Ubiquity Has Value
Advertising and marketing both have an offensive and defensive component. Yes, you're trying to get your message into people's minds -- but you're also trying to block your competitors from infiltrating them as well.
But nobody quantifies how much it's worth to block competitors from gaining mindshare on SERPs, even though being able to do so has enormous (albeit intangible) value to organizations. Nor have we heard much recently about the role of text ads in terms of brand lift (the IAB studied this back in 2004, with results affirming that text ads lift brand awareness significantly).
Marketers tend to squawk about having to run text ads for listings that may have excellent organic positioning, just to prevent competitors from stealing the traffic they've generated from non-search media. Still, establishing brands in the public's mind and fiercely defending this position is an age-old practice. Ubiquity has value, must be paid for, and should be factored into budgets irrespective of ROI.
Increasing Market Share Has Value
Successful marketers long ago came to the realization that you can't let short-term ROI fluctuations drive budget allocation decisions. If your product or service has genuine value, you don't want to under-support it, especially in lean times when your competitors have pared their own marketing spend.
Sooner or later, we'll all crawl out of this economic hole, and you want your brand to be first then. Furthermore, media -- even search --- is cheap today compared to where it will be when times improve. Unfortunately, this kind of macro-level view is often overshadowed by the continual need to explain, defend, and react to fleeting micro-phenomena ("our CTR rate is down 0.2 percent last week: WTF is going on?") The fact that SEM is so measurable is as much a curse as a blessing, because it leads people to focus on what was important yesterday, not what's going to be important in the year ahead: of course, increasing market share, which has never been and never will be cheap.
Data Has Value
One can truly know a man or woman by his/her query steam. No, it's not a complete picture, but we're now seeing search engines fill in the missing pieces. For example, Google's new social search will overlay the social graph of its users on its historical record of its users' queries. Of course, we don't live in a world in which the search engines give away this data to marketers. One must buy it, and everybody who buys search ads gets, along with clicks, orders (hopefully), and brand lift, the benefit of powerful insights on their potential clients. I often wonder how many marketers are taking full advantage of these insights to inform both their online and offline media buys. Paid search is a terrific way to gain such insights, but the "ROI trap" stunts such efforts.
The most important step you can take to break your organization out of this mental straightjacket is to redefine your understanding of what a click is worth. Instead of viewing it as a step toward an order, view it as an insight that can guide you toward better marketing overall.
ROI is a great and wondrous thing, and I hope you're getting plenty of it. But don't think for a moment that ROI is going to keep your organization safe in these tumultuous times. Because ROI is so easy to quantify, and cash is such a compelling stimulant, it's easy to be suckered into the ROI trap. Your job is to think past this trap, making your way to the greater rewards that lie beyond.