How to win Agency of the Year: Interview with a judge

Did you and your team have a stellar year collaborating on win after win for your clients? Did you find ways to streamline processes, gain efficiencies with automation or get more creative than ever to drive your clients’ strategies forward?

If so, we want to know about it, and we want to honor you with a 2020 Search Engine Land Award for Agency of the Year. First, however, check out the interview below I did with 5x Search Engine Land Awards Judge, SMX conference moderator and President of paid search agency FindMeFaster, the ultra-knowledgable and downright funny Matt VanWagner.

Thank you for taking the time to do this interview, Matt! Let’s just start out with a quick question: What is your background in the search industry and how long have you judged the Search Engine Land awards?

MVW: I’ve been in digital marketing for about 20 years now. As far as the Awards go, I was one of the first judges back when it started.

The Agency of the Year is one of the only categories we have that’s judged by the entire judging team; both the SEOs and the paid search folks. In order to win, you have to impress quite a lot of people. For you personally though, what has impressed you the most in the past? Which aspects do you personally rank the highest?

MVW: Well, we look for excellence. Overall excellence for paid search, for servicing clients, we look at everything that someone does. We’re not looking for an agency that did one interesting thing and had one good success.

We’re looking for someone who showed a really exacting performance, in all the low-level detail work — and there are so many low-level details — as well as some really creative solutions to the strategic level of things. So we’re looking for people that can express great creativity, energy and really good execution in the campaign at the deepest level.

Three trends to watch for 2020

To build on that point just a little bit, is there anything you’re kind of hoping to see somebody talk about specifically that they did with their team when you go over the entries in 2020?

MVW: Every year it’s a blank slate, because every year there’s sort of a big challenge of the year. I think some of the big challenges this year have been some of the tectonic changes to the way Google and Microsoft are doing targeting at the keyword level in particular; that’s required a lot of real manipulation inside campaigns.

Those tectonic changes will be a big thing. The successful integration or just successful experimentation of automation is going to be huge. I think we’re going to see a lot of people showing where the automation really moved the needle for them. So that’d be a second big trend.

And the third thing is, as we start to have problems with real attribution as cookie policies change and, as you know, the ability to actually measure specific things online gets more and more challenging, is how are agencies dealing with this, both from a measuring performance, overall performance and as well as communicating that to their clients.

I think those might be three big issues this year. And well, that might be 100% wrong. The fascinating part about judging is that we’ll find out that the leaders in this industry may have been killing with some other types of really fascinating issues that will blow us away too.

So, not to be a Debbie Downer here, but I have to assume you’ve seen a couple of rough submissions along the way. What makes Matt Van Wagner cringe when reading an entry for Agency of the Year?

MVW: Oh, I see rainbows and lollipops and everything is great! But you know, when there’s nothing but sort of PR-type writing, that annoys me. We also like to see that — even though a lot of our entrants can’t give us the actual data — we want to have enough detail as to the nature of the change so that someone doesn’t take some low data point and say they increased it by 200%, which may be true — but the change went from, say, 10 to 20.

We don’t want anyone that sort of cherry-picks the most spectacular data and shows it to us. What we want to see is people that are really showing authenticity in their data, so what really annoys us is when we see nothing but “50,000 percent increase in ROI!” Yeah, sure. Okay. Whatever that means.

Marks of a winning entry

So nothing wrong with admitting challenges and struggles and how they overcame them?

MVW: No, no sir. In fact, overcoming a preconceived idea or finding out that you were completely going the wrong way on something is a fascinating thing for an award. Because that’s typical for agencies to do that, to number one say “We thought we had this right.” An example of that is, we’ve been reading a lot about this in the news where some of our major brands are finding that they over-focused on the lowest cost stuff. They weren’t building their brand recognition, they weren’t really expanding their brand. They were just basically getting the cheapest orders they could for the lowest price. Their brand identity and their brand strength actually suffered in that.

That’s a great point. Speaking of the creativity and the honesty in an entry, can you tell me about one that you’ve seen that really just knocked your socks off?

MVW: I think some of the most impressive submissions we’ve seen have gone the extra yard to do incredibly detailed work. Stuff in your campaign that says, “…If I do this, it’s going to mean a lot more work, but I think we’re going to get this done.” Those things are really amazing. Some of the best ones I’ve seen pull together display, search, and show some good experimentation.

The ones that I remember that talked about the business as a whole, not just their campaigns, but they talked about the impacts of what they were doing on other parts of that business. Some of the ones that really stood out were when it was clear that the search teams were fully integrated and contributing members of the entire marketing team of a company. Everyone was sharing, and even though they were all in their own areas of expertise, they weren’t being protective of silos, what they were doing, but were being open to making the top line for the company the best, not just their particular silo. Those ones we really, really like.

That’s a great example. What, what advice would you give to the smaller boutique style agencies that might feel a little intimidated about against competing against the larger, multinational agencies?

MVW: There’s no doubt that the largest players have access to generally more mature IT systems and technology databases. They have so many more options available to them. I would basically say what smaller agencies should do is use their size as an advantage and tell that David versus Goliath story. Tell how even though they are only X number of people, they were able to get the types of returns that someone would expect to spend a lot more money and have a lot more people on. So I would just tell the David and Goliath story in a way that’s authentic.

I wouldn’t shy away from the fact that they’re a small agency. I would say they should show the efficiencies they gained without the advantage of an ultra-large budget. Think of this like karate or wrestling or boxing. The lightweights are never going to beat the heavyweights, but they’re going to be faster, quicker on their feet, and more nimble, and pound-for-pound a very good chance they’re the better fighter.

As far as the in-person experience goes when we actually do the awards, what’s your favorite part? And you can’t say the open bar!

MVW: I’d have to say that it is true and enjoyable to be there with the clear leaders in this industry. So one of the things is that although we don’t talk all the business, it’s great to meet the faces behind great campaigns.

Oftentimes we’ll only read about things. It’s often very surprising to me when we see a team that comes up, and they’re clearly just over the moon about winning this award, and they look like every Tom, Dick and Harry you’ve ever seen don’t look like super-geniuses, they look like regular folks that are really just proud that that number one, they’ve done something cool, and number two, they’ve been recognized by industry leaders. Watching people get the awards actually really quite fun.

Any last words of wisdom?

MVW: I would say that if you think you’ve done something that’s really great this year, don’t worry about whether you think that it will measure up — tell your own story. We can only have one winner, but, the fact that you take the time to review and tell a really great story has all sorts of other dividends for your team. Your team will love to review a great success, and that can be a benefit in your local community; it could be a benefit to your team building, to your recruiting.

So I think if there were a tip, while I’d say the winning is great and we hope everyone wins (even though that can’t happen) what we really think is that it’s important that you take the time and actually celebrate yourself for a really good job on something you did and that you’re proud enough to put out there.

About The Author

Katie Jordan is Search Engine Land’s Marketing Coordinator and has been a member of the Search Engine Land / Third Door Media team since 2013, first joining as a Community Intern and later joining the marketing team full time in 2016. Katie coordinates the annual Search Engine Land Awards, works with our Editorial Team to generate the Search Engine Land, Marketing Land, and MarTech Today Daily Brief newsletters, and works with the marketing team on the many projects across Third Door Media brands.

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