What We Need From an Online Marketing Trade Association

Is it time for a real trade association for online marketers and Web-site builders?

I found myself asking that question this week when I looked at a roofer’s gutter-cleaning estimate. There it was in black and white, the no-nonsense sentence informing me that “labor will be charged at $85.00 per man hour (we generally send a two-man crew).”

Eighty-five dollars an hour! Not that the price seemed excessive. Paying a couple of guys a few hundred bucks to keep me from having to balance on a high ladder up to my elbows in gunk seems like a decent bargain. But it got me thinking about pricing and how clients often react to it. It also made me think about the value of what we do.

See, 85 bucks an hour isn’t that far from what many of us charge for copywriting. Or design. Or production. Or strategy. Sure, if you live in New York, Chicago, or Boston you can probably get away with charging more. Ditto if you’ve got a big agency. But for the majority of us who aren’t so big (the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) says over 60 percent of its membership bill less than $10 million per year), $85 an hour isn’t that far from what we usually get away with charging for our services.

What got my dander up is this: what’s the value of what we do? Sure, clean gutters are important, but I really doubt the workers spent four (or more!) years in gutter college and a decade after that learning the business. Yes, clean gutters may save my house from thousands of dollars’ worth of water damage. No doubt about it.

But consider what we do. Those of us who do our jobs right create campaigns that can make our clients millions of dollars. We manage complicated processes. We create value for our clients that lasts far longer than the campaign, hopefully building the brand value of their businesses over the long term. We create online presences that, for most intents and purposes, are the face of the businesses we work for. We’re there because we can apply a lifetime of learning and experience to the marketing problems we face. In short, we create serious value.

Yet the industry seems to be increasingly commodifying. It’s not news that ad agencies have moved from being partners with the companies they work for to vendors. Long-term relationships have been replaced by short-term projects. Clients increasingly demand lower prices for more service and detailed invoices to prove value. Profits are down. Work is up.

And that’s with existing clients. Pursuing new business, particularly if you work exclusively online, is often an exercise in guesswork. The agency tries to guess the client’s real budget, while the client must guess if the proposals truly reflect the agency’s abilities, skills, and real costs. It’s like a high-stakes game of Battleship. Neither side knows what the other’s board looks like. They can only hope they guess correctly and hit the target.

I’m sure this sounds like whining to some of you. Maybe it is a bit. But if you are new to the business or have managed the trenches day after day, you can’t deny you’ve run up against what I’m talking about. And it’s not just bad for us on the service end. It’s bad for clients, too.

Everyone’s playing a game with unknown rules. Most clients (except the most educated ones) aren’t really sure what we do. They don’t necessarily know what things should cost but are justifiably seeking the best value. Because we work in a creative industry, “value” is awfully subjective. Clients can compare portfolios and check references, but they’re often under pressure to cut costs. Price ends up being the yardstick by which we’re measured.

For the most part, they have no good way of knowing what they’re buying. The industry as a whole lacks a set of objective standards. Lawyers must pass the state bar. Doctors take board exams. Plumbers and electricians have long apprenticeships, licenses, and a set of industry-wide standards that differentiate between “journeymen” and “masters.” Architects who maintain standards of professional education and skills put “AIA” after their names. Heck, even PR people who pass a rigorous set of exams administered by their professional organization, the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), get to put “APR” after their names to signify their industry recognizes them as people who know what they’re doing.

Examine the pricing in all these professions. There’s usually a place where everyone expects prices to be, and for good reason; a consumer of these services knows what to expect. You know what you’re buying. You know there’s a bare minimum of skills and professional standards these folks are expected to meet if they’re going to maintain their standing. And if you really look at what they’re doing — law, medicine, plumbing, electrics, and public relations– they’re all “creative” professions in their own way.

That’s why we need a real trade organization. Yes, there’s the AAAA, the AIGA, the International Webmasters Association, the American Association of Webmasters, and the Internet Advertising Bureau. And, yes, the larger or these organizations (particularly the AAAA and the IAB) have worked to set standards in the industry, such as ad unit specs and sizes, and to lobby against regulations that would hurt the industry. Others haven’t done so much (witness the American Association of Webmasters’ “template store” — talk about devaluing what we do!).

All that’s well and good, but we need an organization willing to do the hard work in the industry to establish and promote nationally recognized industry standards. Currently, there are no widely recognized certification programs for industry professionals (though talk of it is always sure to generate lots of controversy). Little is done to promote the value of what we do to those in the marketplace. There’s little education for clients on how to get the best value for their money or even how to select a firm that fits their needs (hint to clients: start by being upfront about budget so you can compare apples to apples when you review proposals). There’s nothing to differentiate scammers who engage in unsavory practices like spyware and spamming from the legitimate marketers.

Caveat emptor, baby.

Yes, experience matters. Yes, portfolios do tell a story. Yes, references count. And, yes, clients should expect the best value for their money. But unless you’re steeped in the industry on a daily basis (like we are), it’s tough for buyers who might only have to buy our services every couple of years, especially the smaller businesses that make up the bulk of the work most of us spend our time on. If you’re on the inside, it’s easy to see what’s good practice, what’s not, and which agency is better. If you’re not, it can be a confusing, difficult process that seems like groping around in the dark.

An industry-wide trade association dedicated to education, certification, and standardization makes sense. Now more than ever. Otherwise, we’re just competing with the roofers.

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