Do Traditional Agencies Still Snub Search?

I’ve been attending the Search Engine Strategies for many years now. At first, most attendees were in the SEO industry. Then, along came PPC people, corporate in-house folks, and companies on the hunt to hire a search marketer.

The traditional, Madison Avenue-type agencies are last to the party, it seems. Had they been dismissing search all along? This year, at the popular ClickZ track on the first day of the conference, I sensed a greater traditional agency turnout.

Exhibitors’ Perceptions

To test my theory, I contacted SES exhibitors to ask whether more traditional agency people stopped by their booths What did agencies seem interested in learning, and what was their level of knowledge? Did they seem to be there because their clients demanded it, or did they have other motives?

Responses varied from, “We did see a huge increase of agency traffic at the booth. For a minute I thought I was at ad:tech,” to “Did anyone [from traditional even] stop by?” (Sadly, the facts point more to the latter — more on that in a moment.)

Search marketing service providers said the agencies were looking for firms to partner with or outsource to; search networks believe the agencies were attracted by the large brand-name publishers in their networks; and local marketing companies talked about interest in added inventory outside the major search engines.

“Traditional agencies have a different focus when it comes to interactive marketing,” said Pulse 360’s Mark Josephson. “You’ll find that most of the folks who come from search marketing agencies are math and science people focused on ROI and bottom line, and less about extending the brand reach and marketing, which is usually what most of the traditional media agency folks are focused on. Therefore, the focus of their questions tends to be different but not necessarily less knowledgeable.”

Why do the agencies attend?’s VP of Marketing, Jennifer Black, said agencies “may go kicking and screaming to their first venture into search, but once they see the their client’s [satisfaction], they get excited,”. Another exhibitor told me: “Traditional agencies are mainly there to understand the barriers to entry of the business and to determine whether to build or buy search capabilities or to recruit talent.”

“In addition to recent M&A activity, just the growth of SEM is proof that more and more agencies have clients that are using search in their overall marketing campaigns,”remarked Michelle Schofield, VP marketing for Efficient Frontier.

Attendee Registration Realities

To substantiate my hunch about traditional agency attendance, I spoke with Matt McGowan, Incisive Media’s VP of marketing (Incisive owns SES, as well as this publication). Matt found large traditional agencies under-represented, with the exception of Ogilvy. He estimated fewer than 50 attendees from traditional agencies made the roster, unless they registered under a separate division’s name.

Shouldn’t traditional agency strategists at least care enough about search to learn the latest? Is search still just black and white to them? “We know about it, and we’ll earmark a share of the budget for it. End of story.”

Lack of interest from the creative department, agency silos, and insufficient standardized predictive planning inhibit adoption of search at the big agencies, says panelist David Rittenhouse of neo@oglivy,

With Google quarterly earnings at $3.66 billion, can agencies afford to keep ignoring search? If you’re in the business, you already know they can’t.

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