I recently got a copy of AdAge's year in review. Since the 2001 web bust almost every job field in advertising is flat or down, with the exception of a sharp growth in the number of people working as marketing consultants. AdAge also listed the top 20 search marketing firms. I think the 2006 numbers for the 20th firm had like 5 million in revenues with something like 260 employees. Some companies may not want to be on such a list for competitive reasons, but the companies on the list are likely rounding up on the numbers and counting whatever they can as revenue. That comes out to revenues of less than $20,000 per employee, which stinks when you consider that if you deliver any real value to the clients and are growing your business some of that spend needs to go into
- doing market research
- buying PPC ads
- marketing your own consulting business
- office related overhead
- employee benefits
- creating custom software
- buying links
Some of these companies have been around for 10 years and have CEOs who go to 20 or 30 conferences a year. I have been on the web less than 5 years and am already getting burned out on conferences. I could not imagine going to that many conferences when we have kids. And none of these companies made as much per employee as I do. Even my wife, who is still quite new to the web, is doing far better than these firms are at producing return. I am afraid that she might be beating me come this time next year. Gulp :)
The same day I read AdAge, another magazine about SEO came in that I do not remember subscribing to. Out of the whole magazine, I only saw 2 names I even recognized. I think many of the people who wrote articles also bought ads from the same site. Along with the magazine was an offer for an SEO contest where you pay a $5,000 entry fee, with the promise that the winner will be shopped to CIOs of fortune 500 companies.
- First off, what firm is going to pay $5,000 to enter a contest?
- Second, what client worth having is going to want to pay consultant rates only to have have third parties looking over their marketing? I have consulted some fortune 500s, and I can tell you that some of the ideas proposed by them and some of the ideas I proposed might not look pretty to third parties. If something works only because it is exclusive then where is the value in sharing it?
- Third, what fortune 500 company that has not got into search yet is going to be impressed by some arbitrary paid award? And which of them got to the size of a fortune 500 company while moving that slowly on a large market (like search) without being the type of company that would research the background of such an award?
My partners and I are quite selective with what clients we are willing to take on, and we price toward the high end based on our brand strength and experience, but in most cases we only get a fraction of a fraction of the value created. I do not think that the SEO market is bleak though, I just think that companies who believe in it ultimately bring it in house, and after they have an in house team there is only so much they can pay external consultants before the competency of the in house team is questioned.
To appreciate how many people have an in house SEO team, even a search engine tried hiring me a while back, but that would have been a big pay cut. And I can not tell you how many times I have seen a mainstream media company write an article trashing SEO only to have someone from their in house SEO team send me an SEO question via email a week later.
As marketers we have to keep moving ourselves up the value chain. There is only so much value you can provide as a third party consultant. Adding 100 extra employees means that you are adding bulk workers for automation, but the best marketing can not be automated. And if you want scale it pays much better just to own your own site and network. Give me 200 SEOs (or maybe just 5 of them), a designer, a programmer, a few writers, and 5 years, and I should be able to create a BankRate, Monster.com, or a WebMD in whatever markets I aggressively pursue. And, according to the market, that pays much better than consulting work does.
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