about this happening anytime soon. While I won't go so far as to say that most SEM agencies are "fly by night," plenty of them weren't even incorporated five years ago. They might do a good job of managing keywords, bids and setting up landing pages, but they also may be completely unqualified to deliver what clients really need: insights into their customers and the means to reach them.

The next time you're being pitched by an SEM agency, remember this: The more they talk - and the less they listen - the more they're revealing themselves to be a partner unworthy of your business. Do yourself a big favor by interrupting their machine-gun pitch with a simple question: What can you tell me about my customers, my business issues and my strategic posture that I don't already know?

Within about 15 seconds, you'll know whether you're in the presence of a true solutions provider or just another fast-talking marketing poseur.

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