Some Agencies DO 'Get' Search

Gord Hotchkiss writes: This week, I hand my Search Insider spot over to Mike Margolin, from RPA. Mike was my debating partner at the Search Insider Summit last week in Park City, and provided an equally impassioned and compelling argument against my view, which ran in last week's column. Because of the timing issues around submission, I wasn't able to provide a recap of Mike's rebuttal (because I hadn't heard it myself yet) but this week, rather than my trying to paraphrase his position, I'll let Mike tell it in his own word:

As a marketer at a full-service agency, allow me to wax on about the many reasons why we love search and how it's helped shape how we do business:

Search marketing created this wonderful, sterile environment that allowed us to learn how to be better marketers. It got us to micro-target, concentrate on message relevancy and drive toward conversion in a way that display ads alone (with graphical elements that often blurred the lines between conversion and branding) didn't. It got us to really focus on analytics; to pay more attention to extracting full value from our clients' marketing investments.



Search made us learn to compete; with the rise of the media auction, we were forced to test our mettle in the marketplace, not just cut CPM deals through relationships with big publishers and the promise of future spending by our big clients.

Search forced publishers to reinvent their ad models, halt CPM inflation, make targeting more relevant and leverage their resources in ways that advertisers couldn't have imagined at the start of the millennium.

In short, it fulfilled much of the promise of online advertising and, for some agencies, it's had a profound effect on how we view advertising. Because search did all these things, the industry press, investors and research companies have crowned it prince.

But it's foolish to ignore the very reasons why we click on the search listings that we do as we plan the events and experiences of our lives, formulate purchase decisions and research all types of information. In Gord's last column, he blithely criticized agencies as only existing to persuade, and wrote that with search, "Pick A, B, C or D...There's no room for persuasion. There's only what's present...totally in the user's control." But how does a searcher make that choice? It's rarely a blind guess; in search activity involving some sort of purchase, it's almost always an informed decision (or gut instinct) that was fueled by beliefs about a product or a brand. These beliefs are created by the many ways that companies' brand messages are communicated -- often through a combination of media, personal experience and word-of-mouth.

In actuality, the purpose of an agency is to help companies determine how to best communicate and crystallize ideas of their brands, to advise on the most effective ways to create awareness of new products, to fuel the future decision-making of potential customers and to reach those people with compelling messaging when they're about to make a purchase decision. Agencies also recommend the best media mix for each campaign and evaluate the success of each individual channel effort and the channels in concert with one another. Gord says that search is too far removed from advertising -- and I totally agree that's the case at some agencies. It shouldn't be. Search is what keeps consumers moving in their decision-making process, the Drano of the purchase funnel -- and agencies can't afford to just push off the strategy to a siloed unit (or, for that matter, a search firm) and not carefully leverage it within a marketing plan.

There isn't enough room in this column to address each of Gord's arguments about why he thinks agencies will never get search, but he make a really valid point: "Search is hard." Search is not for the lazy, the incapable or the uninspired. Because it's hard, it's inevitable that many agencies just won't tackle search campaign management in-house. But who says that to "get" search, an agency has to actually manage those campaigns? While developing search strategy and also managing search campaigns certainly has its advantages, outsourcing campaign management and optimization is a reasonable option. Getting it doesn't necessarily mean doing all of it. But it's hard to get it unless you've done it, which is why strategic thinkers with search marketing experience will be increasingly valued in the agency world.

But I believe that the question of whether agencies will ever get search is part of a bigger question; "Will agencies ever get consumers?" We continue to move into an age where trust in brands and the opinion of others mean much more to successful advertising than TRPs. As consumers, we're no longer easily duped by persuasive messages; information on what we consider purchasing (via consumer and expert reviews) is just too easy to obtain. We are creatures that seek knowledge, trust, experience and value. Search acts as the conduit to our research and the inevitable channel to conversion. A smart agency understands that there's great value there, but also sees that search is just one element of a larger plan.

Agencies need to be fearless in doing what's right for our clients' businesses, and continuing the shift to consumer-focused marketing (including search) is essential. Not all agencies will do this willingly; for some, there will be pressure from the top rungs to maintain billings in the most profitable areas. Some agencies are probably going to be seriously challenged in adapting their businesses, as their big clients realize that excessive media weights aren't solving their core business problems in this millennium. But the consumer has already changed. Communicating brand messages has become a lot more complex. Smart and nimble agencies will be in the best position to help large advertisers traverse the maze. Search will most certainly be a part of that progression -- and the agencies who get it will most likely be the ones that thrive.

So in response to Gord's position, I think to generalize that all agencies are incapable of getting search (and that none will want to) is to mistakenly see the world as black and white. Some agencies are indeed hopeless. Some would rather bury their heads in the sand and are content with sending off a slice of their marketing budgets to specialty search firms to appease their clients. And some, as a senior Yahoo exec told me, have search practices that "can compete with the search firms any day of the week." That doesn't seem like discontinuous innovation to me.

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