Sarah Conway: Search is a balance of art and science

May 2015

Sarah Conway's passport has a fair few stamps in it, thanks to a three-year period after university that saw her circumnavigate the globe. She travelled around a dozen countries, crossed North and South America, explored Asia, worked in New York and Sydney and finally settled down in cosmopolitan London four years ago.

How has someone with such a serious streak of wanderlust managed to stay put for so long? The answer in part comes down to Sarah's choice of profession, which allows for cerebral expeditions and absorbing tours of human behaviour.

"Search is the perfect balance between art and science," she maintains. "You get deep down into the detail of the data and find patterns and rhythms which can completely change campaigns and strategies. That's really powerful in itself, but going beyond the data you get to grips with the human aspect of search, into semantics and user journeys and why people search the way they do."

After a grad role at a pure digital agency, a move to neo@ogilvy has helped satisfied Sarah's hunger for new intellectual adventures. "At neo, search is far more than just a pushbutton exercise," she explains. "It's not just something that you stick on the end of a marketing plan. It's more and more getting down into the data, really looking at the need behind the search and how that evolves across the user journey."

An appreciation for the real people who use search to meet needs in their day-to-lives is one of the reasons for Sarah's success in her role as Strategy & Insights Account Director. "You really need to get under the skin of the audience before you spend a single cent on anything," she explains, "and I think once you've got under the skin of the audience you can then work to really tailor your approach."

The ability to develop data-driven intelligence about user behaviour delivers benefits far beyond search, of course — another advantage of working in a full-service agency. "If you get insights from search, they can inform all different channels," she says. "You can get search data — some really, really powerful information — and then you can feed that into things like content strategy or audience profiling or user experience."

Like an ocean explorer peering into a spyglass, Sarah keeps one eye constantly on the horizon for indications of what's coming next. "I think what we're not in is the year of the mobile; we're in a decade of people using mobile and mobiles defining what we do," she asserts. "It's not really so much about focusing on devices anymore; I would say that it's about the audience and how audiences are searching across any and all of the devices they have."

As for an upcoming trend, she foresees search becoming an even hotter arena for brands. "I think for the next year we're going to see more and more competition — increased competition will really, really drive the performance of search marketers," she says. "Those who innovate, test and fuel their campaigns will survive, and those who don't are really in for a tough ride."

In helping neo stay at the forefront, Sarah is often involved in recruitment. When interviewing candidates for search jobs, she says it's not just an ability to think analytically and methodically that makes someone stand out. "The thing that people don't necessarily think about is being really nimble," she observes. "Search changes all the time. People introduce different aspects into it, there are evolutions every single day, so if you get stuck in the same way of doing something, your campaigns just dawdle in mediocrity."

What's her top tip for making it in the field? "Stay curious," the traveller-cum-search-expert replies. "Never losing that curiosity or enthusiasm is really irreplaceable."

As consumer decision-making gets more complex, automation helps to simplify