Search Agency of the Year: Merkle

2020 has been a wild ride for most of us.

Early in the year, the COVID-19 virus emerged, initially detected in China. When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a worldwide pandemic in March, businesses were forced to temporarily close and countries implemented stay-at-home work orders that not only disrupted supply chains, but created chaos and uncertainty for consumers and companies.

Brands put campaigns on hold, as they contemplated how to interact and react to swiftly changing events. Agencies had to find ways to support brands.

As the year progressed and the effects of the pandemic played out, agencies found a way to regroup and reinvent processes and procedures to continue their support for clients. At the same time, there was much turmoil due to political and civil unrest.

In the face of unprecedented challenges, excellence seen in a handful agencies like Merkle, NP Digital, and Performics made this year’s decision to name a Search Agency of the Year much more difficult.

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With 2020 just ended, and the new year just beginning, the latest MediaPost Search Agency of the Year award goes to Merkle, the global search and performance marketing agency within Dentsu Holdings.

While most agencies managed to adapt and many have even thrived this year, Merkle adjusted through forward thinking, innovation, diversity, and data. The agency changed its partner strategy, differentiated its services with the use of data, and leaped headfirst into automation.

It’s obvious to assume marketers know the agency Merkle for its excellence in data, but they also should know the agency for thought-provoking innovations, forward-thinking technology, and diversity that enables employees to really know the audience around the world.

“We’re seen as the analytics and data shop, but we’re pretty creative and innovative,” said Matthew Mierzejewski, senior vice president and search capability lead at Merkle. “It’s unlikely you’ll get a big branding campaign from us, but you’ll get innovative solutions to gain an advantage and a competitive edge.”

Merkle has created a campaign initiative, which the agency will talk further about in 2021, to help local minority-owned businesses that Mierzejewski said get “lost in the shuffle.” In addition, the agency has developed a variety of technology projects, such as Merkle InSight, COVID-19 Market Impact Dashboard, and Real-Time Activation and Optimization through Automation.

Merkle InSight, built in Q4 2019, but introduced in 2020, seems most outstanding in its ability to find and aggregate data, as well as provide shifts in pricing trends, and information on share of market.

“We developed the product to close a gap in the marketplace — understanding the dynamics of search listings and how they work together and change, according to Google, across desktop and mobile,” he said, pointing to a lack of tools from Google that provide information on how effective advertisers and brands are on search.

The technology scrapes information from across the web to offer its clients competitive data. BrightEdge, BrandVerity, and SEMrush may have similar tools, but they are not huge agencies that might consider diversity, quantity of ads per market share, pricing and other factors to process the data.

There is also an attempt to better understand how Google matches products with queries. “We may not know how much a competitor bids on a specific product listing ad in Shopping to gain share or promote a product, but we can try to correlate, from what Google serves, any connection between the products served and the titles for a specific query,” he said.

The biggest challenge for Merkle as COVID-19 took hold is that marketers lost focus between March and June. It was no longer a priority to dive deeply into insights, but as the end-of-year holidays approached, marketers began to refocus to gain a return on investment for all campaigns.

As diversity became increasingly important to create a well-rounded agency of about 12,000 employees, with some 450 in Merkle’s performance marketing group, the agency appointed Kirt Morris to the newly created position of global chief equity officer.

Before being appointed to the position in November, Morris worked as an advisor on Merkle’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team, assisting Merkle in working toward its ongoing goals of creating a more equitable work environment. 

Merkle made diversity, equity and inclusion a priority, making changes to accelerate progress and embed into its business, including appointing Morris.

Like other agencies and corporations, Merkle and parent company Dentsu took a serious look at the effectiveness of their existing efforts, which have included a cross-functional DEI council and pillars of advocacy and employee business resource groups across identity groups such as gender, ethnicity, LGTBQ, mental health, ability level, religion, parents, and military. As a result, both placed a stronger focus on initiatives to drive progress in representation, particularly with BIPOC and women.

What will 2021 look like for Merkle? Mierzejewski said the focus also turns to supporting Merkle’s Performance Marketing Lab, investing in technology and data to pay-off in automation, among other things like ways for brands to own their data. Also expand on and build out Merkle InSights.  

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