Interview with John Sargent, Director at digital consultancy and agency Think VEN

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We continue our Expert Opinion column, and today we present to your attention an interview with John Sargent, a digital consultant, and technical expert. John is a director and founder of VEN and specialises in digital media, where his experience includes helping Google develop their own in-house best practice across £100MM+ campaigns. He has run and coordinated multinational campaigns for some of the world’s largest digital brands.

Away from VEN, John is also a professional esports host and presenter.

John Sargent, Director at digital consultancy and agency Think VEN

As always, here are the main topics for navigation:

Table of contents

PPC skills and problems

Why did you choose the PPC industry?

I originally studied to be a Formula 1 engineer, I was even working at a championship-winning team for a while — so marketing was honestly not where I thought I would end up!

Away from studies and work, I was an enthusiastic chess player and also ran a series of traffic-driving websites about video games. Looking back, perhaps the common thread in all of this is the enjoyment of structured problem-solving. 

When I decided to try something different to engineering, I focused on the work I had done to drive traffic online through creating online content — very much the organic side of things — and challenged myself to learn more about paid marketing. I applied to join several companies with a good reputation but ultimately chose to join an agency. 

It was here that I really lucked out! I knew that I was joining a special team that was helping to develop best practice on behalf of Google themselves, but I didn’t quite appreciate what an amazing opportunity it would be until I got there. Without going into detail, the amount of influence we had on developing paid platforms was fantastic, and I was able to learn so much from a technical perspective that would have taken me many more years working on ‘normal’ commercial accounts. I know the word gets used a lot in the industry, but this was truly an opportunity that was unique both in nature as well as in name! 

From that point onwards, I was hooked. I became focused on working out how best to structure for scale, and constantly learning about new initiatives and how they impact the work that we did. Just under two years later, I became a Director working with a wide variety of clients in different verticals, all with interesting, unique challenges — so I decided to stay in the industry and keep going! :)

What skills need a PPC specialist to develop now to not be left without work in the future?

I think many people misinterpret “passion” in a role to be synonymous with loving the process of what you are doing, day-in and day-out. For me, I believe this energy is better placed with the clients we serve — my job is not to understand my business, it’s to understand theirs. 

This is an important differentiator and is difficult to achieve at an agency, where — let’s face it — at a corporate outfit, sales and pitch teams go to win business, and work gets ‘handed off’ to teams that are several steps removed from the clients. In addition, when a client has someone truly passionate about their business working the account, they inevitably get rotated off or join another company within a year or two. 

My biggest piece of advice to a new PPC specialist is to find out how to care, and to keep caring — even if your clients span completely different industries and you need to keep on top of lots of different challenges at once. This is something that no employment contract can buy but often makes all the difference.

3 major problems each PPC specialist usually faces and how did you solve them?

  1. Understanding how to structure a client’s products or services and put them into relevant marketing channels — we often get left to our own devices when we know very little about our client’s businesses compared to themselves. Stand your ground and make a case for talking to clients as much as possible, both before you get started and during your projects. The more you use your (and their) time to understand the organisation better, the easier it will be to make decisions that positively impact your campaigns.
  2. Communicating the impact of the ‘little things’ that help facilitate future performance. We are often pressured into focusing on immediate results for a colleague, the client, or their senior team. However, the small (or large!) things we do that facilitate future performance improvements — structural, test set-up, discussing the best ways to use reporting to produce insights — can go unnoticed. Today’s numbers aren’t always the best long-term investment, and there’s a balance to be struck. Communicate this well, and your clients will thank you!
  3. This sounds simple, but avoid getting the numbers wrong. Nothing causes question marks faster than inaccurate reporting or accidentally saying something that isn’t true because you’re reading off a commentary sheet written by someone else rather than sharing your thoughts from optimising yourself. This is a lot harder than most specialists realise because they have to deal with so many metrics and numbers on a daily basis. Before speaking to a client, always ask yourself if everything looks right, but more importantly, know the answer to the follow-up question “Why?”.
John Sargent, Director at digital consultancy and agency Think VEN

The future of the PPC and ad market

How will the PPC and ad market change in the near future?

