Monday, September 8, 2008

Search Insider: Is The Ad World Finally Taking SEM Seriously?

Is The Ad World Finally Taking SEM Seriously?

AS ADVERTISING WEEK APPROACHES (SEPT. 22-26 in New York ), it's a good time for us in SEM to take stock of what we do, and how we fit into the larger world of advertising. Are we really part of it? (A lot of "real world" advertising people would say no: our whole industry is just a part of the "below the line" DR/promotional end of it). Do we even want to be part of it? (Say every nasty thing you want about us gear-heads, but at least we don't advise our clients to waste clients' money on unmeasurable media, an especially important consideration in these recessionary times).

Unfortunately, in the past, it's been far too easy for "real world" advertising types to diss us. No, what we do in a couple of lines of text will never be as creative as what they do (which is why there will never be a high-profile "Texty Award" ceremony celebrating killer text ads). The way we're paid (based on performance) is anathema to the retainer-based model that's long kept agency coffers filled. Our backgrounds (primarily quantitative) alienate us from regular ad folk, many of whom are frustrated poets and novelists. There's really nothing about what we do that's sexy, other than the fact that when we do a good job, and make lots of money back for our clients, we feel justifiably proud, and that's a damned good feeling. And these days, when times are tough throughout the advertising and marketing sector, the fact that we can justify our fees by pointing to hard numbers gives us a sense of security largely missing from Madison Avenue, which is running scared.  In other words, we can sleep at night.

We can't be complacent, however -- far from it. The entity we call the "search ecosystem" has shifted markedly in the past two years, and power is consolidating in fewer hands. The truth is that all of us in SEM dance to Google's tune, and if that melody changes, the dance could instantly stop. You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to know that we all live and die by Google's willingness to let our campaign management systems interface through its API. Google's management has had the good sense to realize that by allowing such access, it benefits from greater participation in the market it's created. But Google's policy isn't written in stone or enforceable by law: the SEM industry lives by Google's good graces. If the "real world" of advertising worked this way, there would only be one network, one radio station, and one magazine to run ads across. So while we might be tempted toward self-congratulation right now, the winds of change blow fast as a hurricane in any field ruled by technology.

Which brings us to Advertising Week, which happens each September in New York. The good news is that this year's Advertising Week appears to be paying more attention to the SEM industry than ever before. Several panels specifically address search issues,  among them one ("Paradigm Shift: Advertising in the Digital Age") that will include several high-profile SEM reps, including Didit's Kevin Lee and 360i's Bryan Weiner. Another panel (Advertising Age's "Digital Bites Search Marketing Breakfast") features VivaKi's Curt Hecht, Reprise Media's Peter Hershberg, and comScore's James Lamberti.

These are only two panels -- but they're important ones. Naturally, the vast majority of Advertising Week events continue to stress issues that are tangential to the SEM industry, but that's to be expected, because the ad world is so broad, and remains overly focused on the display end of online advertising. But I expect that SEM will continue to get increasing levels of recognition from the "real world" of advertising, for the mere fact that search spending represents one of the few success stories in an industry that has been badly damaged by the current macroeconomic malaise that isn't expected to lift anytime soon. More importantly, SEM represents the future of advertising, because the principles and practices developed here are becoming rapidly adopted in the larger world. So hold your head high at Advertising Week, SEM practitioner, because the real future of advertising belongs to you.

Steve Baldwin is editor-in-chief at Didit, an agency for search engine marketing and auctioned media management based in New York. You can reach Steve at

Search Insider for Monday, September 8, 2008:

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