A Look at What Might Have Been

First published December 17, 2009 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I’ve stated before in this column that “It’s a Wonderful Life” is perhaps my favorite holiday movie.  Yesterday, as I was having lunch, I had my own George Bailey moment. I had a chance to see what my life might have been like had I not made the decision to go into search 14 years ago.  I was thumbing through the local newspaper (yes, I still do that on occasion) and the lead story in the business section caught my eye. The title was: “Ad Agencies adjusting to the new economy.”

Kelowna, B.C.  is a small town (although larger than Bedford Falls). It supports three full-service ad agencies. I know the founders of each of them fairly well. A long time ago, in another life, I was one of these agencies, working with a handful of clients, many of which were in real estate.  In 1996, frustrated with the challenges of dealing with small-town budgets and attitudes, I decided to move into the online space, which subsequently took me into the world of search. That allowed me to work with clients outside my market.

I guess, given what’s happened to these three agencies, my decision to move online proved to be the right one. In the last year, one agency has gone from 12 full-time people to just the founder, who has become an independent consultant. Two of the agencies saw a split between two long-term partners and a drastic reduction both in clients and staff.

These are the facts. One can read between the line to get a glimpse of the heartache and soul-searching that came with these very difficult business decisions. At least two of the agency founders said they were going through a personal discovery journey and were looking at pursuing other “more rewarding” professional endeavors in the future. Not to be overly cynical, but I find the frequency of these voyages of “self discovery” are usually inversely related to the success of your business. With a few notable exceptions, not many people reevaluate their professional lives when their businesses are rocking.

Suddenly, Search Seems Rosy

2009 wasn’t a banner year for my company, but compared to these stories, it was a skip down the Yellow Brick Road. We grew top-line revenues by 14%, added nine new jobs, opened a new sales office, maintained or increased client satisfaction levels, gave our employees healthy pay raises and managed to stay on the right side of the ledger sheet.

I paint these contrasts not so much to say how great we are in search, but because they present a microcosmic view of the shift in marketing. While traditional budgets were being ruthlessly slashed throughout 2009, digital and search budgets bounced along and managed to keep from being swamped by the economic storm. I certainly have talked to several search marketers who had a tough year (some of whom are also looking at their own personal “voyages of discovery”) but I would guess that the incidence rate is far less than you would find on the other side of the digital divide.

All Aboard!

The other interesting thing I gleaned from the story in my local newspaper is that all of the agency founders are paying more attention to what’s happening in the digital domain. As the demand for real estate brochures and print ads dries up, they’re only now realizing that something surprisingly robust and healthy appears to be happening online.  Suddenly, strategies including Facebook and Twitter are starting to show up in their pitches to local clients.

Having made my decision to move online almost a decade and a half ago, I would caution these people that becoming a digital “guru” may not be quite as easy as it appears to be. As became abundantly clear at the Search Insider Summit a few weeks ago, we’ve still got a long way to go before we understand the various online gears and levers of a truly integrated campaign. You’re more than welcome to jump on the digital bandwagon, but be prepared — it’s moving a lot faster than you might think!

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