How to Win the Budget tug-o-War

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Planning season is officially here. CMOs around the country have reminded their staff that in just a few months, monies will be divvied up, sending more than one marketing manager into a frenzy. If there is anything harder than competing for consumer mindshare, it is perhaps competing for the dollars within your own organization. Or if you are on the agency side, it is the knowledge that your pipeline is completely contingent upon how well your client contact can play the annual game of budget planning tug-o-war.

For most firms, planning starts with a set of objectives handed down by the CEO. The CMO then tasks his team with producing the right strategy, tactics and budget to get the job done. This is where it gets vicious. In years when the budget is flat or shrinks, someone is likely to lose out. Big dollar efforts, such as television and print defend their territory as new entrants to the budget, such as search engine marketing, make a new case. Behind the daily water cooler pleasantries, the silent rope pulling ensues.

So what is a smaller player to do?

Most importantly, get your act together early. Rather than waiting for the CMO to hand down the orders, it pays off to invest in a little pro-bono research and strategic thinking throughout the year. If you are on the client side, a friendly reminder to the agency û as early as July û is a good idea. If you are on the agency side, proactively delivering a little gem to your client contact will make him (and ultimately, you) look like a super star.

This is, of course, assuming that your opinions are welcome during the planning process. If not, understand what is missing from the relationship. Historically, the search budget was pulled out of thin air by someone far removed, such as interactive agency of record, even though the actual search program would be executed by an SEM.

The good news is that some of the larger SEMs have learned how to insert themselves into this process. During my first year in search, I was absolutely mortified that clients had never been open to planning discussions. To overcome this, we decided to bring the planning to them via an annual client summit. This approach seems to be working for search engine marketing firms across the country; over the past month, 360i, DoubleClick Performics and Outrider have invited their clients to such affairs.

How do these firms pull off successful events? Most likely, learned to "speak CMO," leaving the "search is better than any other medium" argument at home. While we all know its virtues, search will always be part of the mix, and will not earn any brownie points for trashing other media formats. Secondly, these firms eagerly invite authorities to validate opinions. In the case of DoubleClick Performics, the summit featured the best-selling author of "Freakonomics," Dr. Steven D. Levitt. And finally, one must not be afraid to bring other players into the room. Welcoming the engines, ancillary services, or even the agency of record will build the mass at your end of the rope.

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