How Not to Pitch Your Search-Marketing Firm

Resist the Temptation to Misrepresent Your Capabilities or Steal Someone Else's PowerPoint

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Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan
Search marketing is a complicated array of best practices, commonly held tactics and a secret underworld of marketing tricks that no one talks about. In the not-so-distant past, acquiring new clients was a matter of basic credentials and maybe a case study or two. Today, pitching search marketing -- even as a component of an overall digital presence -- is big business with billions at stake. Even small- to mid-size search advertising accounts (representing the vast majority of search advertisers) have become highly competitive.

Search-engine optimization in the age of content-farm penalties means a constantly evolving perception of right and wrong. Agency retention rates are running at about 18 months on the high end, meaning its a highly competitive pitching environment, and there's plenty of dissatisfaction in the marketplace.

In my last 15 years of pitching business, I thought I'd seen all manner of good, evil and idiotic in the pitch process. I hadn't, and lately it seems like the tomfoolery is getting worse. Here are a couple of things to avoid when you are going after the big money.

Search is infinitely and uniquely complex. So is making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you explain how to do it badly. The modern CMO doesn't have time fully understand your server-to-delivery infographic -- particularly if it looks like it was designed by a circa 1980s IT infrastructure professional.

Presenting complicated information in an easy to digest format is the biggest challenge we face in the search marketing world. The temptation to use a series of complicated infographics to get your point across only shows weakness.

In the creative process, decision-makers want to know you have experience and that you have done it before. For the life of me I don't understand why, but some agencies can't resist the temptation to drop in slides from their technology vendors and try passing them off as their own. I kid you not -- this really happens. Don't do it: The last thing you want is to kick off by misrepresenting yourself and showing a series of graphics they have already seen before -- in someone else's presentation.

While I'm on the subject of misrepresenting yourself, picture the following: You receive an urgent voice mail from an employee of a consulting firm. A referral from someone you respect and the caller drops the name of a very well-known personality in the business as the head of her firm.

Not long ago I received such a voice mail, the caller invoking names of top people saying the firm needed help with a large "top 10" retail client. It was explained that I needed to make myself available ASAP to talk to well-known personality, the request was extremely urgent and they were in "dire" need of my services.

To make a long story endless, I'm was in Belgium, slightly ahead of the caller's New York time zone. I interrupted my holiday because when you get a referral call from someone you respect with an "urgent" need; you want to honor the recommendation. I took the call at 23:00 and immediately began to sense that something was amiss.

1.) The client was major. Huge, enormous but couldn't be named. Vague and ambiguous references to the work and spectacular "top 10 retail client" continued throughout the 20- to 30-minute conversation.

2.) They were looking for a high-level digital audit and a three-phase consulting project and it was all about big money and the promise of future work.

3.) As the conversation progressed, I discovered the firm didn't actually have the client yet and the pitch was tomorrow and could I please send over the bios of my team with the names crossed out so she could have an idea of the skills we possessed.

Silly boy -- holiday interruption aside, I am disappointed that it took me 20 minutes to sort through what was obviously the sort of behavior that casts a dark shadow over our business. In this case, I got a sense that this person was collecting information so they could represent disciplines they don't have and looking for ways to snipe outside expertise, perhaps even specific language for their proposal.

One of the biggest red flags in this scenario was the brush off I got when I suggested a non-disclosure agreement followed by a clear discussion about the client, the work and expectations, transparency and fees.

I ended the call abruptly, albeit politely, more annoyed with myself for not seeing through these monkeyshines immediately. One, I wouldn't advise taking on client work that isn't transparent. Clients aren't as stupid as some firms might hope as they tend to find these things out. Two, I've seen these shenanigans end badly for all parties involved and I wouldn't advise playing in this particular sandbox.

I wonder if agencies have been pushed into over representing or grossly misrepresenting themselves. Perhaps the drive to be an expert in everything has yet to meet the practical needs of a segment of the business that has yet to mature beyond its adolescence.

In any case, if you'll excuse me, I need to start calling the top 10 retail CMOs so I can warn them about the "expert consultants" they are about to retain.

Kevin M. Ryan is CEO of the strategic consulting and project management firm Motivity Marketing. He tweets at @KevinMRyan.
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