Who Owns an Adwords Account: the Client or the Agency?

Quite a fuss has been generated by an article in the latest issue of Marketing Week. In it, VCCP Search claim to be the first SEM agency to allow its clients to retain intellectual property rights over their search accounts.

This is a pretty outrageous statement. Many SEMs from other agencies (including myself) say that this is rubbish; lots of agencies do this and have done for years. Earlier today Patrick Altoft wrote on Blogstorm about it, and this post is an extension of what I said there.

At Efficient Frontier we’ve always let clients retain their search engine accounts. We’ve always seen the accounts as the client’s property to begin with, and never ours. We’ve done that since the company started in 2002.

The big issue here is allowing clients to keep the same accounts if they wish to change agencies. With click-through rate and quality score history being so essential, starting a new account can cost thousands as you try to build that history back up. This can negatively affect the search engines as well as the advertisers, so it’s odd that Google don’t have a well established policy for this already. Transferring Yahoo and Microsoft accounts of course is not possible; a new one must be set up.

There are some notable players that don’t transfer accounts, or at least kick up a hell of a fuss, both SEM specialists and larger network media agencies alike. I’m not going to name names, but looking back at the last 12 months’ of EF’s new business wins would produce some very interesting reading on who’s professional about it and who’s not.

It’s also rather curious that Marketing Week described as an ‘effort to retain clients’. Seems like this kind of change makes it easier for the clients to leave!

My advice to any advertiser is that you should:

  • have access to your SE accounts (not just get reports, but have logins so you can see what’s going on)
  • have the right to retain the SE account should you wish to move agency
  • own the billing relationship with Google (it is a little known fact that to claim Best Practice Funding, advertisers didn’t need to bill through an agency, just putting the account in the agency’s MCC was enough. Many SEM agencies’ revenue figures were grossly inflated because of this, but more about that in another post.)

Any agency worth its salt will be confident of the work that it does for a client and will have no qualms about you looking under the hood.

So this is all a bit of a mess. The article doesn’t read like much more than a press release. There’s been no attempt to canvas opinion from other agencies. But whether this is bad PR, bad journalism or both, it’s raised an important issue in the SEM space that has previously held many advertisers back.