Why the debate about in-house SEM vs outsourced work clouds an important issue

This morning, MediaPost featured “The Great (And Completely Ridiculous) ‘In-house vs. Outsourced SEM’ Debate,” by Dave Pasternack (registration to MediaPost is required). The piece begins with Pasternack asserting that in his 10 years in the business, “I’ve never, not once, seen a search campaign created by an in-house team outperform one crafted by a competent SEM [search engine marketing] agency.”

I trust that what he says is his experience, although at least one other in the comments reports differing results. Also in the comments, David Berkowitz found some of Dave’s arguments to be as “spurious” as the premise itself (Hark! Do I hear you composing your own post on the subject, David?).

I’m letting that discussion continue without adding to the din.

But my opinion is that the debate itself — in-house versus outsourced SEM — clouds the true secret to optimum ROI: Working together, in-house and agency pros are more likely to get a campaign that really hits one out of the park.

No one understands the subject domain as well as those who live and breathe it. And successful SEM requires content that uses this knowledge. Customer-focused internal SEM pros can add a level of richness to an SEM campaign that no outside agency can match.

SEM Is More Similar Than Different Across Industries

So what’s the problem with most “pure-play” internal SEM work? It’s a question of experience. When someone is handling multiple campaigns for many different types of clients, the similarities and synergies become apparent. Knowledge has a way of “cross-pollinating” between campaigns and clients. That’s a huge advantage. Also, this level of activity forces a heightened level of process that is just too difficult to match in an internal campaign.

As with most black-and-white debates, this one distracts from the benefits of a middle ground.

In every industry, and in every business category, there are those brands that lead the way in SEM. For the majority of these market leaders, I would be shocked if there wasn’t a smart blend of internal and outsourced efforts and expertise at work.

Both sides of the desk have something superior to bring to an SEM campaign. I suggest we SEM agencies work harder to remember this, and to promote this important truth.

2 thoughts on “Why the debate about in-house SEM vs outsourced work clouds an important issue”

  1. I’m not sure it’s worth a formal rebuttal, but I couldn’t resist commenting. And I love the word “spurious” – there’s something so sophisticated and yet playfully vengeful about it.

    I agree with your premise here – and generally there is some kind of middle ground. Someone client-side is managing the agency or technology (even if the technology is simply AdWords); it just depends whether that’s one hour a week for one person, a near full-time job, or a full team. Great analysis; thanks for providing a clear head here.

  2. LOL!

    I agree, David, that “spurious” is a great word. My favorite of the moment is gestalt, as in: “I was flattered when a lady friend told me I had the gestalt of Jon Hodgman. Imagine my disappointment when I learned gestalt was German for ‘weak chin.'” :-)

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