Rohan Ayyar
Rohan Ayyar 30 July 2015

How To Bag (And Keep) Large SEO / Digital Marketing Contracts

Do You Have It in You?

So you run a “boutique” digital marketing agency. You have an account manager or two, a couple of content writers, a designer, a developer and a few people for blogger outreach. Or maybe, you’ve graduated to “full service” digital marketing – whatever that means! You use the term probably because you think you’re fairly good at – and have completed a couple of projects each on – SEO, PPC and social media.

I’ve seen a lot of digital agencies do great work – they painstakingly create profound content, they have some super-brainy technical people on their team, and they even make good money for their existing clients. However, their existing clients might as well not exist.

client list

Not exactly Wikipedia material, eh? (A couple are, by the way.)

The question is, can you scale the size of your clients like you scale the depth of your online marketing capabilities? Let’s find out.

Do You Have It in You?

What do you need before you venture out in search of greener pastures? For starters, your Founder needs to have been in the search engine optimization and online marketing business since 1995.

Just kidding.

mark wright

No, what you need is the analytical ability, technical expertise and resources, and a deep understanding of marketing to pull it off. If you’re missing any of these, you’re doomed to fail even before you begin!

The key to getting it right lies with your people. Digital marketing in 2015 is synonymous with content marketing. To build an all-star content marketing team, you need

  • A subject matter expert: Don’t approach (or consider approaching) a large organization without having a consultant with domain expertise on your team.

  • Niche copywriters: Content writers who will work on the project need not have specialist knowledge of the field, but the same level of interest is an absolute must-have.

  • Graphic/video designer: Another absolute must. No content is complete without images. No more need be said. And you don’t need me to tell you how many words a motion picture is worth. If you don’t have a video guy on your team, you should be feeling ratty. Hire one NOW, goddammit!

  • Link builder: Till death do the Google algorithm and links apart.

  • The face: Event trotter. Stage grabber. Presentation pundit. Data dissector. Update forecaster. (Being just a thought leader is passé.)

And oh, DON’T have a website that was last redesigned last year.

Client Prospecting

I have 10 or so ways to land big-ticket clients…


The best clients are the ones you get through referrals. The digital marketing industry is exceedingly reliant on word of mouth referrals. And I’d say it’s for the better, given that folks are still slipping over SEO snake oil.

So why not borrow that most noble of sales tactics, the referral bonus? Offer your clients something like $10,000 worth of free service for every $100,000+ / year contract that comes your way as a result of their endorsement. Just make it clear that you aren’t interested in anything below that.


Another idea is to stalk and pursue a particular client. We all do it for links, don’t we? Then why differentiate between bloggers and clients? Choose a client you’d like to work for (sort of the way career advice pros tell you to choose your “dream job”) and then go all out to woo them!

or stalk

Take your stalking very seriously. Amass all the information you can about the company. And “all the information” should consist of all their marketing history you could lay your hands on and literally all the ways you can make it better. What are your Screaming Frogs and SEMrushes for?

Look beyond the obvious. You could even get an idea of when their link building season begins, i.e. SEO contract is renewed!

seo renewal

Dancing With The Elephants A.K.A. Networking

Not much need be said here.

  • How many non-marketing conferences do you attend? What do you do there? You shouldn’t be learning, I tell you

  • How do you respond when Directors, VPs and CEOs tweet about (or share on LinkedIn) their marketing problems?

  • Networking in digital marketing is synonymous with being part of an online community. Reddit, Twitter, – take your pick. Just be somewhere all the time and keep your eyes open!

In-House SEOs

Make friends with them.

’Nuff said.

That doesn’t mean sending them your newsletter. That means having a few drinks with them when you’re in the same city, giving them the inside stuff on life in the “agency,” teaching them how to code so that they can turn their mortal enemies (developers) into friends, and so on.

Impressing The Head of Marketing

So, your in-house friend set you up on a date with the VP of Marketing at her company. And you happen to know they’re looking for a long term relationship, with a digital agency, that is. Now what?

You have your research and findings on the state of their digital marketing. Don’t share them just yet. Just go into the first meeting with a smile. You’re already armed with the technical answers. Your mission is to find where they come from, their pain points, their aspirations and their level of influence in the company. The contract can wait.

