Episode 5: Interview with Martin MacDonald

The newest episode of OMReport.com features Martin MacDonald, Head of SEO for OMD.

OMReport.com - martin macdonald

OMReport.com - Martin Macdonald

The interview can also be found on iTunes and on Youtube.

You can also find the transcription of the podcast in the post.

Transcription of the post:

Alpar: Okay, we’re in a new edition of OM Report at SEOktoberfest Fest and please introduce yourself.

Macdonald: Hi there, my name is Martin Macdonald. I’m head of SEO for an agency called OMD which is part of the Omnicom group. The reason why we’re laughing here is because this is the second time that we’ve done this but this is hopefully the first time that it’s actually been recorded. So I’m head of SEO for a group called OMD. We are part of Omnicom which is the world’s largest advertising agency.

Alpar: So OMD does advertising in all channels and now also started SEO as well?

Macdonald: Yeah, absolutely. We are the- we have the biggest trading desk for television in the United Kingdom so we’ve got a virtual lockout on that level of advertising. Search is something that we’ve been engaged with for a couple of years, I think…

Alpar: Search as in search engine advertising? Paid PPC?

Macdonald: Yes, the full SEO. Exactly, PPC. So they started down the PPC path three or four years ago. We now have the biggest agency in the UK for PPC.

Alpar: It’s called (Action?)

Macdonald: It’s OMD Search. OMD Search and about 18 months ago we started down the path of building an SEO agency.

Alpar: So you were like the start of this initiative or just a part of it?

Macdonald: No, I’ve come in quite recently – I came in about six months ago to OMD to head up and drive the development of the business within the UK first but there is a wider extent across Europe with technology share and so on and so forth.

Alpar: What have you been doing like before OMD?

Macdonald: I…

Alpar: Seven months ago.

Macdonald: Fair enough, so I was Head of Search for a company called Seatwave for just over three years. Seatwave is the…

Alpar: The second-hand ticket.

Macdonald: Exactly, yeah it’s the largest second-hand ticket marketplace in Europe. It’s the number one in all eleven countries that it operates in. I started there when it was a very young company and we developed out of the three, three and a bit years that I was there and before that I worked in Poker SEO for four years so I’ve been, you know I’ve been doing this for the best part of ten years now.

Alpar: Okay, okay. So what’s the difference between working a start-out and working with the classical OMD clients, like with A-brands I would say, right?

Macdonald: Yeah, there’s a huge, huge difference. So throughout my entire career, the seven or eight years I was doing this before I started working exclusively with big brands, we always had absolute buy-in from both the Dev Team and the Board-Level people within the companies. We were able to- we had really quick development cycles, we were able to push new features out within days. We were able to take control of absolutely every piece of the websites that we were optimizing for to compete across every possible search term that we could. Trying to do that with some of the world’s biggest websites is almost impossible but that’s what our jobs as SEO’s has to be over the next say three to five year, is to educate people that SEO is actually an intrinsic part of the marketing mix. That’s really what I see as being my main challenge. It’s not performing SEO on these companies’ websites because at the end of the day, these brands have all got massively powerful websites anyway; they’re just extremely poorly executed. If we can get the buy-in from the board level, then we can change this around and the entire SERP-landscape will be very different in three to five years time because all of these powerful brands will be able to rank for stuff that they should already be ranking for anyway.

Alpar: Which actually Google also pushes, you know. The push brands, they make discounts on keyword domains and that kind of stuff so it’s actually a development that grew like as well. So…

Macdonald: Yeah, yeah sure. I mean how are we-

Alpar: Just a second – when you’re kind of from this beautiful start-up setup where everything that you dream of can be done and the OMD comes along and they offer you, you know, you can work with A-brands. Did you know what was coming? Or did you guess? I mean, you have friends in big agencies, they could’ve warned you how it’s going to be.

Macdonald: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Alpar: How did you know you’re not going to go nuts and you know, be angry all the time because things are not progressing as fast as you wish they would?

Macdonald: So, it’s a great question and the reason why I took the job at OMD was because I had the chance to shape something that was very new, that was essentially a start-up within the Omnicom group, again, one of the world’s largest companies…

Alpar: How many people was there- six month ago, months ago.

