Monday, April 6, 2009

Search Insider: Search Has Won The Advertising Culture War

Search Has Won The Advertising Culture War

Mainstream news coverage of the tech industry paints an illusionary picture of inventions that arrive with lightning speed, shake up the world in a fortnight, and are rapidly replaced by others. The truth is exactly the opposite: innovations in the tech space usually take a long time to reach critical mass and acceptance. For example, the first version of Facebook launched (internally) in 2003. Twitter launched publicly in 2006. In accelerated Internet Time, that's eons ago. Other inventions that have been in the works for decades are only now bearing fruit. The basic notion of cloud computing, for example, has been around for decades (remember diskless workstations and think clients?). Search engines? They date to the 1990s, the Web's equivalent of the Pleistocene era.

There are many reasons why popular acceptance (and the execution of marketers' monetization schemes) takes so long to accomplish. Tech innovations depend on a host of externalities that dictate their market-worthiness, including bandwidth availability, affordable pricing, macroeconomics - and, perhaps most important, culture, which moves at a maddeningly slow rate of change.

The Advertising Culture War

The word "culture" is much hated by anyone unfortunate enough to suffer through Anthropology 101, because it's a sloppy, loose term that's almost impossible to define. The only reason I bring it up is because I'm convinced that we in search have our own geeky, highly insular culture. You know you're in this culture if your adrenaline levels jump when the term "expanded broad match" is mentioned or your dopamine levels spike when somebody boasts of obtaining a "0.2 percent conversion rate increase."

The "real" world of media and marketing has its own culture as well. On the surface, this culture seems to be more firmly integrated into the "real world" than search's, because people who work for, say J. Walter Thompson, have a more visible hand in creating consciousness and commercial demand than we do. I'd argue that this jock-like culture, with its hedonistic rituals (Cannes etc.), unaccountable billing models and abusive "ego-systems" is worth doing away with entirely. But it's going to be with us for at least another decade, when these people finally shuffle off to retirement homes adjacent to golf courses.

For the past five years, "we" in search have been fighting "them" at the ad agencies for that slowly shifting piece of the overall marketing pie. In large part, we've been talking past each other the same way that jocks and geeks do in high school. As long as the jocks continued to win the affections of the pretty girl with the big marketing budget, the geeks were marginalized, making them an angry, depressed bunch.

We Won This One

Well, you know what? Times have changed, and we've won. Maybe it took a complete collapse of the world economy, but we did it, and the proof is right in the IAB's recently released report on 2008 ad spending. According to the IAB, search spend isn't just holding steady: it's actually growing. The rate of growth may not be fast enough to please Google's investors, but it's practically a miracle in a marketing environment that's been spiraling into what Advertising Age's Bob Garfield correctly described as an "apocalypse" of doom.

But the real proof was in CPG (Consumer Package Good) spending, which jumped from 4% of Internet ad revenues (approximately 45% of which is search) to 6%. This was by far the biggest jump of any major industry category. I mean, think about it: for the past five years, we've been hearing about how search is a lousy branding medium, and now the biggest brands in the world are stepping forward not with talk, but with dollars.

Should we feel vindicated? Absolutely. But we have no right to feel complacent, nor is complacency in our DNA. We're search marketers, by gum, and our attitude is informed by the fact that just because we beat the competition yesterday doesn't mean that the competition isn't going to come back and crush us tomorrow. We're real-time, hands-on, crafty people, and we aren't easily seduced by the trappings of success. We have a long way to go, but we know how to get there, which is far more than you can say for those in the "real world" of advertising.

Ad people take note: you can ignore us, diss us, throw drinks in our face, and do your best to marginalize us. But you can't beat us. Because numbers -- dollars -- matter a lot more than any silly trapping of success, be it an award from Cannes or plush corner offices in a $300/square foot Madison Avenue skyscraper.

It took a long, long time, but our moment has finally arrived.


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, April 6, 2009:

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