Conversations from Northwest Flight 033

First published May 28, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“So, what is it you do?”

Oh, no! It was the question I dread. I froze.

The question was posed by a very nice woman in her mid-50s who was returning to Bellingham, Wash. from a one-month trip to Europe. She was my seatmate on yesterday’s flight back from Amsterdam.

Since I got into search, I’ve hated that question, mainly because I don’t know how to answer it. I’ve tried several times, and it’s never been a terribly satisfying experience.

There was my mom, who was trying to understand what her eldest child did. I believe really, truly, she asked with the best intentions.  But this was before she had a computer and Google was just one of those words you hear that has no frame of reference, like antebellum, Shevardnadze or Hezbollah. You know the word is important to someone, just not you. 30 seconds into my answer, I knew it was hopeless. “I work with computers, Mom, on the Internet.”

“Oh, my friend was talking about that. She’s having problems with her computer. Could you fix it?”

“Sure, Mom.”

Then there was the U.S. customs agent in Sumas, Wash., who asked me the question while I was trying to gain entry into the country to go talk at a Google sales conference.

“So, you work with Google?

“Kind of. I’m not an employee of Google, but our clients use them.”

“To search?”

“No, to advertise.”

“Advertise? Where?”

“On the results page.”

“There are no ads on Google.”

“Well, actually there are.”

The conversation could have gone two ways here. I could have explained the entire monetization of search, or I could have looked for the nearest available exit from the conversation. I opted for the latter. I gained entry into the U.S., but never did convince the agent that Google sold ads.

Just to be clear: I hate the question, not the answer. Search has been extraordinarily generous to me. It’s not a job. It’s not even a chance at a multi-million-dollar buy-out. It’s the passion. It’s a chance to wake up every morning and discover something nobody knew before. It’s knowing that your opinion counts just as much as anyone’s, because we’re all figuring it out and none of us, not even all those Ph.D.s at Google, are experts yet. It’s getting the chance to explore the potential with some of the most exciting companies in the world, around the globe. And it’s the absolute blessing to be able to spend your time doing that and make enough money to provide your family with a good lifestyle. I’m not rich, but I am very happy.

Search allowed me to exceed my dreams. I started off wanting to be Darren Stevens, the ad exec working for the big agency. Sometime in my mid-20s, twenties, I decided I was less of a Darren Stevens and more of a Michael Steadman. If that name’s not familiar, Michael Steadman was Ken Olin’s character on “thirtysomething.” I wanted to be co-owner of the Michael and Elliot Company, a small but dynamic ad agency with a handful of talented and dedicated employees, cranking out great creative for regional advertisers.

Today, my company has over 30 employees and a brand new sales office in San Jose, Calif., and we work with major accounts globally. My opinion is respected in an industry I love. I travel and speak all over the world.  In fact, a research contract with Europe’s biggest telecom and a speaking gig with Google’s U.K. team were what led me to my plane ride back from Amsterdam yesterday. Based on what my life goals were, search allowed me to whiz by them some time ago and there’s still no end in sight.

But still, there was that damned question: “So, what is it you do?” 

Oh, what the hell…

“I’m a search marketer.”

“Mmm. That must be interesting.”

Wow! She got it. She knew what I was talking about. It was just as if I said I was an accountant or a lawyer.

“Yes. It is. Very interesting.”

She went back to her book. Perhaps it was on the Hezbollah, or a biography of Shevardnadze.

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