Media Planners Face Tough, Time-Consuming Task When It Comes To Search

The explosion in search engine marketing has created a vast array of new partnerships and products among vendors, and some media planners say the marketplace is more complicated to navigate than ever. Bidding on keywords is no longer as simple as merely outspending your competitors. Sophisticated research tools are now available to enhance the process, and planners must learn how to use them.

Online media planners are struggling to keep up with the rapid pace of the search world, and some agencies are wrestling with whether search warrants an entirely new planning discipline--one that may or may not require outside assistance.

"We are seeing increased fragmentation and an increasing complexity," says Jeff Lanctot, Vice President of Media at aQuantive's Avenue A. "There is an ever-growing list of practical applications."

Some planners say that where they used to deal only with Google and Overture, they now feel overwhelmed by an influx of smaller players gunning for their attention, portals like Yahoo! beefing up search capabilities, and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN now developing its own search tool. Navigating the changing landscape and lines of distribution is a full-time job.

One senior planner, who works with a prominent, e-commerce-focused client, expresses a common uncertainty about how best to spend her client's money: "It's so confusing--for a while it was just buy Overture and Google and they were manageable," she says, adding: "You could say, 'If I bid correctly, I am guaranteed to be everywhere.'"

Ironically, consolidation in the sector may have made things more complicated for media planners. Yahoo! acquired Overture last year, and recently combined the assets of Inktomi, AlltheWeb.com, and AltaVista to create a unified paid inclusion program. Ask Jeeves now has iWon and Excite, and Looksmart is selling Lycos. Some media planners contend that monitoring campaigns has become more difficult.

"Sometimes you say, 'Who's powering who?'" says Adam Shlachter, a media supervisor at WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson. "There is definitely some confusion in explaining (keyword ads) to the client," says Jordan Bitterman, vice president and group digital director at FCBi, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Cos. "They sometimes want to know why their ads aren't where they think they should be."

Planners also say vendors are peddling new products, often in packages with limited flexibility. Google, for example, sells AdWords Select and AdSense, while Looksmart sells Looklinks and Overture pushes AdSonar. The product proliferation has a major impact on planners' time, and many are struggling to keep up as keyword buying becomes increasingly labor-intensive.

Some agencies are experimenting with outsourcing search campaign management to specialty companies such as Did-it.com and Keywordranking.com--which offer to manage clients' bids using sophisticated software--with the promise of improved performance.

Thompson's Shlachter believes planners may need the help, particularly with bidding on words. "Planners' core competency is not in the hourly management of these campaigns," he says. "These are skills that most of us don't have. The market emerged so fast." FCBi's Bitterman adds that third parties make it easier to get things like terms and conditions approved.

The bigger agencies appear determined to keep search planning in house, either through developing their own in-house experts or hiring from the outside. "We don't think it should be a stand-alone," says Avenue A's Lanctot. "This is something that happens when something new and complicated grows quickly--that people seek out experts. We believe that may be shortsighted."

"Within our organization we have a handful of people who are really good at search," says Jeff Marshall, senior vice president, director of operations, Starcom MediaVest Group's Starcom IP. Marshall says that Starcom also prefers to avoid using third-party vendors.

Ron Belanger, vice president of search engine marketing at Carat Interactive, says search is a specialty at Carat: "I have planners working 50 hours a week doing just this."

Belanger lists several skills that the typical online media planner may not have the experience or time to master. These include an understanding of keyword research, copywriting skills, and an intimate knowledge of advanced optimizing tools. Agencies may have trouble finding candidates who fit this description. "There are not a lot of skilled technicians in the market," Belanger says.

According to Jupiter Research, paid search is the growth engine for the online advertising sector. Total online ad spending hit $6.3 billion in 2003, according to Jupiter, with paid search accounting for $1.6 billion of that figure. Nielsen//NetRatings found that 114.5 million--or 39 percent--of Americans used a search engine in January.