Macdonald: Six months ago there were six, seven people on the team. We now have the core of 15 plus twelve support staff so just under 30 just doing full-time SEO and that’s the rate of growth. That’s the reason why I’m there – it’s because the rate of growth is fantastic, it’s incredible and we’re within the framework of this massive organisation so we can grow as quickly as we can possibly build the team out. That’s the- that’s you know, that’s the challenge.

Alpar: Usually OMD has clients that they work together with anyway so they have their PPC campaigns and then they say, ‘Ah, I got this great guy, he does something different than PPC’ and then you come along and teach and preach or…?

Macdonald: Yeah, that’s basically how it works so the one thing that we don’t need to do ever is go out and pitch for new business because OMD in the UK-

Alpar: It’s huge.

Macdonald: We have 5000 clients. You know, and we’re doing SEO for maybe a couple of dozen of them. There is so much potential for growth within that group that it was a challenge that I couldn’t pass up – that’s the reason why I took the job working with the big brands because this is something that I feel we can shape the way that the SEO industry works over the next three to five years by having that scale behind us. I mean, we’ve got lots of strategic partnerships like we’re Google’s number one customer world-wide for Adwords. We have a lot of ability and now executing on the ability that we have is the challenge that we’ve got.

Alpar: So when you have those, you know, many, many clients, how do you say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to take on the next one.’?

Macdonald: It’s all down to the execution of process within the team. So the one thing that we don’t ever want to do is turn this into the kind of agency – and a lot of the big agencies in London and probably across Europe suffer from this – where they have a very rigid and reglemented approach to what they do. So they might have three or four modules of Link-Building and three or four modules of Content-Creation and you know, they might do a technical site order in that…

Alpar: Just- do you keep things simple so they can scale, right?

Macdonald: Exactly.

Alpar: I mean there is a logic to it.

Macdonald: No, there absolutely is a logic to it but I think the problem with that kind of model is that it never ultimately delivers great value to the customer and having always been in-house, I know how powerful a medium SEO can be and that’s my challenge – to bring the small agency model into scale. So, that’s the challenge.

Alpar: It hasn’t been done before so it could even be that it’s not possible. You’re aware of that?

Macdonald: I’m- lots of things look like they’re not possible when you first start but if you’re determined enough, you can change the world.

Alpar: Okay. Ohhhhh…. That’s a big vision, I must say. I don’t go that far but that’s good, that’s good.

Macdonald: Well you’ve got to have big vision, right? The- if you look at the scale of the company we work in, someone, 25 years ago when they formed this group, had the vision to turn it into the world’s largest advertising agency.

Alpar: If it worked out.

Macdonald: Yeah, and they worked very hard and I’ve got a fantastic team who- all of whom I think are, you know.

Alpar: So you’ve got- hire them with experience or without experience and then you teach them?

Macdonald: Well, at the moment we’re very experience-heavy, so we have had people that have left other agencies and come to work with us. We’ve got people who’ve always been into SEO their entire lives and things like- you know, we’ve got some really, really skilled SEO operatives at this point in time. In order for us to scale up further, what we need to do is we need to introduce a proper training regime for new people to come in and be- the major problem with SEO has always been the fact that to learn it, it’s always an apprenticeship and that doesn’t scale. So what we need to do is build up the process that will allow us to get 20 or 30 grads in at one time and then as soon as they’re in, they can start producing and adding value to customers.

Alpar: But then again, just to get you into some contradictions. You’re saying the big clients, their problems are really simple at least compared to my everyday business and what you have been doing before and now you say you’re hiring experienced, heavy people but they’re actually not necessary for the clients that you have right now, right?

Macdonald: That’s correct. Up until now, we have been very, very top-heavy on talent – that’s absolutely true and that was just the path that the company went down in the first place and I don’t disagree that, you know, it was the wrong thing to do or if it’s…

Alpar: No, if you’re building up like juniors, then that’s really, really great to have experienced people and then you can scale, that…

Macdonald: Absolutely. So we’ve got this part down the process now in that we’ve got- we have got the processes in place as to how to execute good SEO for big brands, we have a got a very, very skill-heavy labour set at the moment in the SEO team and our challenge now is to introduce the correct training regime so that we can scale this out to a very wide level by training people up quickly and effectively to deliver great results.

