A Day in the Life of a Search Engine Marketing Agency

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It's 9 a.m. Oct. 7, and all New York employees of icrossing Inc. have assembled in the conference room of their Union Square office. I am there as a fly on the wall to chronicle a day in the life of this fast-growing search engine marketing agency.


Most staffers are in their 20s or 30s. They are dressed casually. There's one necktie -- but it's on a pair of jeans. A few people hold coffee mugs. Sara Holoubek, icrossing's no-nonsense chief strategy officer, takes charge.


Introduction of new employees is the first item. New analyst Noah Elkin moved over from online data aggregator eMarketer. Brian Morris took a bow as the new art director, and Matt Censullo was introduced as business development manager.


Next was icrossing's accolade: a bronze MIXX award from the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Adweek Magazines. The client was Advantage Rent-a-Car, for which icrossing handles performance-based search. It's an achievement because the company previously was partial to inhouse solutions. Icrossing hopes to gain a bigger budget from Advantage next year.


Housekeeping items follow. Kathy Schaaf, director of human resources visiting from icrossing's Scottsdale, AZ, headquarters, says the agency will implement the TransitChek program in the New York office. There are cheers, since this amounts to a pre-tax benefit for employees who commute.


What happens next is something you associate with startups, not 7-year-old firms. Holoubek says employees soon should see bulletin boards for posting news clips, latest company ads and other relevant items. She also raised the idea of forming committees for athletic events, cultural activities and holiday occasions.


The idea is to encourage bonding in an agency where most of its New York employees -- 54 and growing -- have worked an average of six months. Holoubek is a veteran, having spent two years with icrossing. She understands the need to build a culture for a firm in a young search segment with an ambitious, transient population.


10 a.m.: In his office, media manager Adam Heimlich is monitoring the performance of client campaign keywords and the traffic against them, mostly on Google, Yahoo, MSN and Ask Jeeves. Running A/B tests is one of his tasks.


"Google gives you the technology to do a true A/B test," he says, adding that "testing is pretty much free. And it's not on a test marketing group -- it's live customers."


Heimlich decides which keywords to buy and what to pay. That's what planners do in branding agencies. He spends much of his day staring at two huge computer screens, watching the data change and clicking the mouse.


"You've got to have a real feel for the numbers," Heimlich says. "You've got to get in real close and also get the long view."


What's with the rear-view mirror clipped to the side of his PC monitor?


"I like to see what's going on here," Heimlich says. "Lots of people have mirrors on their computers, don't they? Got to see who's coming, who's looking over your shoulder. It's like a marketing campaign -- you've got to see all sides."


Another aspect of his job is being brought into pre-sales meetings while creating presentations for prospects. He helps assess the potential of the prospect's business online, the company's customer base, what it has done in marketing and the competitive environment.


"Clients have to realize search is upside-down," he says. "How much do they believe that search is different? It's a pull-advertising format."


Heimlich ditches the jeans and trendy shirts when on a sales call.


"We don't go like creatives," he says. "It's a suit and tie. The Internet is business."


10:45 a.m.: Heimlich and I swing by media manager Chase Wells' desk. Wells is responsible for managing search spends and growing them. He handles accounts like A.G. Edwards, Rodale, Standard & Poor's Schoolmatters.com and Wine Enthusiast magazine's online store.


Wells reads a Web page's contents, takes the key topics and words, then blows them out. He started by managing 5,000 keywords for a leading health magazine and is expanding them to 20,000. The magazine wants site traffic, so the more words that link, the better. The magazine began with 1 million page views a month and is up to 2.6 million. Wells hopes to top 3.7 million views by the end of the month.


Wells likes using Yahoo Search Marketing's inventory tool to search for the number of searches on keywords. It's smart. He spells Britney Spears wrong -- Britany Spears. The tool corrects the mistake and shows the results. OK, how many searches were there in August on "paris hilton"? 1.26 million. For "paris"? 320,000.


I notice a stash of Clif organic bars in his desk drawer -- many boxes of them. That's his lunch on days when he's telephone-bound on meeting calls.


"I got 36 to last a month," Wells says. "I bought it off Amazon. Sometimes my meetings last from 10 to 4."


11 a.m.: Back to the conference room for a media and creative discussion on client Fairmont. The luxury hotel chain has used the agency for two years. Heimlich and three other executives stare at a strategy sheet. On it are data pulled by icrossing's Market ReSearch product: how many people search on Fairmont hotels, how they book their travels and other statistics.


At issue is allocating dollars from Fairmont's Toronto headquarters to respective properties across North America. Fairmont has to reassure individual property managers that it is looking out for them when using online marketing to drive traffic to their respective sites.


The Fairmont account team reviews color printouts of six portal pages versus a Flash page. The Flash page gives a tour of the pertinent hotel property by clicking on a video icon. The concern here is not to create extra steps in the search process.


"Whenever there's an extra click, you're going to lose people," senior account executive Bob Rosner says. "It's in our mutual interest to make sure we lose as few people as possible."


Yet Flash might work in a category like upscale hotels. People who can afford such stays typically have broadband Internet connections. And previous experience with six Fairmont properties proved that Flash is well received. Fairmont should be reviewing the new creative later this month.


I couldn't help but notice the strategy sheet, with different colors across the page. Rosner explains that the green highlighted lines denote the first page of natural results on key search engines, yellow the second page and blue the third page. Results are segmented by five engines: Google, Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Ask Jeeves. In each box is a number indicating the ranking on the respective results page.


"Seventy to 80 percent of all natural searches occur on the first page," Rosner says.