The market leader (Google) is not-so-subtly moving towards automation as much as possible. Responsive text ads, more automated bidding strategies, and the removal of search terms (more on that below) are just some of the things being introduced to nudge organisations closer towards “set and forget” campaigns. 

While some repetitive tasks can indeed be automated, many of these changes are designed so that information and decision-points are actually removed and become opaque to the organisation or agency. 

I believe this is good for specialists — it will mean that those who are willing to call this out and focus on driving insight in the face of having less data, will outperform automated campaigns. Most importantly, they will also better understand why.

What are your biggest pain points as a PPC specialist?

Lack of data! Watching Google limit their ad platform’s search terms report feature in September 2020 in the name of privacy was a slap in the face to advertisers and clients. It is now a regular occurrence that organisations can pay for a click that leads to a successful sale, and never be allowed to know what search term triggered a query. According to Google, achieving a conversion is not necessarily “significant” anymore, which is quite a bold statement. Negative query management is also now more difficult as a result. 

The net effect? Millions spent on ads suddenly become invisible to advertisers and clients. Want the same level of data as before? You can spend your way out of it. Naturally, that’s not something we’ve been recommending. 

While it is a pain, it’s our goal and part of our purpose to think of ways to manage and overcome challenges like this!

PPC strategy mistakes

Common PPC Strategy Mistakes that Kill Campaigns. What was your biggest mistake?

Especially in teams where multiple people manage accounts or rotate frequently, never put global negative lists in place that should only be applied to a small number of campaigns. A small mistake in the application can have a high opportunity cost! Where possible, build-in systems that naturally increase the barriers to making a simple mistake.

What is your PPC specialist’s nightmare?

Unfortunately, linked to a previous question — a lack of data! We are moving into a period where the will of advertisers is being tested into fully automating their campaigns. Fortunately for the industry, I believe that while campaigns are now easier than ever to set up, ultimately less transparency will result in less trust and therefore things will change in the future. I am frustrated that the industry is being tested in this way, but also unconcerned.

What is the future of digital advertising in a post-cookie world?

A lot is still to be decided on this topic, and it’s very exciting! I think it’s fair to say that third-party cookies have essentially become an obsession over the last 10+ years. It will be good for advertisers, in general, to focus their efforts more on a common-sense approach to other things they can do, and combine this with better and smarter ways to use first-party data. 

That said, many of these “better and smarter ways” have yet to become standard or even be created yet — so how this develops over the next few years will be very interesting to watch!

How has COVID-19 has impacted the PPC market?

The global pandemic has affected PPC massively, but also in very different ways in different quarters. Some industries shut down their paid marketing spend almost immediately, while others have flourished and gone on to see extreme growth. The industry has shifted from optimising performance for BAU, to “how to roll with the punches”, very quickly! 

More broadly, many more businesses have been focusing on bringing their PPC in-house, because agencies have abandoned contracts or organisations can no longer afford inflated retainers. This has admittedly suited us well, as we’ve been able to help advise, structure for growth, and help execute campaigns as a halfway house while helping organisations with hiring the right staff to bring their campaigns in-house to minimise long-term cost.

Tag the one person in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read

I’d love to hear what Aydin Moghaddam, the Head of Performance Marketing at bulk, has to say.

Summing up

The key to success for a PPC specialist is to immerse yourself in your clients’ organisations, concentrate on common-sense approaches and use first-party data wisely. A changing media landscape is also forcing marketers to think of different ways to reach their audiences and deliver key messages across multiple channels. Create and experiment!

We really appreciate John’s honest responses about daily PPC challenges and sharing his experience. We hope this interview was useful and you’ve enjoyed reading it.

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