Few Shops Practice Paid Search Skills

NEW YORK Using paid search to market brands is so fundamental that it’s self-evident. However, that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to building agency brands.

Adweek found that few of the 56 agencies assessed in this year’s Report Card evaluation have bought sponsored links tied to their names on Google. In fact, just five– AKQA, Campbell-Ewald, DraftFCB, iCrossing and JWT — have sponsored links on Google. The rest have no such links, though their Web addresses generally appeared at or near the top of each search.

Adweek also found evidence of smaller specialty shops “punching up” by piggybacking on the names of larger rivals to gain attention. For example, sponsored links for business-to-business specialists such as Stein Rogan + Partners and PJA Advertising + Marketing popped up after typing the names of better-known players such as Arnold, DDB, Young & Rubicam and OgilvyInteractive.

“Why not put ourselves out there as a viable alternative?” said Tom Stein, president and CEO of Stein Rogan + Partners, a 40-person shop in New York with a dozen clients. “It’s a little bit of counter-marketing.”

Of course, little guys have to do more to generate buzz, and typically on a shoestring budget. So, not unlike Alltel tweaking Verizon and AT&T in a TV spot, some smaller shops use the glare of bigger agency brands to raise their profiles. Within the sample, however, such a scrappy move was rare compared to a swath of inactivity. It’s yet another example of agencies not always practicing what they preach to clients, despite the relatively low cost of buying search terms.

The sample shops that buy sponsored links find them valuable for attracting prospective clients, recruiting employees and sharing news, capabilities information and insights. Some report spikes in Web traffic as a result of such efforts. Plus, they’ve gained experience and understanding of the practice that helps them advise their clients.

“It’s very difficult to recommend certain things to your clients if you’re not in the game yourself,” said Craig Conrad, director of account development and marketing at Interpublic Group’s Campbell-Ewald in Warren, Mich. “So often we’re focused on our client business [that] sometimes it’s easy to forget about our own brand.”

Among some practitioners, the use of search in agency branding is relatively new. Campbell-Ewald, whose top clients include General Motors’ Chevrolet and the U.S. Navy, started using paid search in January. IPG’s DraftFCB, with clients like Kraft Foods, Taco Bell and Coors, began in mid-March.

Search is just one way to raise an agency’s profile. DraftFCB and Campbell-Ewald, for example, also employ traditional methods of outreach, including phone calls, mailings and face-to-face meetings, as well as other Web-orientated efforts, such as setting up pages on social networking sites and producing podcasts. Targeted e-mailing to prospective and current clients is also common.

Similar to their clients, agencies like search in part because it’s relatively inexpensive. “It’s very, very reasonable,” said Dan Brough, search director at DraftFCB in New York. Three months of sponsored links on Google could cost anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000, according to Brough, but costs are lower if you limit the amount you spend each day.

Anomaly, a 90-person independent in New York, limits its outlay to about $90 a day, said agency partner Jason DeLand. As a result, the shop’s sponsored links appear only until the clicks exhaust the budget, sometimes by lunch.

The purpose of buying search can change over time. When Anomaly opened in mid-2004, its name recognition was low compared to that of its principals, which include former TBWA\Worldwide chief operating officer Carl Johnson. So, initially, the shop bought not only its name as a keyword but also the names of its partners, sometimes in combination with their former shops, said DeLand. “Now I see it more as a digital billboard,” DeLand added. “We don’t keep it going for anything other than reinforcing the brand positioning.”

AKQA uses paid search tactically. Its current sponsored link was set up to promote the upcoming release of the second volume of an AKQA book of case histories. The link will lead visitors to a site where the book is sold. “We’ve kind of tried to drink the Kool-Aid that we’re serving to our clients,” said CEO Tom Bedecarre.

Agencies not using paid search see value in it but wonder if it will attract the types of prospects they seek. “We’re not convinced that the people we are marketing to are using that as a channel,” said Steve Harty, chairman of Publicis Groupe-backed Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York. “We have a more targeted strategy than, ‘We’re open for business.’ Search is kind of indiscriminate in a way.” Indeed, Bedecarr