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PR and Advertising Folks: If you are threatened by SEO, you’re doing it wrong

In the last six weeks, WrightIMC has lost several bids for contracts – not because of price, competition or capabilities. We lost because one or more of the influencers or decision makers felt threatened by the services we offer.

In the recent cases, it was the public relations – or corporate communications – team that perceived us as a threat. But, this isn’t a new phenomenon – and it’s not always the PR department that kills the deal. In the past I’ve seen SEO and Public Relations contracts halted by advertising, IT and even corporate marketing.

Enterprise-level web presence management is hard. Trying to fit digital strategies into old corporate structures often results in square pegs being pounded into round holes. The end result can be uncomfortable for everyone involved. But, why does this happen? It’s important to understand how modern digital marketing has evolved to get the full picture.

Once upon a time there was no digital marketing. Most corporations had marketing departments that hired advertising, seo and public relations agencies to help spread the message. The corporate marketing person was more of a gatekeeper, ensuring that the brand’s message was consistent with the Don Draper-like creative ideas coming in from the agencies. Public relations professionals were on hand (usually from an agency) to deal with the media – both proactively and reactively when a negative item reared its ugly head. During this time (from the late 1950s all the way to the early2000s), the agency/client relationship was dominated by glad-handing account service people from agencies placating fussy and nervous client contacts, while creative agency people tried to push the brand’s message with appealing and targeted advertising and marketing.

This was the time of corporate spending accounts, three-martini lunches, golf outings, and corporate politics. The measurable success of an ad campaign was based upon specious research and, ultimately, gross sales figures. New York City department store magnate John Wanamaker’s famous saying (uttered well before the era we’re discussing), “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half,” had never been more true.

As time wore on, in-house advertising departments became more common. By the 1990s, a study by Alvin J. Silk found that nearly half of all major advertisers had some sort of in-house agency component. If you’re interested in the evolution of the in-house agency, I suggest reading this interview with Silk in 2008.

As in-house advertising capabilities grew, there were lines drawn in the sand. Advertising, Public Relations and SEO had very defined roles. Marketing was another role entirely. The definitions and job descriptions of every player were expected to be followed. God forbid the PR agency place a media buy or the advertising agency pull a media stunt. The worst advertising problems of the era happened when departments over-stepped their unwritten boundaries.  I personally experienced this in my days at a large PR agency in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I was the digital guy, and no one knew exactly where I fit into the established culture.

For that matter, where did search fit? Back in those days, SEO was viewed as a technical tactic. It was more about the code of the site. By tweaking the meta data, title tags and making the site readable to search engines, your job was considered done. No one would dream of letting an SEO have a say in the actual content of a site. I had epic duels with more than one creative director who wanted to create a “really cool animated site” that was completely built in Flash … and virtually invisible to search engines.

 Then paid search came along. No one knew if this fit into advertising or public relations. On the one hand, it was paid for, but most traditional media buyers didn’t have the knowledge to work in what was an auction environment called Overture. Other platforms came in as well – this was during the rise of the banner ad – and virtually everyone agreed these were the advertising guys’ responsibility. Then AdWords came along, and suddenly search was the hottest advertising medium on the planet.

In the meantime, the digital agency started growing some legs, mostly because corporations didn’t know how to manage digital in-house. Most of the first digitally-focused agencies were either small shops started by practitioners who had shown success in digital products, or half-hearted attempts by large advertising holding companies to look cool. Some of the small-practitioner agencies are now the largest in the digital space and are now owned by the large advertising holding companies. Few of the early iterations of holding company digital attempts are still around.

Now, things have changed. Search Engine Marketing has a big-boy seat at the overall marketing table. But, the consumers of media are different. Digital fragmentation makes the cable wars of the 90s look tame. Google doesn’t rely on the code tweaks made by SEOs to rank search results as much. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say if you are just doing SEO via on-site techniques, you are not doing SEO.

Digital has become its own ecosystem. It’s an ecosystem where success isn’t determined by the actions of one group. In fact, current digital success is more akin to the old way of doing advertising than ever before.

Sure, there are still technical items that have to be ironed out. However, it’s really more about how the creative is syndicated and consumed by the target market. At WrightIMC, we believe a corporation’s marketing should revolve around its website, where we own and control the experience. Our objective is simply finding ways to bring qualified customers to our client’s website, where a desired action (a sale, a phone call, a download, etc.) can occur.

Herein lies the problem, and it’s why we’ve lost those contracts recently. You see, a lot of what we do in digital advertising resembles what traditional advertising and public relations professionals have done for years. We’re writing messaging statements, doing consumer research, contacting influencers and media, and buying ad space that supports our content (see the rise of native advertising techniques). Our SEO processes at WrightIMC are designed to reflect the best practices of successful Public Relations combined with digital reach and technical savvy. And yes, there is frequently overlap with what is being done by traditional agencies and in-house teams. We know those traditional agencies and in-house teams have seen their territory shrink over the years. They’ll fight tooth and nail to preserve what’s left – even at the expense of their employer or client.

We’re not trying to put anyone out of a job. In fact, the best campaigns come when corporations allow those old lines in the sand to be blown away. Let the PR folks in on the media buy and let the traditional advertising guys look at the digital media buy. Then, let the digital guys help measure the effectiveness of a television campaign by correlating website traffic spikes and brand search volume with specific campaigns.

Arrogance, or hubris, needs to take a hike – period. We’ve heard countless times from digital marketing agencies, “Those traditional guys just don’t get it!” And, we’ve heard traditional advertising execs accuse the digital folks of not seeing the big picture. Also, I’ve seen both sides fight for shares of declining budgets. During this fighting, market share is lost, products aren’t sold, and CEOs are left wondering if any of this advertising stuff – digital or traditional – even works anymore.

Integrated Marketing. It’s part of our agency’s name. Blurring the traditional lines is what we’re all about. It’s not about whose job it is – it’s about getting the right thing done. It’s about getting the smartest guys in the room, regardless of their agency or in-house pedigree, to decide on the best strategy and execute it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we don’t need specialists. At WrightIMC, we don’t buy television or radio media anymore. We don’t produce video in-house. We don’t run affiliate programs. But, we have partners that do all of that much better than we can. We don’t worry about our partners taking our clients. In fact, I love working with others who overlap our specialities. It makes us better – and keeps us on our toes. If we aren’t providing value (and communicating that value), then we should get fired.

So, to you PR and Advertising folks who are squashing SEO and Public Relations contracts because you think the deliverables sound too much like your job descriptions? Quit trying to mark your territory. If you worked with someone who knew the search and digital landscape, you’d be better marketers overall. As it is, the spots where you’ve hiked your legs won’t hold off “intruders” for long. Right now, we can do what you do … but you can’t do what we do. Think about that, and then decide if you want to work with an agency that will teach you something. Or, work on your own and continue the path of the dinosaurs.


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