Will Agencies Get Search? Don’t Hold Your Breath

First published November 1, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

It seems like anytime I have a conversation with anyone who knows search and its effectiveness, we always come back to the same question: “Why don’t more ad agencies and brand advertisers get search?”

Just this week, I was having this conversation. Twice, in fact. One of my pet peeves is an arbitrary allocation of budget to search, with no regard for the objectives of a cross-channel campaign. “We’ll take this pile and give it to television. We’ll take this slightly smaller pile and give it to print. Here’s a small pile for online, and, oh, make sure you take a little bit of that and set it aside for search, because everyone’s telling us we should be doing search.” I guess I shouldn’t be complaining. At least there’s now a little bit left over for search, which is a vast improvement from where we were just a few years ago.

But what this approach does is force your search campaign to be managed to budget, rather than to overall objectives. So we see more restrictive targeting, movement down the tail into longer and more specific key phrases, day parting and flighting, geo targeting and other ways to slice and dice the campaign to get the best quality clicks from the budget available.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. It’s called campaign optimization. But it’s often done to keep within an arbitrary budget cap that has no logical reason to exist. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Search dollars should be the first ones in, not the last. Take as much search inventory as you can get. Judge your costs per acquisition not against your top performing keywords, but against your other channels, both online and offline. If even the marginal search traffic is generating a lower CPA, beg, borrow and steal as much budget as you can and top up search. Only then should you move from “pull” (prospects holding up their hands to purchase through search) to “push” (trying to persuade latent prospects to purchase). Only put restrictions on your search campaign if you’re absolutely certain that another channel can exceed its effectiveness.

The Classic Brand Building Gambit

Sure, you say, but what about ‘branding”? That’s TV’s domain. Well, I disagree. I think there’s no better branding opportunity than deep engagement with a Web site from a qualified prospect. Again, this is someone well down the funnel who is considering his or her purchase options. And search drives these opportunities. Sure, TV, print and other channels can build brands, but I challenge anyone to prove to me that they build brands as cost-effectively as search driving Web site engagement. I’ve yet to see a study that shows that. I’ve seen several that show search blowing away other channels, including the CPG study I wrote about last week. Brand-build with prospects that are ready to buy first, then build with the “maybe, someday” crowd with what’s left over.

So, why is it such a struggle to get search on the horizon of big agencies and advertisers? I’ve come to the conclusion that search is being held back by four things:

Search is small. Advertisers and agencies like to think big. They like big, bold ideas. Killer campaigns. Knock-your-socks-off creative. Search is none of those things. Search is thousands of micro-niche campaigns. Search is granular and gritty. Search is turning a whole bunch of dials and pulling a lot of levers, to squeeze out new customers a few at a time. You can’t “unveil” a new search campaign, like snatching a sheet off a sculpture. Launching a search campaign is more like putting a million grains of sand into a bucket, one spoonful at a time. That’s not a concept that “brilliant” advertising minds can get fired up about.

Search is measurable. You can measure the hell out of search. You can hold everyone accountable. You can demand to know who screwed up the campaign because your ROI dropped 10 points. That can cause a lot of red faces round the ol’ agency conference table.

Search is hard. Because search is granular, search is hard. It takes a lot of work to squeeze out an impressive bottom line. And the harder you work, the more impressive that bottom line will be. You’ll never hit a search home run with one inspired brainstorm. There is no golden concept. You just keep plugging away, tweaking keywords and pulling in prospects. Agencies and big advertisers are looking for that single perfect run down the mountain, with fresh powder and the sun shining. Search is more like cross-country skiing up the mountain.

Search is utilitarian. Search is constantly accused of not being sexy. That drives me nuts. The irony is that in pigeonholing search as being boring and utilitarian, all these brilliant advertising minds are missing the biggest idea of all: search works because it’s the customer driving the process, not the advertiser. All you have to do is a half decent job of meeting them halfway. Some say it’s that lack of control that scares the bejeebers out of agencies and brand marketers. To be fair, I don’t think that’s always true. I just think that search just doesn’t get the juices going in the average marketer. It may not be that they’re scared; it may just be that they’re bored.

And for all these reasons, I don’t think big agencies will ever truly get search. It’s too much of a cultural mismatch for them. They’ll bring search in-house, but they’ll silo it off, in a back room, far from the playground which is really where everyone wants to be, cranking out killer creative for the next TV campaign.

It’s just too bad that those TV ads won’t work very well. At least, not when you compare them to search.


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