Alpar: So, the experience-heavy SEOs, I was told – of course I cannot share that opinion, but I was told some of them are divas. So how do you deal with the diva factor in SEO? Of course I was referred to that as well but I can definitely not agree and I cannot see how it happens so I’m just asking you because probably in the UK it’s all different. Probably there you have the divas that we don’t have.

Macdonald: I would never say that anyone on my team is a diva. So…

Alpar: Besides yourself.

Macdonald: Besides myself, so it’s not a problem that I have to deal with them, but they probably have to deal with it with me. So I can’t even answer that.

Alpar: But you work in an office, nine to five?

Macdonald: Yes, yeah.

Alpar: So it’s not like you work out of home or anything? It’s really there, present…

Macdonald: There, present all the time apart from when I’m coming to great events like this where I get to spend a couple of days out of the country, so yeah.

Alpar: Of course but it’s for yourself to learn. It’s not like you’re enjoying this, right? I mean, it’s a heavy burden, you coming here.

Macdonald: It’s not a heavy burden coming to events like this. This particular event is great but at the same time, so much of our industry – because it’s still in its infancy – is based on the personal relationships that you’re able to develop with other people in the industry and sharing that information. I don’t think it will be like this forever, I think as soon as the industry grows up, which is what it needs to do, things like this will probably stop.

Alpar: How long will that take? It has been like this for ten years now.

Macdonald: It’s…

Alpar: How long will it take?

Macdonald: It’s been like this for ten years but if you look at the quality

Alpar: It’s growing each year.

Macdonald: Yeah, yeah but if you look at- it’s not so much that our industry needs to grow, it’s that the advertising industry needs to envelop SEO and that is something that is now happening. If you look at the three big media agencies: Omnicom, WBP, you know… these are all companies who are now buying SEO agencies left, right and centre, building great teams. They are finally bringing into the marketing mix and that will be what develops our industry… And matures it.

Alpar: A question regarding the marketing mix, I used to have a- I used to do an internship at a really, really marketing-strong company that did consumer products and all they’re thinking about are these advertising flights and that’s like the complete contradiction to what SEO is because it’s continuous, you have to invest in it all the time, you see a little in the beginning and a lot in the end. How do you take the people in these big A-brand companies on this…? Travel…

Macdonald: And convince them?

Alpar: Yes.

Macdonald: So, so basi- I guess the question there is ‘How do you evangelise SEO?’ and it’s quite an easy thing to do because if you look at any typical PPC campaign and then compare it over the course of twelve months to an SEO campaign, we can generally deliver six, eight, ten times more value on a cost-per-click basis or on an acquisition-of-client basis. With big brands, that isn’t the only challenge, however. If you look at FMCG companies, you know, it might be a soft-drink manufacturer, for instance – they’re never going to sell a can of soft drink over the internet.

Alpar: Exactly. So you have to have this brand that they involve with values and, you know…

Macdonald: Exactly. So there’s a lot of things that we can do as well. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but there’s a really good example that was done – it wasn’t an SEO, it was PPC but it was a great example that Converse did about two years ago with a campaign called ‘Domination.’ You can look it up on YouTube. It’s a fantastic example of what can be done and what they did was over the course of a year, they looked at lots of search terms that have got predictably high volumes at certain times of year that fit in with a specific demographic of searcher but have no competition. So examples for that might be ‘how to get a prom date.’

Alpar: What?

Macdonald: ‘How to get a prom date’ in America. Or ‘first day of summer’ is another good example and they built up micro sites that were branded ‘Converse’ that gave the people the information that they were looking for because they knew that the average, you know, it would be class A, B, C, 18 to 24 year-old guys that were searching for it…

Alpar: And smart as well.

Macdonald: Exactly. So there’s lots of different ways that SEO can be used to attract brand equity and brand recognition for these big companies.

Alpar: But Converse shoes you can actually sell online but…

Macdonald: You can.

Alpar: You know, if it was an ice cream or any, really, FMCG company then that’s a perfect example.

Macdonald: Yeah, exactly. Exactly and you know, if you look at- I was having this discussion a couple of weeks ago with another one of my friends and this doesn’t just apply to the worlds of FMCG. If you look at Politics… Perfect.

Alpar: Or cars.

