Monday, August 25, 2008

Search Insider: Shifting Paradigms In The SEM Agency Business

Shifting Paradigms In The SEM Agency Business

IN SPEAKING TO FRIENDS FROM other agencies who spent the last week out at SES in San Jose, I heard many of the same comments I've heard before: "it was really tactical," "topics seemed more geared towards newbies and smaller businesses," and "there wasn't that much forward thinking."  Of course, anyone who tells you that the critical elements of search aren't extremely tactical is lying.  Whether it's SEM, SEO, or forms of media that are cousins of search (contextual, social, integrated media buys, etc.) the path to success lies primarily in the successful execution of tactics.  But the widespread feelings primarily from agency folks about the state of our industry's most popular trade shows reveal that they're missing something. What's missing?  What would support paradigm shifts that forward the industry? Here are some thoughts: you're welcome to add your own.
Have We Forgotten That Search Is About Marketing?
I'm a big fan of the movie "Jerry Maguire," and it's not just because my name is the same and my love of football is as strong.  Jerry was an agent in the true sense: a brutally honest advocate for his clients who asked for complete trust in a path he believed led to wonderful rewards.  His mission went against the industry's grain but was founded in a firm belief in what was at the core of true success: a love and respect for the game.  Marketing is the core of search: the real game, but the rapid evolution of an ecosystem that's driven by technology platforms, tools, and short-term focus, makes it easy to lose sight of the fundamentals of driving awareness, interest, desire, and action among people.  If Jerry M was hangin' out at SES, he'd probably say, "Have we forgotten that those clicks we speak of are people?"  Despite lip service paid to the concept, we're not an industry that places the consumer at the center. Even worse, our channel (which gleans the most comprehensive, valuable intent data possible), is still a siloed, ancillary function in many organizations.  Can more discussion about -- and more importantly, from -- the almighty consumer, be what's missing?

Where Are The Experts When "Everybody" Is  An Expert?
Hats off to Macromedia in the late '90s and still today (as Adobe) for building a cult-like army of Flash developers (including myself -- self taught in a weekend in '96 using their online tutorials/communities).  They created great tools, but more importantly, they understood who their audience was and built events, training programs and more around this.  Sound familiar?  Search is an industry built on self-service tools, most notably those offered by the media providers, and the widespread availability of these tools does more than just empower anyone to be a marketer. Ubiquitous tools drive a massive need for education and guidance, but the resulting discussion is so ridiculously tactical that it will always frustrate those who are more advanced. Unfortunately, the concept of "advanced" is too nebulous to be meaningful, especially when tools are good, the learning curve is fairly flat, and most concepts are straightforward (for instance, action scripting vs. much less technical search topics like match-types).  The result is that virtually everyone can claim to be an "expert" in their own right.  As my colleague Dave Pasternack pointed out, we've created a virtually indistinguishable society of search marketers without a highly respected short list of true expert agencies. What I think Jerry M would want to know is how to find the true experts; people whose accreditations are based on quantifiable results, not online certifications offered to most of the world. 

Do We Even Care What Clients Actually Think?
We can battle these issues out on the blogs and in the months between shows, but if we had a lot more CMO's, VP's of Marketing, and search managers on stage who've seen the good, bad and ugly of SEM agency client relationships first hand, we'd have enough fireworks to illuminate some real issues afflicting our industry. For example, I'd love to know whether, as the WPP's, IPG's and Publicis' of the world continue banking on digital and staffing up their search postures, their clients are happy or disappointed. What makes these agencies most appealing?  What are the results from a client's perspective?  Is the cross-channel vision a reality, from the client's perspective?  Similarly, we as agencies of all shapes and sizes must be open to the same pointed, client-centric discussions that can forward our industry in the same disruptively honest way that Jerry Maguire did when he stepped into uncomfortable waters.  Could an exploration of the client's perspective be what's missing from the discussion?

Where's Strategic Vision & Best Practices Beyond Our Sandbox?
Let's face the music: our visions of cross-channel marketing where search and display (and more) are optimized based on interaction effects is primarily dependent on technology.  I've written before that the sleeping giants in the SEM industry are technologies that will go far beyond bid management, Web analytics, and post-click landing page optimization systems.  Discussion of the CRM dimension to SEM is barely existent, yet the very nature of the integrated media vision lies in the fundamentals of API-based, intelligent systems that can act on various data points based on rules.  Are folks from IBM, Siebel, Oracle, PeopleSoft and other relevant technology firms, speaking about similar challenges they've faced with much higher stakes, what's missing?  Are discussions about the challenges and rewards of breaking down silos in global businesses and transforming operational processes to effectively manage change, what's missing? 

I think so. How 'bout you?

Gerry Bavaro is executive vice president at Didit, an agency for search engine marketing and auctioned media management based in New York. You can reach Gerry at

Search Insider for Monday, August 25, 2008:

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