Are Search Agencies Becoming Dinosaurs?

I can’t remember every detail of my first client meeting nearly 15 years ago (I was a newbie working for a search agency), but I can remember a few things:

  1.  I remember nearly our entire company going to the meeting (there were only four of us, and three attended the meeting).
  2. I remember the client VP sitting at the table alongside their traditional agency.
  3. I remember how proud I was of the new grey sport coat I was wearing and had bought just for this meeting.

But perhaps the thing I remember most is walking away from that meeting thinking “How could they not get it?”  How could the big, traditional agency not see things were changing and search was the wave of the future?

Search would change how we advertise online, change how we measure things, and, most importantly, change the structure of ad agencies everywhere. And if a fresh-out-of-college kid with no business or marketing experience whatsoever could see it, how could a super successful ad agency not see it?

Back then, I came up with a simple answer: traditional ad agencies are dinosaurs. They don’t adapt, they don’t learn, they stick to what they know and, if they had to, they would learn this new “search thing” enough to get by.  Idiots.

We – this new breed of digital agency — would never do that.

But here we are almost 15 years later and it seems we are becoming the same dinosaurs we fought so long to defeat.

I recently made the switch from search agency to client-side consultant and went through the process of finding new agencies for multiple clients. We reviewed 14 different agencies ranging from the tiny to the biggest and “best” around. What I saw from most agencies was something I distinctly remember from that first meeting, and it scared me. But it also taught my teams and me quite a bit about what we needed to do to be successful and how we needed to manage our new agency partners.

Digital Agency Vs. Search Agency  

With every agency we spoke to, we were clear we were looking for paid and natural search expertise, but we also had both direct response display and branded display needs with our campaigns. This seemed like no problem given that each agency responded and said they were a “full service digital agency” and so much of display is a natural extension of where search began.  More than 10 presentations later, I learned most search agencies are still great at search, but have only marginally learned display.

All agencies could do network buys, some were strong in the RTB display space, but only two understood what a strong brand buy was, knew how to measure a branding campaign, or offered any creative suggestions to incorporate digital branding into our campaign.

This reminded me specifically of the traditional agencies that were great at offline, but had only marginally learned online.

What we learned: Search agencies knew search, but severely lacked the ability to effectively execute outside that core and, in most cases, were as much “Digital Agencies” as the old traditional agencies were “Search Agencies.”

Given that specialization, we needed to staff and possibly structure our internal client teams differently. Our focus had to be on hiring people that could take all the different pieces of digital (ranging from search to affiliate to email and everything in between) and combine them into one cohesive strategy.

We needed to take a far more strategic approach to our marketing initiatives knowing our agency likely will take a specialized, single-channel  approach.

Data Guided Vs. Data Only Decisions

Back in my first client meeting and still today, one of the greatest aspects of search marketing is the data. We get so much data about what people are searching for, clicking on, not clicking on, buying, geo locations, all sorts of data to make our campaigns better – something the old stodgy agencies had none of.

But it seems for many search agencies, the pendulum has swung too far in the “data must lead every decision” direction.  We spoke to agencies that were all too quick to mention their “staff of PhDs that dissect search data,” and others who blatantly said “data determines every action we take.”

Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive believer in data and love Excel far more than the normal person, but I also believe data shouldn’t be the only thing that determines our marketing strategy (I also believe if you are a PhD working for a search agency, perhaps things went wrong somewhere, but I digress).

Data helps us make smarter decisions, helps us narrow down our direction/approach, even helps us hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we do make. But what it also tends to do is neutralize the effects of branding altogether. It takes image, look, feel, heritage, the way the customer feels when they are in your store/on your site – all the softer parts of marketing – and eliminates them.

For some brands, that may work, but for us, it doesn’t.

What we learned:  We could rely on our search/digital agency to execute campaigns, evaluate them, and come back to us with solid data about their campaigns.  But when it came to inserting branding into our campaigns or creating and launching true brand-building campaigns (the ones search agencies so badly crave because they have “softer” success metrics), the workload would fall on our client team almost completely.

Technology-Led Vs. People-Led

Traditional agencies always had such a great pitch: your entire account services team has worked in advertising for 20 years, they have relationships at all the magazines and TV stations, and if you became their client, all that experience and all those relationships would be yours.

Then came search, where agency relationships helped, but technology would allow us to scale campaigns quickly, more efficiently, and with far less left to chance than with campaigns that hinged on relationships.

This is the one area where there was a clear divide amongst all the agencies we met with. Each agency tended to be either technology-based or people-based, but rarely was it a mix of the two (note: of the 14, two offered a “mix” type of approach.  In addition, we required all presentations be given by the account team and not by the sales team, which allowed us to get a better feel for the actual people that would be working on our business).

As search/digital agencies, we can do better.  We have all this whiz-bang technology that makes data-driven campaigns perfect, but we also need to layer in great creative people that can help us on the brand side. If you have great creative people, then there are plenty of technologies out there that can help with the executional pieces of search and DR display.

But the idea of being one or the other seems dated and more the approach of a rigid traditional agency than a nimble, new digital agency.

What we learned: Search agencies still seem to be finding their way and, while they do, it will be just as important, if not more important, for us (as clients) to maintain and build relationships with media partners as it will be for our agency to have relationships. By doing this, we are set up to be able to push both our agency and our partners to develop campaigns that work for our business.

I don’t want this column to read like a simple rant on search agencies, but, after spending more than a decade on the search agency side, viewing things from the client side has been rather enlightening.

I still believe just as strongly in search as a channel and believe there is a place for search specialization. But more than ever, I believe search agencies need to either step up and become true digital agencies, or stick with specializing in search — because trying to split the difference and falling short, hurts clients and will eventually hurt agency business.

Plus, it makes us just as much a dinosaur as the traditional ad agency that sat at the table so long ago.

Image from Shutterstock, used under license.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | Search Marketing Column


About The Author: is a New York-based digital marketing and strategy consultant specializing in retail. He has worked with Nike, Neiman Marcus, Staples, Michael Kors and many others to develop fully integrated digital marketing strategies.Follow him @VicDrabicky on Twitter.

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  • Dino Maiolo

    Interesting perspective and it really got me thinking about the future of my agency; however, ML really needs to edit these posts. The typos and usage errors were distracting. It makes your comparisons more interesting – digital vs. search, traditional agencies vs search agencies. Traditional marketing was forced to be so much better at printing error free type than today’s digital content. It has become so easy to post digitally that perhaps we rush through our articles without properly editing them.

    Other than that, the shift you suggest we make is right on the money. I think it helps that we view our clients in terms of how we can help their business, not just their website.

  • Michael S.

    Yes very timely with how there are so many different channels that companies and agencies can work on. Bucking the trend my company is specializing at least for now on Paid advertising and mostly Google. There are many things with difficult to prove ROI or small improvements to topline revenue but we really like to aim all our attention at huge things and tweak them to a little bit compulsive levels.

    Great idea on judging agencies and asking for the support staff to give the presentation. Once I was in a presentation with the sales person, his manager, and the Vice President of BDM. Needless to say the meeting went a little long and really did not add anything.

  • Vic Drabicky

    Glad you liked the article and my apologies for the editing. I will work with the ML editors (and double check myself more thoroughly) to make sure this is improved.


  • Vic Drabicky

    Glad you liked it – thanks for reading. Agree on having VPs in the room. They can talk a big game, but aren’t responsible for the account, so they rarely add value.

  • 4u2discuss

    Great article on marketing and search…problem is how ever that the end users (us idiots who buy the products) have changed our thinking patterns too, and not for the better mind you. We are bombarded with so much information and there are so many choices, so the eyes become more important and eye candy is what sell things these days. This is why branding is so much more important today than it ever was. Brand loyalty is a very elusive element and once this is placed in the picture what you have to say in your article is so much more important.

  • Pamela Parker Caird

    Yes, Dino, we do edit each piece, but occasionally things slip through. Apologies for any distractions.

  • Erica Forrette

    Right in line with this: the top challenge noted in a survey featured in the recent Forrester Wave report on the top large search agencies, is “integrating search with other media.” (SEL article here: Search agencies have to get up to speed on branding tactics, especially as larger companies accustomed to brand marketing pour more money into digital as a whole. IMO, silo’ed “search only” practitioners will likely be unable to service these larger advertisers who want a large scale buy integrated across many digital channels and addressing customers at all buying funnel stages.

  • Nathan Levi

    I completely agree that search agencies need to become digital agencies. I’m not sure there is a place for pure play search specialists except for only a select group of clients. I do want to add that the future of the ‘search agency’ and agencies in general is largely dependent on how businesses adapt to the digital ecosystem. I’m starting to see more and more businesses prioritize digital from within, therefore requiring the services of more specialist agencies. In the future there will be businesses with a marketing arm where digital is ‘lumped’ and there will be businesses where digital sits across everything they do (marketing, PR, media etc.) There will also be businesses where digital is its own entity. for the first type of business, the traditional media agency is perfect. For the latter two, a digital specialist might be better.


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