Moral Dilemmas in Agency Work

A few days ago I read a fairly poor post on SEL, which added nothing to the conversation about advertising on one's brand, but did spark me to think about an interesting moral dilemma. I'd love to get your thoughts on the topic. The author advanced a number of standard, reasonable arguments for advertising on one's brand: occupying more space on the SERP thereby pushing down competitors, controlling message and landing pages, and the idea that brand ads are generally low cost and therefore not a big deal. We've made similar arguments in the past. She also advanced some controversial claims about the incremental traffic gained through these ads: we'd argue your mileage will vary dramatically and we've yet to see a comprehensive, carefully done study of the issue. Finally she said some stuff that was factually inaccurate, but I'm not going to get into that here. What is much more intriguing is the more subtle message implied throughout the piece and demonstrated quite clearly in the following three quotations:
Removal of brand keywords will seriously impact retailers’ ability to hit forecasted goals from this channel.
Each of us knows that our brand keywords are our bread and butter and allow us to support our testing and expansion plans by floating the traditionally less efficient non-brand keywords and content networks. Removing brand keywords will result in shrinking efficiencies in terms of reported ROAS.
Let’s not forget that the dedicated service and support retailers receive from vertical reps at the engines, account reps from tool providers, and the large teams from agencies. They are all widely influenced by the investments that retailers make in their PPC programs. The reality is that removal of brand keywords could potentially lead to a reduction in dedicated support from vendors.
The message is pretty clear: lumping brand and non-brand search performance together makes the program appear cost effective. If you take out the brand phrases the program will appear to be horrendously inefficient and people higher up in the organization will slash your budget. Therefore you must advertise on your brand so that you can hide the truth about performance from the rest of your company and get a larger budget. Wowzers! That is some message. Since inception, RKG has vociferously argued that separating the performance of brand and non-brand (with proper attribution of credit for multiple touches) is absolutely imperative for understanding the true value of the channel to your company. Moreover, since the vast majority of brand search is driven by offline marketing, PR, brand awareness and word-of-mouth referral, lumping that in with competitive non-brand search means paid search performance will be judged based on a huge chunk of sales over which a paid search manager has no control. That is neither fair, nor wise. Given our mindset at RKG my first take when I fully absorbed that message was: "Holy Mackerel! These folks are essentially suggesting a conspiracy to defraud the advertiser to gain a larger budget/staff for the paid search manager/online marketing team. We'd never participate in that type of behavior! That's disgusting!" Then, I started thinking: "Hang on now, for whom do we actually work: the people who hired us, or the corporate entity that ultimately pays the bills? If the Director of Online Marketing says: 'We want to justify a larger budget, how can you help us do that?' maybe it's our job to do that. We're being paid out of that department's budget, so maybe what's in the interest of the company as a whole is none of our business? Who are we to tell them they're thinking about this the wrong way?" To date we've really never been placed in that position explicitly. We do have a few clients who want to look at the "overall" numbers combining brand and non-brand, but we've never been asked point blank to help them make a case for a larger budget. What do you folks think? If part of an organization asks you to do something that is likely hurtful to the organization as a whole, should you do it? It strikes me that doing lousy work on demand leaves an agency vulnerable when others in the organization, people new to the organization, or other agencies look under the hood. At the same time, is it really our role to tell clients how to think about their data?
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