Marketing heads have a thing for marketing. Meh. In the first meeting, they’re trying out your affinity to numbers and results. They’re interested in your organizational knowledge and capabilities. Hopefully you’ve built these up to a level of their satisfaction. They also want to make sure you’ve run campaigns for an organization of their size (or standards). This is the time to give them rundowns of similar work you’ve done before – sort of, rich snippets of your case studies. Always demonstrate real-time examples and results you’ve got with these sites and campaigns, and also where they stand at the moment, provided your disclosure agreements allow.

explain shit

Some more tips:

  • Don’t be shy and show off your personal knowledge too. If you have an insight or two about the latest in digital marketing and how it applies to their company, let them have it. “Zap with science” is a tactic that works very well on departmental head honchos as well as senior management.

  • Make sure you ask them about their company’s business goals; paint a picture then and there of how you could build digital campaigns aligned to their overall strategy.

  • Their current content marketing, link building or social media might be bad. Don’t berate them for it. (Chances are, they already know that.) Resist the urge to speak your mind. (We’ll come back to this later.) In a large organization, for anything that’s not right, there are always reasons beyond anyone’s “perceived” control, however high they are on the pyramid.

There is one more thing: Always have the face meet the marketing head.

Acing The Courtship

If your first meeting went off well, you’ll get going on the long mail trail of RFIs, RFPs, and so on. VPs and Directors of Marketing like to do their homework and will probably bombard you with the “100 Questions to Ask When Hiring an SEO Agency” that they recently read on Inc. But you’ve read that article too (and probably written it), haven’t you? It pays to have ready answers for the customary queries in your own words; tweak them to suit your target.

Moving on to documentation, there are two critical modern manuscripts that can potentially turn the tide in your favor…

Case Studies

The Grand Poobah of Marketing doesn’t want to know if it can be done or not (he already knows it can). Instead, he wants to know if YOU can do it or not, and if so, what your approach would be. Pick your most relevant experiences and present them as case studies. If you haven’t worked in the same industry before, talk of similar problems you’ve solved. If you haven’t tackled scenarios identical to the client’s, see if anyone on your team has in a previous job. Find out if a multi-purpose solution or campaign pivot you’ve executed in the past also applies to them. Every little bit helps.

Regrettably, when it comes to pitching your services to corporate giants, skipping case studies altogether doesn’t seem to work. Yet.

The Consultation Audit

A preliminary audit is an implicit complimentary service you simply have to provide before you go on to bag the contract, or even before you’re seriously considered as a contender. Remember I asked you to hold your horses and clam up about the shortcomings of their existing digital marketing earlier? This is where you unleash the constructive criticism.

Make your audit as comprehensive as possible. Technical SEO, UX, Link Profile, Content, Branding, Omni-Channel Integration (including social, email, PPC and offline), Mobile and Competition are just some of the things you can include in your audit. And I’ll say it at the risk of echoing the cliché: Pointing out problems without suggesting solutions guarantees that they’ll stay unresolved.


Now, you might be selling site audits for $20,000 apiece. And here, you’re giving it away. If you have a no-free-lunch ethos, by all means stick to it. But if you don’t, or are willing to ease up, I strongly suggest you make it gratis. There’s no doubt you’re risking a lot of time and effort. There will be firms that will shamelessly steal your ideas, implement your recommendations, and won’t work with you for whatever reason. It’s happened to us multiple times. But the ones that appreciate your abilities and trust you with their promotion will make it all worthwhile.

And then hopefully, the marketing team and the in-house SEOs will be sufficiently impressed to move your proposal up to the CEO or final decision maker.

Swaying The CEO

The CEO’s most expensive asset is her time. She’s probably sitting there wondering why she agreed to meet you in the first place and how long you’re going to take.

Let’s get rid of the problem of your “standing” first. CEOs want to know if you’ve worked for other biggies and who they are (because they have been trained to associate trustworthiness with size). Here’s where a great client list comes in handy. Your work speaks for itself, so to speak. Money begets money, clients beget clients.


If you don’t have the client list, don’t despair. You have a bona fide service to sell. You are first and foremost a marketer. So what’s stopping your from marketing yourself and proving your worth as a marketer?

