Industry News, Opinion

An SEO contract of 1 year+?

Has SEO evolved to be an important manifestation of brand communications? Do the terms of contract engagement line up against this long tail objective? Does the pitch cycle exhaust agencies and clients alike?

Ed Lamb

By Ed Lamb

20 March 2017

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Six years ago I wrote on the Propellernet website about how I thought SEO would evolve to be mostly brand communications. I thought I could see the future which was strategic planning using online behavioural insight and creative concepts to play on those insights. We’d just won Marks and Spencer as a client taking that approach and I reasoned that we’d soon be pitching every time just as I had in my earlier career at agencies with a broader set of disciplines. On that basis, with sympathetic understanding of the brand essential to search success, I reasoned in my article that one year SEO contracts would fall by the wayside in favour of the three year engagements that agencies in better established disciplines enjoyed.

“We have a very good success rate in converting those initial contracts into long term relationships and it’s those multi-year relationships that generate the greatest effectiveness”.

It turns out that while brand communications is integral to SEO, not a lot has changed in those six years with regards to typical contract duration. There’s external factors at play of course – Brexit worries marketers, MDs and CFOs alike, and it appears that budgets in search are tighter than ever. However, that’s exactly why it makes sense to invest once in a longer-term relationship and allow time for the benefits of cross-agency collaboration to bear fruit, along with understanding and navigating the different client stakeholder relationships required to make search communications work. The alternative of continually switching agencies disrupts, takes up additional client time, and makes it harder to achieve results.


“This is the size of the SEO engagement that got away…”


Were three year engagements the norm, SEO pitch processes would inevitably become more rigorous. And the investment required to do a great pitch would then become a far more sensible one to take on. At Propellernet we made the decision long ago to be selective over which pitches we go for rather than going for any possible project irrespective of client suitability. However, I recoil with concern when I hear of search agencies still routinely pitching multiple times a week answering verbal briefs or a couple of paragraphs in an email. Longer, and therefore higher value, contracts demand that both clients and agencies take pitches seriously.


Despite my optimism six years ago, the vast majority of our client relationships still start out as one year contracts. Fortunately we have a very good success rate in converting those initial contracts into long term relationships and it’s those multi-year relationships that generate the greatest effectiveness. To give an example, are one of our longer-established clients and next year, all being well, we’ll celebrate a decade of working together. In that time, led by their owner Brett Bannister, has developed from a small Bradford based retailer to one of the top 250 eretailers in Europe. I’m not sure there can be a much better example of the longevity of a client/agency relationship increasing the value that the client has ultimately received.


While contracts lasting a decade might be a step too far for both clients and agencies alike(!), those that hold the purse strings client-side would be best advised to consider three year SEO contracts on the basis that they will create better return on investment. Will we still be talking about one year contracts in another six years’ time?