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A Conversation with The Search Agency’s Carl Dunham

Question: As the founder of The Search Agency, how would you summarize its evolution over the past seven years?

The Search Agency has grown tremendously over the last seven years. When we started, the only search engine that had an API was GoTo, which later became Overture and then Yahoo. We were able to support Google AdWords only by “scraping” the Web site, a process that had to be modified every few weeks. Much of our initial work was done by loading spreadsheets and other manual methods that seem archaic, in hindsight.

The development of better tools, and especially better algorithms, allowed us to automate so many of the day-to-day tasks that were taking up too much of our time. As the platform got better at doing the mundane, we were able to focus more of our attention on the strategic and creative. Today, this synergy of powerful technology and smart people make The Search Agency a highly-valued partner to our clients.

As we grew in search, we also have grown in other online media as well. We have been spoiled by the fine-grained level of pricing control and data we have available in pay-per-click search. However, we are able to apply our learning, technology and skill to these media, if at a more coarse level.

Question: What have been the most significant changes in online marketing since you started the company in 2002? How have you seen the industry develop?

Carl Dunham [1]

The industry has changed quite a bit over this time. Advertisers’ expectations have risen with the capabilities of the search engines and SEMs. They have learned that SEO is not optional, but something that makes the difference between being there, and not. They are learning to look at traffic patterns across media, allocating budgets based on where money is best spent, using real performance metrics to know the true value of the traffic they are buying.

Performance metrics have also become more sophisticated. Seven years ago, the most advanced advertisers were discovering performance metrics, some even had ROI models they could use, at least at a crude level. Today, this is a given, and the more forward-looking advertisers are looking at multiple metrics, multi-step funnel points, influencer attribution models, user lifetime value, etc., etc.

Question: What key trends in online marketing should we be watching?

We expect that the days of “half my advertising budget is wasted” are over. Over the next few years, advertisers will expect that more and more of their media spend be measurable and actionable at a fine-grained level. As such, offline media will be challenged to build capabilities to give some feedback on performance and allow for more immediate pricing changes. LCD billboards, for example, could provide more than just savings on glue and paper. There is no reason why digital billboard ads couldn’t be placed using a real-time auction! Television already has no excuse, and as capabilities in those networks advance, post-digitalization, they may even be able to lead online in targeting and tracking.

Of course, we don’t expect online to stay still either. It never has. There are already networks building in true real-time auctions, where bids are not pre-placed, but made at the point of delivery. Soon the concept of daily and hourly “bid changes” will seem quaint. Advertisers will begin utilizing technology that is tied to inventory management, demand modeling, and other data sources to decide how much the attention of a given user at a given time is worth, and what messaging will be most relevant.

Knowledge about the user, through prior interactions, location awareness, preference awareness and other insights, done in a way that respects privacy, will make advertising much more powerful, both for advertisers and for consumers. After all, good information is critical to well-functioning free markets.

It is an exciting time to be in this industry, building interesting technology to address interesting opportunities. I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Question: On personal note, what do you like to do in your spare time? What’s your life about beyond search?

Personal life? I have none. Actually, my wife and eight-year-old son and I enjoy hiking, music and visiting museums. We travel as often as we can, even if only for a quick weekend trip. I enjoy a bit of genealogy research here and there, including using DNA to trace recent and deep ancestry. I have a nagging interest in geology, living on a glacial moraine with fascinating features right in my own back yard.

I recently discovered that the American Chestnut [2] is being restored and I want to be a part of it. I have made almost 500 skydives, including one from a Boeing 727. I have an idea for a digital synthesizer [3] that I want to build. It involves a GPS receiver, an accelerometer and a rubber ball. I eventually want to go everywhere, see everything, and meet everyone.

About Camille Canon

Outside of summer jobs and not-for-profit internships, The Search Agency is my first official place of employment. I recently graduated from Mount Holyoke College, where I studied Art History and German. I am an avid cook, baker, and destroyer of diets. My specialties are cream cheese brownies, biscotti cookies and lemon bars. I am also an Art enthusiast. Living in Berlin enables me to follow a young, emerging Art scene complete with “eccentric” performance pieces and temporarily converted butcher shop galleries. I also enjoy running, traveling, and handy work. Camille Canon + [9]