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Goodbye search, hello start-up

It’s September, which means that job descriptions and resumes are flying fast across the Web. This is not new to the interactive industry, or to search engine marketing (SEM). What is new is where all of the search talent has gone. A year or two ago, search engine marketing employees were simply recycled throughout the three hundred or so competitors. We all know of a few search media managers who are now on their third or, (gasp!) fourth SEM. Today, however, the trend is to ditch the search gig for good and venture into the world of start-ups, leaving the space suffering from massive brain drain.

Looking for proof? Some might say that Vanessa Fox’s departure from Google for real estate start-up Zillow put the seal on the trend. However, there are examples aplenty.

Bill Wise’s departure from Didit to Right Media most certainly paid off. At that time, Right Media had just gained fame for scoring $45 million from Yahoo in exchange for a 20 percent stake. The firm was eventually fully acquired by the engine for a handsome $680 million.

Recently, Chris Zaharias announced very publicly that he was leaving eFrontier to go on his own. John Kim, Yahoo Search Marketing’s senior director of product marketing, headed to Medio Systems, a mobile search and advertising player founded in 2004. And of course, there are the countless search media managers and SEO specialists who pine for the next greatest thing.

So what exactly is going on? As the industry matures, the excitement of innovation is quickly replaced with the need to refine processes and systems. As a result, those who were initially attracted to the start-up environment no longer enjoy the rote job of managing campaigns, clients or a sales pipeline day in and day out.

Recruiters have observed this trend, which renders their job more difficult. Dan Goldsmith, Managing Director of AC Lion’s Executive Search Practice, discussed this with me over lunch. “Absolutely. Search is no longer sexy,” he said. He has observed that the SEM sales force is particularly affected. “There is frustration because the SEM business model is no longer clear. As the firms grow, they expand into broader service sets that perhaps these people are not as familiar with.”

For true entrepreneurs, the lure of starting a business just might be too much. Search giant Google is facing this option head-on by explicitly stating that it is better to launch new ideas inside the Googleplex than on one’s own. One recruiting advertisement depicts a see-saw weighted heavily to one side. On the other side, a small ball labeled “Your idea” is about to land on the other side. To the right is the same image with a much larger weight falling down, about to upset the balance. It reads, “Your idea at Google.”

For those who don’t have the market cap of Google to support employees’ ambitions, what might be done? While it would be easy to simply point a finger at na?ve employee expectations, I suggest that this is a question for management and HR to solve. When job hunters say they are bored, HR should loosely translate this into “I don’t see any avenues for career growth.” The unfortunate fact of the matter is that all too many firms are too focused on the end result of a well-oiled machine, rather than on the individual cogs that should be credited with its success.

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