TechBytes with Todd Bowman, Director, SEM and Feeds, Merkle
Director, SEM and Feeds, Merkle
The industry now has access to more location data than ever before through data collected from apps, cell phones, etc. In this context, we spoke to Todd Bowman, Director, SEM and Feeds, Merkle, to understand the current state of location data, how Merkle works with location data technologies, and how it is disrupting the way omnichannel marketing is executed globally.
Tell us about your role and journey into technology. What made you join Merkle?
In my current role at Merkle as Senior Director for Amazon and eRetail, I am focused on growing and innovating our Amazon and eRetail service offering in order to support clients with marketing on Amazon, Target, Walmart and other eRetail sites. The Amazon and eRetail service works within our Performance Media team, which also includes SEM, SEO, Media Services and Analytics. Our structure allows me to work closely with these other groups to help our account teams provide a holistic solution across multiple channels for our clients.
Prior to joining Merkle and establishing the Amazon and eRetail department, I was a part of RKG. This is where I began my career in digital marketing as a Paid Search Analyst (2007) and was able to be a part of the team that created RKG’s Feed Management service offering (2010). I joined Merkle by way of acquisition in 2014. It has been a great journey over the past 11 years going from a company with around 32 employees to one that now employs over 6,000 globally.
What are the biggest challenges to leading Marketing Operations in e-commerce and the retail industry?
There are two big challenges to leading Marketing Operations in e-commerce and the retail industry these days — building an effective omnichannel approach and building a strategy around Amazon.
Building an effective omnichannel approach is a tough challenge for retailers these days for many reasons. The top three challenges are: 1) Complications tracking online to offline conversion, 2) Retailers’ hesitation in moving away from last click attribution and 3) Many retailers still operate their in-store and digital programs in silos. