Online leaders: Frank Grasso, CEO – e-channel

Originally from Melbourne and now leaving in Adelaide, Frank is the CEO and founder of e-channel, one of Australia’s leading providers of search engine marketing and pay per click advertising. While his friends would use the term “stubborn” to describe him, I personally think that he is innovative. When I met him a few years ago, I was impressed by how Frank and his team were always trying to find innovative ways of dealing with problems. A proud father, when he looks at his children, he sees aspects of himself and a world of possibilities open to them.

NC: Tell me how you first got involved in search marketing?

In the late 1990’s I was a BDM for a company that sold websites. Once they bought the website, all of my clients were asking about how they could get found on the internet.  I left my job and started a search engine placement business.  Those days it was about submitting URL’s and tweaking meta tags.  My business evolved into an SEO consultancy and then in 2002 I entered the world of Paid Search and haven’t looked back since.

NC: What has surprised you most about working in this industry?

The speed of change.  Innovation just never stops; it’s easy to forget how far Search Marketing has come in levels of sophistication, from the simple PPC auction a decade ago to what is now a digital media management platform. These days a Search Engine Marketer is really a performance marketer working on mobile, tablets and desktops.  Years ago I could run my business with a couple of web developers; now I have two Marketing PhD’s on the team and several people with Masters degrees as well.

NC: What do you find most challenging about this industry?

There is still a lot of work to do when it comes to educating clients that are new to search.  Often these clients will do trials that are too small and which don’t really prove a case to continue.  I always feel sad for the client who fails to see the opportunity.  Arguably we should do a better job in explaining the value but we don’t always have the key decision-maker accessible to us.  Years ago, for example, we were doing some work for Borders (book retailer) through their agency and were stuck in a strategy that was set by their marketing manager and their agency which only ran tactical campaigns around Mothers’ Day, Christmas, Easter, etc.  However, we know that customers search for and buy books all year round.  We could not get through to the agency or Borders the fact that they were missing out on many thousands of customer acquisition opportunities per day.  Sadly the company folded without moving successfully into online retailing to support their established bricks-and-mortar distribution network.

NC: What’s the best/worst thing to happen since you started working in search marketing?

The best change in the industry is the separation between Paid Search and SEO.  There are similarities between the two but they really are two completely different disciplines.  Paid Search is measured on performance and expands into any digital media that can be purchased by click or impression and measured by a defined action (a purchase or sales lead).  These days this includes display and social media advertising. SEO is more technical and web-developer knowledge is still required to optimise web pages.  Link building and social media optimisation are separate again.   At the risk of oversimplifying this difference, Paid Search is evolving into Creative Advertising & Media Buying, and SEO is more like PR.

The flip side of this separation, which is the worst thing to happen, is the confusion this causes the customer. Often they think that they need one agency for each service and that is just not the case.

NC: If you could change one thing about this industry, what would it be?

I would love to see a program for Search Marketers that has the same value and prestige as CPA has for accountants.

NC: When your friends/family find out that you are in search marketing, what do they say or ask?

Depending on the generation of my family, some think that I work with computers while others think I build websites.  The most common question from those who do understand is: “Who clicks on those ads? I don’t”.  It’s amazing how many people claim not to click on ads yet tens of billions of dollars are generated from paid ads.

NC: Tell me about someone who has influenced your decision to work in this space.

Dr Byron Sharp from the University of South Australia.  Byron leads the Ehrenberg Bass Institute for Marketing Science.  Byron’s mantra for the past two decades has been that Marketing is a science. It can be measured, predicted and explained.  This philosophy has led me into the demanding world of performance based campaigns, where every dollar spent can be assigned a ROI.  Thus Paid Search is one of the few areas of advertising that is completely accountable and every campaign delivers measurable results.

NC: What do you think will change about Search Marketing over the next five years?

I think that Search Marketing will become more mainstream and better understood by buyers.  This will bring about a lot more competition and will drive unsophisticated agencies out of the market. This will be great news for advertisers.

NC: What sorts of trends do you see more generally in the digital space? And what do you think the next big thing will be?

I can’t predict what the next big thing is going to be but the rise of social media will change the advertising landscape.  Old media businesses will continue to adapt and new, as yet unknown, channels will add to the media landscape.

NC: If you weren’t in search marketing, what would you be doing instead, or what would your life be like?

I would own a Vespa Retail Shop!  At the time I started e-channel I considered this business and thought it didn’t have the scope, growth or innovation opportunities that the online environment presented.  My life might have been simpler but I would have built my own retail presence online – so perhaps not that different after all!

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