Where have all the Search Managers gone?

Good Search Managers – never an easy thing to find, but now harder than ever.  Why?

I started recruiting into the search market in 2006 and got in at a good time – the market was booming as clients became more savvy and started investing more and more into PPC – agency divisions were growing quickly and demand for virtually anyone with search experience was very high.

Some of the more online-centric brands (namely aggregators, gaming and some travel companies) were building out in-house teams, but most in-house functions were either very small or steered by a more generalist digital marketing director/manager. Agencies led the market (certainly the job market).

The leaders in the space at this time were the specialists – especially those with strong proprietary technology. The Search Works (with the Technology Works) frequently topped the listings for search spend and companies like Performics (with Doubleclick), eSearchVision, eFrontier were all flourishing too. Media agency divisions were growing pretty quickly too, promising to integrate search. For a search person in the job market, there was a choice – go to a specialist or generalist, big or small, the place with the best technology or the best expertise, the fastest growing company or the one onboarding the most clients, the one making the most money out of search.

At this point search was a bit of a one-way street – in search you typically went up in a straight line through reporting, planning, account management/client services, perhaps to head a search division. It was hard to diversify, the search marketer’s skills were very different from a traditional media planner or marketer.

Two or three years ago, the playing fields levelled a little on the agency front – companies like Marin, Kenshoo, Search Ignite (now Ignition One) entered the market with a free-standing technology which was available for any agency (or high-spending client) to tap into. The USP for many of the search specialists was moot and many clients shifted their spend to the bigger, more integrated agencies. Response by the specialists was typically to broaden out themselves – many drove growth in SEO, spread out across CRO, analytics, planning, web design. The direct access to technology,combined with increased knowledge also meant that some clients were less reliant on agencies and able to justify bringing more of their activity in-house. Again, the changing environment meant that there were different options – more choice and more excitement in moving from one agency to another.

Today we have a pretty mature market – clients are clued up, best practice has been established, the rate of growth in PPC divisions has typically stabilised, margins are tight everywhere – I heard it described as a ‘commoditised’ marketplace this week, and although I strongly believe that it’s the people in a division and their skills make the difference, perhaps there’s a perception that this is the case.

The simple truth of the matter is that there’s a lot more choice out there these days – other areas of digital marketing are evolving and expanding more quickly and are drawing people from the search talent pool – most noticeably in the RTB and mobile areas. There are more positions in-house these days (we’ll come back to that in a minute), and let’s not forget completely different markets that are expanding much faster than ours. We’ve lost a lot of our good people to Australia this year – Dubai, Singapore and beyond.

Back to moving in-house now. We’ve seen a slight (but noticeable) uplift in the volume of client-side search jobs over the last year, but this is way out of line with the demand for them. Nearly every candidate I meet now expresses either an explicit desire or a very strong preference to move client-side rather than agency side – the to the extent that I really think this is the start of a problem. People just aren’t interested or excited about working for agencies anymore.

Why is this? People say all sorts of things when you ask them this, but the answer normally come down to one of the following (this is perception/not necessarily truth and in no paricular order):

More control/influence. Frustration that the scope to drive change at an agency is limited and that the power lies with the client.

Diversification. A perception that an in-house role will ‘broaden them out’ and give exposure to a broader mix of channels.

Moving away from operations. The idea that moving in-house allows them to move away from hands-on work.

Better work/life balance. Simply a belief that the quality of life is better client-side, better hours, benefits, pay.

Brand affinity. To work for a brand company that lies within their interests/passion.

There are probably a few other reasons that get voiced, but that certainly covers the main points.

It’s not that there aren’t lot of candidates on the market (far from it in fact), they just not interested in moving to another agency and they’re in no rush. They have options, and they know it.