CEOs love stories. Tell a larger-than-life marketing story. Try and find out which brands the CEO admires (there’s always one, I assure you). If you see a Post-it note on her desk, tell her a 3M story. 3M story. Of course, the moral of a story lies in its association to real life context. Associate the story with the service you’re selling – digital marketing.

Once you’re past the pleasantry, it’s time to address the pain. CEOs have pains too, especially when it comes to SEO. They’ve handled IT, they’ve handled marketing. But when it comes to the intersection, everyone except the most technical of marketing geniuses is as good as clueless. And that includes the people who control the purse strings.

The grief and gripe that the CEO feels towards SEO (that was irresistible) can be attributed in good part to “recycled SEO,” a concept described in a very old article by Benjamin Pfeiffer of RankSmart:

A recycled SEO client is a client who has previously worked with another SEO company, who was either got scammed, not delivered upon, or cheated in some way. They also might have had optimization done that is really just SEO spam, or they never got anything at all. They are extremely frustrated, confused, and unsure with how to market their websites on the internet most importantly the search engines that they don’t know what to do.

Benjamin also spelled out the reason large companies keep falling for it:

Now, SEO companies are morphing into what I call a “Sales Efficiency Organization”. Or S.E.O for short. They are primary sales companies that are set up with high efficiency to pump out as much SEO service sale churn as possible. Sell SEO to as many customers as possible for the highest amount possible. Instead of devoting resources to growing a link building division, they instead grow a phone or email sales staff capable of selling a screen door to a submarine. It’s that effective, and it’s so good in fact it that so many are getting taken in than the organization can handle. They are getting sloppy, because it’s too easy to sell SEO and too hard to deliver SEO.

So what do you do? How do you heal the wound of a broken promise?

By making another one. In other words, Managing Expectations.


“Under-promise and over-deliver”
is frequently cited in digital marketing as the one-size-fits-all way of managing expectations. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. Develop accurate estimation skills instead.

Do not be vague or state the obvious. CEOs want numbers from you. And they want to be able to see if your numbers fit in with theirs – their brain is sort of trying to transform a bulk CSV import into a nice upward trending chart as you’re speaking to them.

The CEO is not interested in how removing query parameters from URLs and converting 302 redirects into 301 will get them rankings overnight. They want to know how much money it will make them.


How can you even begin to estimate revenue? A couple of examples: begin estimate

  • SEO: You know how much traffic the client gets from the keywords that they rank for at present. You know it results in a revenue of $X at present. See where the search volumes are going for these keywords, make an educated guess at how much you’ll be able to improve their rankings, and calculate the increase in revenue from the resulting additional traffic.

  • Email marketing: You know their current open rates and the revenue generated from emails (provided they have a good attribution model). Size up their email list. How much can you grow/prune it? What will be the resulting increase in open rates? Once you have that, it’s relatively easy to approximate the revenue growth.

(Note: We haven’t even added conversion optimization to the mix yet.)

The First Month

So the CEO loved your figures (or promises) and signed on the dotted line. You’re on! You’re eager to deliver results. “Low hanging fruits, here I come,” declare you.

Now, there’s a lot already going on with SEO, PPC, social media, content, web copy, etc. in any big bad organization. Get a hang of what’s happening with all these. Specifically,

  • Make a full list of their web properties and apps. Go through every one of these and quickly make notes on what to do with them. They’ll also have a lot of domains lying around forgotten and unused. You can decide what to do with these later.

  • Once you have a behind-the-scenes understanding of the client’s business, revisit the keywords. Big businesses have huge swathes of applicable keywords, possibly running into the tens of thousands. And these only increase with expanding product lines, categories, brands and locations. The trick is to go the Google way and group keywords into buckets by searcher/visitor intent and the actions you want them to take. (“Easier said than done” was never a greater understatement!)

  • Deep dive into Google Analytics and Search Console. Getting admin level access will invariably reveal hitherto hidden problems, opportunities and trends to the trained eye. Create any dashboards and views that are better aligned to your goals.

  • Dig through the AdWords campaigns and ads. Just take notes for now. Don’t be in a hurry to make changes until you’ve got a good understanding of the history of the account.

