Still Live (But Slightly Bruised) from Park City, Utah

First published December 14, 2007 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Yesterday at the Search Insider Summit in Park City, I was precariously perched out on a limb. I kicked off the summit by defending my position that big agencies won’t “get” search. Given that the Summit attracts a fair number of attendees from the world of big agencies, I’m wondering if the organizers of the show (thanks, Nick… thanks, Ken) were setting me up for an unfortunate ski jump accident.

My opponent in the debate was Mike Margolin. If you’ll check the comments on the blog from the previous column, you’ll see that Mike and I started the debate there, and have now brought it to the ski hills of Utah.

“Doing” and “Getting” Are Two Different Things

My position is that search is something big agencies will “do” because they have to, but they’ll do so reluctantly. Search is not aligned to the cultural or creative DNA that defines a big agency. So, they’ll never “get” search.

Mike’s position is that big agencies will absolutely “get” search, because they have no choice. The big agency table is where the brand strategies are determined, and search will play an integral role in that. In fact, if you’re not at the table, you’ll be shut out.

What Does History Teach Us?

The argument is a good one. It’s logical and seeming inevitable. But if you look at history, it’s also without much precedent.

When discontinuous innovation happens (and search is definitely a discontinuous innovation) it’s almost never the established power players that adopt it and capitalize on it. I previously used the example of the adoption of electricity by corporate America, another discontinuous innovation. Then, the big, established companies had invested heavily in steam power. It took them 50 years to adopt electricity, even though the advantages of electrical power were obvious. By the time they made the move, younger, smaller, faster-moving and more nimble companies had passed them by. Many of the industrial dinosaurs never recovered and died away.

That’s how evolution works. The succeeding species replaces the previously entrenched one because of a change in DNA — but also because the existing power species underestimates the importance of that change.Why would the dinosaurs change? From their vantage point, towering over the mammals, they were invulnerable. It was inevitable that they would prevail. Or so it seemed at the time.

How’s the View Up There?

From the big agencies’ perspective, high atop their vast media-buying empires, the agency monoliths seem invulnerable. It’s only if you’re scurrying around down here at ground level that you see the cracks in the ground underneath them.

Finally, let’s touch on the fact of just how important search is. Search is just the thin edge of the wedge that’s forever changing the nature of marketing. Mass marketing is gone. Micro marketing is here, but the thing that makes search so fundamentally important is pull versus push. It’s about people (as fellow columnist Kaila Colbin pointed out in Tuesday’s column ), but more than that, it’s about knowing them and meeting them halfway, one person at a time. That’s what search does, and what it will do with increasing effectiveness over the next decade. This market doesn’t lend itself to mass campaigns. Instead, it means millions of micro campaigns.

But here’s the fundamental reason why agencies won’t embrace search and its pull versus push paradigm. Agencies persuade. It’s why they exist. Their jobs are to use everything at their disposal — creativity, cleverness, research, targeting, emotional appeals — whatever it takes to get us to buy something. That fits well with their push mentality. That’s why agencies love TV. At this point, TV is still the most persuasive medium out there.

But you can’t persuade someone in search. Advertisers have tried, and it’s failed miserably. Search is, at best, multiple-choice. Pick from A, B, C or D, based on which you think is the best match for your intent. There’s no room for persuasion. There’s only what’s present, and picking, and the last of these, the fundamental outcome of search, is totally in the user’s control. We spend a few seconds making our decision. We don’t even read the text. We don’t need to be persuaded to learn more. We’ve already made that choice. So we’re immune to persuasion when we’re on a search engine. In fact, we’ll purposely ignore it. By trying to do search, agencies are going against their most fundamental nature.

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