Macdonald: Well cars but…

Alpar: You can, like a test drive – you can generate like a lead for a test drive online and the image that is there, connected to certain car brands. You cannot build that, you know, in clicks

Macdonald: That’s true, that’s true but let’s take lead generation entirely out of the question here. If you look at competitive SEO against values or against demographics.

Alpar: Okay.

Macdonald: So recently, about two years ago we had this thing in London where the Mayor, Boris Johnson was introducing bendy buses, you know the really long buses that are joined at the middle and it turned into a big political issue and things like that. Now, is it a great innovation I missed? No, no there’s nothing particularly special about them at all, they’ve got them in the rest of Europe and all the rest… But the thing is, he could have used at that point, SEO, to rank for the terms that were specific to what he was trying to introduce to get his message out there, in the same way that that the world’s biggest brands that will never sell their product online, can also get their message out there by targeting terms that make sense.

Alpar: Sure, If I’m selling cream – face, hand cream or something and I’m the brand, I should be ranking for hand cream, that kind of stuff, you’re…

Macdonald: No… Things like beauty tips, you know, things like that that are not inherently commercial at all. There’s so much opportunity out there for people to introduce their brands so if we look at…

Alpar: Or associate like something positive because they look at tips and then they know, okay this brand really helps me and then they’re more likely to buy.

Macdonald: Right, so look at the top ten results on Google.com for the search term ‘eat healthy’.’ Okay? I don’t think there’s any root domains in that. It’s all- it’s eHow, it’s Mahalo it’s things like that, okay.

Alpar: probably website with lots of great content right?

Macdonald: Well, you know, arguably, they’ve got lots of content – I’ll agree with that, but my point there is if you look at, I don’t know, health clubs, what a perfect search term for them to be targeting. Yet they don’t. You know you could still argue that those guys will sell memberships online and things like that but if you look at FMCG or look at fast food retailers for instance, why wouldn’t some of the world’s biggest fast food retailers want to rank for ‘eat healthy’ and then explaining why their food is better than other people’s and all that.

Alpar: How do you explain these companies that say the time lag that there is between activity and results, because you know from their PPC campaign, they know I- okay but I give you 20000 bucks this month and you fire them out, I get the clicks, and you know, the same thing from their – TV ads, print ads, whatever – how do you explain this, I mean how do you take that…

Macdonald: So, I’ve never really experienced that as a problem. The kind of people that we have to pitch to are all highly successful individuals who are on the boards of very large companies. I am, you know, there might be marketing directors of airlines

Alpar: So they’re not making decisions for the next three months, moor going for the next three years.

Macdonald: Exactly. So these are highly competent, highly successful people and it’s not a problem I’ve run into. If we were doing this for our SME’s, I can totally see how this would be a problem but we’re doing this for brands that have existed for maybe a hundred years already right

Alpar: You have more strategic Backlinks.

Macdonald: Exactly.

Alpar: Okay that’s cool. So what really pisses you off in Search these days?

Macdonald: What really pisses me off in Search these days?

Alpar: So it’s just to get away from the politically correct answers.

Macdonald: yeah, yeah, yeah that’s fine. That’s a great question. What really pisses me off in Search these days is the fact that certain things still work that just fill the internet up with crap. So, by that…

Alpar: Did you talk to Joost, because I asked him the same question; he gave me the same answer. I think, I think you’re, you know…

Macdonald: Did he? No I- yeah no seriously, seriously I-

Alpar: It was a preparation for the interview.

Macdonald: (laughter) yeah but I’ve compared notes with him. No, it’s my number one bugbear right as I hate the whole article spinning and directory submission and the sake of creating more stuff on the internet just for the sake of getting it there for a link, I don’t think is an appropriate way for big brands, particularly, to be operating. So, it’s much, much, much more important for me to do well-executed campaigns that make sense. I mean, there’s a great example that we did for Virgin this year where we launched a news story – it was just after Pluto had been re-qualified not a planet…

Alpar: Okay.

Macdonald: So we launched a news story with Virgin saying that Richard Branson had bought Pluto to re-instate it as a planet. Now we got links from almost every newspaper in the world off the back of that, you know – The BBC, CNN, Fox News, CBS – all of them linked back to the page that we wanted to for it.

Alpar: Is it actually legal to say something that is not true?

Macdonald: We released it on April the first.

Alpar: Ahh that’s good, that’s good, yeah but then again ah okay… It can take off.