  • What marketing automation, email and social media tools are in place? Are they integrated well? These tools might very well be new for you; you’ll have to spend some time figuring them out, especially if you’ve agreed to outshine KPIs as reported by these tools. I personally never let the opportunity of looking at data from every different angle possible slip.


In a nutshell, get a real feel for the client’s business and set your thought process whirling around how it can be marketed and developed.

Next, agree with the Head of Marketing on what kind of reports they want and how, when and in which format you’re going to do your reporting. Generate a snapshot of all relevant metrics at the outset. Establish benchmarks and make sure the HoM concurs with you.

Also make sure the approval process for any changes you want made to the site or access to content is clear to all parties involved. We like to use subtly ominous language in our agreements and emails, washing our hands off any nasty setbacks that might transpire should our requests not be met on time. Works like a charm!

Your first step is to implement the list of recommendations that you made in the audit, in order of priority (incorporating any insights you got from access to the in-house tools and analytics). You did make them “actionable,” I take it? Actionable is the digital marketing industry’s favorite adjective these days, although actionability [not sic] has little to do with application, which depends more on the reader or end user.

Resist the urge to pick easy wins over what is important. Yes, moving the graphs upward is of the essence in the early days of any newly begun commission, but enterprises tend to have a wee bit more patience than small businesses in these matters. They’re more interested in where you are at the end of the quarter. So, plan your work that way. And if your recommendations were indeed sound, you should anyway see upward movement soon.


Simultaneously, start making friends, especially with developers. Make it a habit to visit the client every now and then (it’s the best – and perhaps, only – way to get reliable inside information that you can use). See whose interest in marketing you can pique. If you can envision them as SEO or social media champions, start feeding them (or educating them, to be politically correct) stuff connected to their line of work and involving them wherever possible.

“Round the Year” Focus on Retention

A large organization doesn’t necessarily have an outsized site with hundreds of thousands of pages, although I’m yet to see one like that. However, I won’t tell you how to do your job. (Some tips on the SEO part of it are available here, here and here.) What I will tell you is that it’s imperative to do it. No ifs, no buts. Keep your promises, at all costs.

Okay, I will give you a tip on what doing your job correctly entails. Like it or not, digital marketing is synonymous with content marketing. It follows that you have to build all your campaigns around content – be it social, email, display or link building. It was always that way – even with traditional advertising. Digital has only made us realize the pervasiveness and significance of content in brand building. So make sure you space out and build your campaigns to maximize reach and timing, the two elements that are central to the success of any content strategy.

Put into place a process for mining all the data (you should have heaps) you collect. An insight here and an insight there will keep your A/B test machine running.

Further, keep monitoring where things are going. If you don’t think you’re on track to meet your quarterly targets, remember that desperate times call for desperate measures. Not 1000 social bookmarking links, you freak! What’s needed is for YOU to get desperate. When you’re at the end of your tether, you’ll surely think of something.

While it’s crucial to have the impersonal part of your work under control, let the people you work with have the cream of your attention.

A wise man once said, “Reassurance is the root of retention.”

wise man

Email the HoM twice a month with updates (not including slated reports), ideas and friendly banter. Schedule a monthly “strategy review” meeting with him. Never miss a chance to apprise him of significant wins, even if he already knows about them.

Use email and Twitter to stay on the CEO’s radar too, and see if you can conveniently bump into her (not literally, perv) on one of your visits.

Keep looking for more digital marketing champions within the organization. Step up the education. Form a club or something.

Finally, hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. Log every single success or accomplishment. (Executing one of your own recommendations also counts as one.) Recording milestones is crucial when working with large companies. How do you know the CEO won’t leave the Friday before your contract is due for renewal and the new one won’t turn out to be pointy haired?


The Last Leaf

A month before your contract expires, broach the subject of renewal (you know how incumbent governments in failed republics go to the polls early when they’re confident of getting re-elected).

If you happen to meet your yearly targets around that time, excellent. If not, that is one meeting you want to reschedule.

goodluck yoda

Original Article


Find out more on the future of Business at our DLUK - Trends Briefing on the 24th September 2015

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