12:30 p.m.: Time for a brown-bag lunch and a brainstorming session with the product marketing team on search's potential on wireless and other emerging platforms. Why the interest? Because 28 percent of all cell phones will be on the faster, more sophisticated 3G platform by 2010. And there will be 2 billion cell phones worldwide by year's end, Elkin says.


"It's a marketing game," says David Lelong, a product marketing manager whose checked blue, corduroy trousers and curly mop harkens to the 1970s. "You want to have access to those eyeballs."


Elkin says SMS search is perceived as an alternative to directory assistance. The answer to wireless search lies with the wireless service providers and lower data access prices. But the carriers haven't yet rolled out such search capability. Everyone agrees this is just a matter of time. PDAs and Blackberries already are indispensable communications tools. And Google's acquisition this year of mobile social networking service Dodgeball is a step closer to local search on handhelds.


The discussion shifts to overseas markets where cell phones are as pervasive, if not more, than computers. U.S. marketers may have to take cues from the more densely populated Japan, South Korea and Europe for wireless search trends.


"Search will become a gateway to what people do with their cell phones," Elkin says.


2:30 p.m.: Holoubek chairs the marketing meeting. This is her department. She introduces the new faces and events manager Ali Kurtz from icrossing's Chicago office on speakerphone. Bylined articles and case studies are discussed, as well as the need for an agency boilerplate on press releases.


Holoubek runs through other items -- the MIXX award and a recap of the Forrester Consumer Forum, the IAB's MIXX event and eTail 2005. Icrossing got decent leads from Forrester's show.


"In the future, would we consider sponsoring or attending [the Forrester forum]?" she asked.


"[Forrester] was packed, and the attendees looked pretty serious," Elkin responded, adding he met with Forrester analysts Charlene Li and Shar VanBoskirk.


There is concern that this week's Direct Marketing Association annual show is too big for icrossing.


Online marketing manager Cerelle Centeno updates the group about checks and balances for editorial standards, writing Web copy and the intranet and new extranet for clients. Holoubek chimes in.


"I dreamt about local search last night," she says. "Is that sad or what?"


"I had a dream last week that I was on an ice hockey team and Herzog was the coach," Centeno says, referring to icrossing CEO Jeff Herzog.


3:30 p.m.: Kendall Allen is all business and super-busy. We have a few minutes to discuss her role as icrossing's director of client services for the East Coast. She's a veteran of the once-mighty US Web/CKS, Sunset magazine and, until six months ago, Fathom Online, an SEM firm that recently scaled back operations. How does her experience at icrossing compare?


"At any given day, I'm working with a higher percentage of smarter people who have their game down," Allen says. "The other would be [that] more and more marketers and clients who are open and innovative hold us and the media we're dealing with accountable. They're willing to test things."


4:15 p.m.: Centeno and Holoubek are in teleconference with executives in the Scottsdale office. Centeno explains the new extranet for two new clients, a leading cosmetics marketer and a financial services firm. It's like a marketing dashboard. The left-side navigation bar includes tabs for reports, contracts and deliverables, discussion forums, events, project management, an "interest 2 action" interface, relevant research, links to other clients and a support and help area.


Next to the nav bars are buckets that pop up once the client logs in. The categories are reports, contracts, research and an upsell -- a hint of what clients can or should do.


"I think this whole thing really serves a major purpose: It builds, establishes and sustains a relationship," Centeno says.


Krista Brady, who stays behind, explains her role as search media director. It is to optimize a campaign and to check and adjust bids to ensure icrossing clients stay competitive with their rivals. Heimlich and Wells report to her. Brady's counterpart in a traditional branding agency would be an account supervisor.


Brady has spent eight years in interactive marketing, including stints at i-traffic, K2 Digital and Monster owner TMP Worldwide.


Now she's looking for a search media manager, someone with at least two years' paid search experience. I marvel at Brady's articulation skills in a technology-driven business where men tend to dominate.


"I speak in layman's terms when it comes to technology," she says. "And I see that happening more with women, and I don't mean to be biased. I think males are almost more preprogrammed to know more about technology. It's like they come to the job already equipped with that. I think women are better in establishing and forming relationships. I hope I don't sound too stereotypical, but I see that playing out. Almost like women are the essential counterpart to the technology that's more male."


5 p.m.: It's a final keyword analysis concept session with creative director Erik Mednis and his team. The client is a leading pet supplies chain, and the idea is to create pertinent keywords and build relevant content around them.


The creatives -- who don't look any different from the media executives -- are deliberating toys and bedding options for dogs. One of the two white boards has a keyword analysis chart for the retailer's bedding products. Many terms are under consideration, including: "dog pillow bed," "smell dog bed," "bed big dog," "designer dog bed," "bed custom dog," "bed chew dog proof" and "bed dog heated."


Next to those keyword combinations is the number of searches against them in a given month. Other columns break out product categories like dog training; stylish and practical toys; material, elegant and sturdy; and specialty comfort.


I sat upright when I read the page themes. Newborn and puppy were matched with stain, detective and jealous puppy. Then there was park dog, beach dog, indoor dog, Frisbee dog and house dog. And then there was the owner and his pet. The personalities for that: "Chewie," "Licky" and "Drippy."


The whole effort is tied to people's stories and associations with their pets. But there is a debate over hard sell and soft sell. One executive suggests the idea of a dog talking to another dog. Another creative pushes for the Goldilocks concept.


"I want to educate, man," he says. "I don't want to sell. I just want to educate."


But this is search, and your regular advertising.


"We're looking at where the audience interest is at the keyword level," Mednis says. "There's another voice in the mix, and it's the consumer."


Mickey Alam Khan covers Internet marketing campaigns and e-commerce, agency news as well as circulation for DM News and DMNews.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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