Macdonald: Yeah it went massively viral.

Alpar: He’s crazy enough, so it could be possible.

Macdonald: Exactly.

Alpar: Could it be? It could be.

Macdonald: Exactly, exactly but that’s the thing – it’s about creative thinking. It’s not about going onto a webmaster forum or an SEO forum and paying someone 15 dollars to do a thousand directory submissions. That is bullshit. I disapprove of that level of SEO. I have done for many years. I don’t think that’s what this as an industry should be about – it should be about creative thinking and execution of great campaigns.

Alpar: But that is only from the perspective of doing SEO for large companies SMEs or like the individual Affiliate guy who does a little SEO for his own websites to earn a little on the side?

Macdonald: Well, there’s always going to be the question of – if you can get value from that, whatever, 50 dollars that you’re investing in link-building, right, and if you can get value from it and it’s ROI positive, then I can totally see how you would do that.

Alpar: That’s why it still exists – that’s the whole explanation.

Macdonald: But- yeah. That’s fine, that’s fine.

Alpar: It works and it pays off, that’s why it exists.

Macdonald: But one day – touch wood – it will stop working. Hopefully when Google figure that shit out once and for all, it will stop working and then…

Alpar: What’s your guess? When is that going to be?

Macdonald: That will be- I had an argument about this last night that I think you were involved in- I think over the next two, I’ll say three ‘cause I got- I got, alright, alright…

Alpar: Ooooohh that’s- yesterday you were like ‘18 month- 18 month max!’

Macdonald: Alright, fair enough so… A lot of creative people in SEO have managed to engineer the link graph to such an extent that we can make things rank – I’m not including myself in this, I would never do anything like this – but there’s- we’ve managed to engineer networks that allow us to link to websites inorganically, to make them rank the stuff. There is only a very small percentage of the human population that have the ability to create a link on the internet – not very many people have their own websites or blogs. You know, it’s such a small fraction.

Alpar: Absolutely.

Macdonald: Such a huge fraction of the entire internet have the ability to have a social profile. I see no way that this will not be worked much heavier into the Google algorithm over the next 18 months or two years. It has to be. So they got quite far down the road with Twitter and then they’ve abandoned that, suspiciously one might say about three weeks after the loss that Twitter experienced, Google Plus was launched. Now I don’t think that has…

Alpar: Accidents, accidents.

Macdonald: Pure coincidence. It was probably two different business units, had no idea…

Alpar: Coincidence, didn’t communicate well, it’s a big company.

Macdonald: Absolutely.

Alpar: And anything bad can happen.

Macdonald: But… And whilst I don’t think at the moment it’s got any influence on natural rankings, I genuinely think that as soon as they’ve got enough data, they will switch that on, and that will be what we will be engineering for in future.

Alpar: I think it’s a really smart thought that the representation- I mean, if we think of a link as a recommendation, then I can really, you know, see your point that few people can give a recommendation via a link but many can give them via social signals, so just a question of when it happen…

Macdonald: Absolutely.

Alpar: But it has to be the next level.

Macdonald: It has to be, it has to be.

Alpar: And it just like, like when Google took over and you know AltaVista and Lycos with On-Page focus. It couldn’t work. It just delivers better results and this is what social’s going to be some day.

Macdonald: Yeah.

Alpar: We’ll just have to place our bets – when is that going to be?

Macdonald: I- yeah I was doing this 15 years ago when you had to write Viagra on a page a 150 times, right, and we’ve got Dennis here who was head of SEO for eBay for some time and I’ve used a little slide shot of them doing exactly that a couple of years ago in many of my presentations saying, ‘Okay, it wasn’t just the little guys that were keyword stuffing, eBay spent years doing it because it worked.’ You know that’s the- that goes back to the whole point about the 50 dollars for submitting to a thousand five hundred directories – at the moment it works. It’s a bad strategy. It’s a technique but it’s a bad strategy.

Alpar: It’s like lead-throwing. You know, they do it while it works, if it doesn’t they will look for something else if there is something else but a strategic move would be different.

Macdonald: Absolutely. Absolutely so that’s- that to me is the fundamental difference between working on big brand SEO and SME SEO.

Alpar: Aright. Thanks so much for the interview.

Macdonald: You’re very welcome. Thank you.

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