Ad Agencies Search for the Answer

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Large traditional ad agencies risk making the same mistakes they made during the dot-com boom.

As the huge numbers turning out for conferences such as Search Engine Strategies attest, search marketing is hot. By some estimates, all current growth in online marketing expenditures is attributable to search. Without search, the Internet is just a big, foreboding and inscrutable mess.

Speaking of inscrutable messes, ad agencies approach search with the same trepidation they previously heaped upon the Web itself. Agency people know what I mean. Close your eyes and return to the mid-1990s. Surely, you kept telling yourself, this Internet thing is going to blow over. Let's hang tight and pretend it's not there. And when it could be ignored no longer, many agencies did jump in, making wildly ill-timed and ill-chosen investments. The only people who got rich were the court-appointed bankruptcy trustees.

So you got burned once. That doesn't mean your analysis - "the Internet is important" - was wrong. Look at all the categories - automotive, electronics, financial services, etc. - in which the Internet has become a critical part of clients' media plans.

Now let's return to the present. In just the past month, three executives from interactive agencies have told me, in essence, "We're not selling search, we don't know how to make money from search, and we don't have the technology."

Insert the word "Internet" in place of "search" in the previous sentence and it's 1995 all over again. This head-in-the-sand thing works for ostriches, but it's not a great client growth and management strategy.

Search marketing isn't about technology, it's about - get this - marketing: understanding the needs of an audience, how your product addresses those needs and making a smart, persuasive connection between the two. The technology component - tracking performance, automating submission and reporting processes - is, as technology always should be, just an enabler. Agencies don't need to execute the technology any more than they need to have in-house directors, production companies and editors to execute television production.

Don't get me wrong, creatives are not likely to get famous writing search engine copy, and agencies are not going to put today's text-based sponsored links on their reels, but any agency true to its commitment to its clients can't reasonably ignore the importance of search. Nor, from a self-interest standpoint, should any agency ever want to suggest to a client that another company insert itself between the agency and the client's brands.

My advice to agencies is this: Bring search strategy and creative in-house. Make friends with search infrastructure companies. And stop ignoring the importance of search to your clients' businesses.

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