‘Search Beyond’ is a forum featuring some of the UK’s most innovative independent digital agencies. Each quarter, a group of senior practitioners meet to debate hot topics in digital marketing and to share their insights and experience.

The third installment of ‘Search Beyond’ asked our panel of experts to consider the following question: What role does creativity play in Search advertising?

To kickstart the conversation, Patrick Collister, Creative Lead for The ZOO at Google, began by giving a brief tour around his own personal definition of creativity, as informed by a career spanning four decades and campaigns for several of the world’s biggest brands. According to Patrick, creativity is often misunderstood and even trivialized, but at root it is about the serious business of solving problems. In the context of marketing, one of the biggest problems creativity has to overcome is the fact that the vast majority of advertising goes unnoticed, and while the responsive nature of Search may reduce this risk a little, it doesn’t absolve agencies and clients of the need to think creatively about the medium.

The first point of discussion built on this idea by asking if Search actively encourages brands towards safe, risk-averse behaviour. For Paul Byrne, Group Client Partner at Greenlight Digital, the competitiveness of Search is a big factor in encouraging safety-first campaigns: “Unlike direct marketing, with Search you’re up against all of the other brands on the same screen, so there’s more competition.” Francesco Curatolo, Director of Paid Media at iCrossing, agreed, saying that clients tend to measure themselves against the field, which encourages a degree of homogeneity in approach with nobody wanting to lose out on valuable, bottom-of-funnel conversion prospects.

“Ad copy is only one form of creativity – you can also be creative with audience targeting and segmentation”

– Vim Badiani, Head of Paid Search at Merkle | Periscopix

For Vim Badiani, Head of Paid Search at Merkle | Periscopix, creativity in Search goes beyond simply looking at clever keyword selection and snappy headlines, observing that “ad copy is only one form of creativity – you can also be creative with audience targeting and segmentation.” This insight led the group to consider the skill set required to make the most of the opportunity presented by Search, with Paul Byrne recognising an increasing divergence between the data-led backgrounds of the current generation of junior analysts and the creative backgrounds that were once more traditional among agency recruits. According to Katherine Sale, Client Strategy Director at Croud, the most important skill is the ability to work closely with a client, but also to stand apart from them: “You can’t be over-focused on execution. You need to be able to think freely, to think beyond ROI.”

The group agreed that much of the shift towards data-driven optimisation and campaign management has been driven by the sheer complexity of modern Search campaigns. “Scale is a problem,” says Francesco Curatolo. “With thousands of keywords and hundreds of creatives changing regularly, it is getting harder and harder to be creative.” Tom Manning, Head of Strategy at Forward3D, acknowledges this concern, but also believes that "these challenges can actually lead to creativity in new areas such as the use of technology to handle issues with implementing your strategy at scale."

Damien Bennett, Director of Business Strategy at NMPi, took this one stage further, observing that in most respects “best practice in Search is well established and has been commoditised. Creativity is now your competitive advantage.” In this respect, the group believe that the ideal mix of skills to match the new reality of Search is a creative agency or similarly broad background to which necessary quantitative and technical skills can then be added. “You’re looking to augment rather than replace skill sets,” agreed Katherine Sale, who cautioned that although fresh perspectives will sometimes lead to the occasional bad idea, “they’ll have some good ones too!”.

“With thousands of keywords and hundreds of creatives changing regularly, it is getting harder and harder to be creative”

– Francesco Curatolo, Director of Paid Media at iCrossing

As a test-bed for messaging, the group agreed that Paid Search can be a valuable creative tool. “You can take learnings from PPC and apply them to other mediums,” observed Richard Hartley, PPC Director at Jellyfish, before going on to bemoan the difficulty of getting clients to construct landing pages for testing. Several of the group shared this concern, saying that keywords and creative are only one half of the Search experience, and that restrictions on creating new landing pages can significantly hamper creativity in the medium.

That’s not to say that the agencies represented on our panel haven’t been able to produce some extremely innovative work in Search. Asked to cite some of the creative approaches they’ve been most proud of, the group mentioned everything from technical solutions involving live updating of creative with travel inventory, to mapping first-party data over Search audiences, to even persuading a client to change the hours of their call centres based on time-of-day insights derived from Search.

With clients typically regarding Search as an ROI-first channel where efficiency trumps creativity, finding the time to innovate can be difficult. Mish Santos, Associate Director at VCCP, believes that organisation is key, saying that “effective account optimisation is what frees up the time and space for you to think.” While some agencies have formalised the process of innovation by setting aside time each month for creative thought, others prefer to broaden perspectives by encouraging job switching and shadowing. Regardless of their chosen approach, everyone agreed that it is crucial for business leadership to foster and protect this approach, and to acknowledge that there’s no experimentation without the risk of occasional failure.

Creativity can be a tricky idea to pin down at the best of times. Different mediums, contexts and technologies can lead to creative outputs that look very different, but which still have the same spark of originality at their core – and in this respect, Search offers more varied opportunities to innovate than most. With examples throughout the session ranging from keywords to data integration and from ad copy to cross-media strategy, it’s clear that every one of our participants puts creativity at the heart of their Search activity.

The Search Beyond contributors include:

Katherine Sale, Client Strategy Director, Croud; Damien Bennett, Business Strategy Director, NMPi; Francesco Curalto, Director Paid Media, iCrossing; Tom Manning, Head of Strategy, Forward3D; Vim Badiani, Head of Paid Search, Merkle | Periscopix; Paul Byrne, Group Client Partner, Greenlight Digital; Richard Hartley, Search Director, Jellyfish; Mish Santos, Associate Director, VCCP.