Media: All about ... Search marketing

Dark art or boring necessity? Alasdair Reid is prospecting for digital gold.

Google "Frederick Marckini" and the top-ranked result sends you off to an page outlining every member of the iProspect senior management team ... except Marckini himself, who clearly inhabits a higher celestial plane.

For your average search guru, this - albeit so subtle it's almost inverted - is called showing off.

Contrast that with what happens when you Google "Dean Gardner". Here, you end up on a Channel 4 page about a freelance wedding-dress designer and drag artiste who joined the Foreign Legion.

Which we enjoyed reading - but this isn't the real (for our current purposes) Dean Gardner, aspiring search guru, who last week joined Omnicom Media Group from The Search Works as the director of search strategy, OMD International. He's clearly promising, though not yet ready for that most auspicious stage in a guru's career - when self-optimisation is achieved.

And he wasn't the only aspiring guru poached last week by OMG from The Search Works. Cristina Sagarduy also joined as the managing director, search, OMG EMEA.

We read much these days of the continuing growth of search revenues and of their importance in the struggle for supremacy among a handful of the internet's monster companies. We hear less (notwithstanding the odd row about Google's charmless business methods) about the advertisers and the marketing strategies financing this boom. Still less of the agencies that help these advertisers to spend their money in this area.

And that's perhaps because search is not exactly glamorous; worse, it's seen as something of a dark art, its practitioners moving in mysterious ways, like the elusive Marckini.

1. Google "search marketing agency" and you are likely to be offered a top-five pecking order of the following UK agencies: Jellyfish, Guava (both sponsored links), The Search Marketing Agency, Fingertap Media and Altogether Digital. We feel almost duty bound to keep faith with the search ethos and report that these are the top search marketing agencies in the UK, while acknowledging that Jellyfish, for instance, is based in Reigate, just off the A25, where it meets the A217.

2. According to one recent survey, the top five UK agencies by turnover derived from search are: The Search Works (turnover £88.6 million), Latitude (£36.9 million), Bigmouthmedia (£36.7 million), Media Contacts (£21.4 million) and Steak Media (£20.2 million). In the list of the top 30 UK search agencies, only three - Media Contacts, which is part of Havas, Zed Media (Publicis) and VCCP Search (Chime) - are owned by advertising holding companies of any significance.

3. The big media agency networks tend to respond that such league tables are meaningless, because few of the holding companies are willing to break out search figures either on a billings or a revenue basis. They are prepared to concede that The Search Works is possibly the biggest and best search agency in the UK - but argue that the rest of the top ten places are now in reality occupied by the search operations of the integrated full-service media agency networks.

4. Founded in 1996 by Marckini, iProspect styles itself as "the original search engine marketing firm" and has even taken this phrase as a registered trademark. The company was bought in 2004 by Aegis and subsequent Aegis acquisitions in the search market have been merged into a rapidly expanding iProspect network. The latest acquisition, Aposition in France, announced on 25 July 2008, brought the total to 19 offices in 16 countries.

5. Original it may well be: but it is not the oldest, a distinction claimed by Outrider, which launched in 1995, was acquired by CIA in 1998 and subsequently joined the WPP family when WPP swallowed CIA in 2002. It is now the designated search marketing agency of Group M, though all three WPP media networks - Mediaedge:cia, MindShare and MediaCom - offer some form of integrated search expertise.

6. The renewed determination of Omnicom to grow its expertise in the search sector on this side of the Atlantic comes as a direct result of Damian Blackden's arrival as president, digital, Omnicom Media Group. He joined four months ago from Universal McCann.



- The economic imperatives are stark. Digital is the only media sector showing any prospect for growth; and within digital, search (both paid-for and natural) is still where the digital prospects are strongest.

- So, clearly, media agencies will be doing their utmost to up their commitment to this discipline. And they can do this relatively cheaply - they're confident they can continue to cherry-pick the best talent from the specialists.


- Search is changing. Not so long ago, there were those willing to argue that it was likely to become ever more routine, mechanical, low-margin and (in that most fashionable of phrases) a "disintermediated" function, that is increasingly handled by advertisers themselves.

- Now, it is becoming a more three-dimensional discipline, with search increasingly being designed to plug into trends generated by social media sites - and also to push video content and other marketing materials, as well as fulfilling the more humdrum role of driving traffic to service portals. And there are more creative ways of optimising natural search these days, as advertisers seek to integrate it more thoroughly with other channels.

- "We're pushing at an open door here," one media agency boss says. "We have clients still using specialist search agencies and in the past we haven't tried terribly hard to convince them to change that. Now, they're actually coming to us and talking about the advantages to be had from integrating search with the rest of their media. I think the specialists can see the writing on the wall."