Two Stories For Two Years

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Linkedin alerted a few friends of mine to the fact that this was my two-year work anniversary at Bonsai.  My mind drifted instantly back to walks down Wacker Drive. Bonsai has no office in downtown Chicago, but nevertheless I found myself thinking about that walk, and the bitter February headwind back to Oglivie Transportation Station from Google’s office. 

I don’t like telling too many stories from my time at Google. (note: The Bonsai team is unhappy with me how infrequently I share about Big G. I admit it’s a poor business strategy). To commemorate two years at Bonsai, I’ll share two stories about Google, and why Wacker Drive comes to mind today.

Story 1 – Circa 2009

In 2009 I was a junior sales analyst, hired from Google’s small business operations world to support Google’s growing consumer packaged goods Ads business. I had an incredible manager, and learned from a team so talented it offended the senses. At that time, my achievements at Google consisted of growing startups like Candy.com (since been sold), Church Partner, and being the original rep for Shopbop.com. PGATour.com was so happy with my counsel that they offered me a free 3-day trip to any PGA owned golf resort. I was under strict orders not to accept the gift. Thus concludes my professional achievements and qualifications circa 2009.

Here’s the thing: I was unqualified as an analyst. I knew nothing about media, less about global mega-corporate business, and I wasn’t a natural Google spokesman. Many people worked at Google because they felt kinship to it’s mission, however technology – and technology companies – aroused no emotional connection from me at that time. I think I got the job because I was so weird.

In the middle of preparing annual AdWords reports for Proctor & Gamble, I discovered that over $15 Million (~50% of total) of P&G’s Google investment went to clicks on ads they’d shown on a single Google search query. This query was pornographic. (Free Bonsai T-Shirt to anyone who can guess what it is) 

I’ll never forget the dread I felt the day I made this discovery. I was sick to my stomach as I walked down Wacker Drive back to my train. I was a new analyst – inheriting accounts from the world’s largest advertiser – and one of the most basic things they’d find about their multi-million dollar investment was that it was going to pornography queries. What would happen to me? What would happen to our team? Would they terminate their Google partnership? Something must be done!

I brought this news to a few folks to get advice, but something was lost in translation. What do you mean by the queries they showed ads on? I was introduced to the leaders of strategy and insight at P&G’s agencies – the world’s best agencies I was told. I learned that it was their job to purchase ads on behalf of Proctor & Gamble. Their leadership was not particularly concerned about any issues with spend effectiveness. They were certain they were doing a great job. They walked me through some insights around imaginary buyers of Tide laundry detergent. Did you know Sally? She’s a working mom on the go. Her motto is “go for it!” I quietly added a negative keyword to their entire portfolio of AdWords accounts. I did a few other things to help them. They were very happy that over a short period of time, they received more clicks at a lower cost than they’d ever gotten.

Through those years, I don’t recall P&G or any partner of theirs having any idea of pervasive waste in their digital media strategy. Often I would be walked through weekly requests and strategies that had absolutely no chance of succeeding. I would be tasked with ‘optimizing’ these plans, and then the next day be asked to justify why they should take my advice.  They’d eventually turn on eight more brands for the first time using my investment and bidding recommendations. But after all of these wins, I couldn’t shake the feeling. So much potential positive impact from Google was being lost. Problems didn’t stop with porn ads for P&G in 2009.

STORY 2 – CIRCA 2013

Years later, I was a senior analyst supporting the US’ largest retailers. Retailers are data-driven; they live in hourly sales reports. Their digital spend dwarfed P&G. They’d been ‘paid search practitioners’ for well over a decade. Despite this, I would continue to have stressful walks down Wacker Drive. One of my clients was Kohl’s.

Kohl’s struggled to drive one-hundred million dollars of online revenue with multi-millions in Google Ads spend. It turned out they didn’t need new ads, new keywords, new campaigns, or really much of anything new. They did need to change one thing – how they bought clicks. They needed to buy Google Ads the way they were meant to be purchased. Over dozens of in-person meetings and days spent on-site in Milwaukee, we finally broke through. In 2016, we made Kohl’s an extra $30 million dollars – in one day – by convincing them to lower the bid on one keyword. It made the news. 

I made a healthy bonus that year. That feeling remained unshaken. How much business had Kohl’s lost for how many years before? Something had to be done.

FAST FORWARD TO TODAY

At the end of 2021, Chief MarTech gave up the ghost – the marketing technology ecosystem has gotten so preposterously complicated that he’s no longer even going to print the shock-and-awe slide you’ve probably seen every year for the past decade.

The typical American firm has over 30 business and marketing technology contracts, utilizing less than a third of them. Capabilities for business growth through digital tools, cloud technology and marketing partnerships are more robust than ever, yet Bonsai routinely hears about businesses that cannot bear the weight of prior tech mistakes. You will struggle to find a single new technology in the space that doesn’t claim to be the next all-in-one solution, solving problems created by all of the platforms come before. Recurring monthly user license fees are real, but words and capabilities have become worthless.

Many leaders we talk to are more averse than ever to invest in data science resources because of how bad they’ve been burned in the past. Yet, they are starving for actionable analytics and insights. 

This is not supposed to be how it works. This is not the promise of tech fulfilled.

I’d love to celebrate our recent growth more, and have the energy to take a step back and share with you the great memories we’ve had in embarking on the Bonsai journey. For now, it will have to wait. There’s a problem, and in 2022, I still feel myself on that same walk down Wacker Drive. Something must be done. 

 

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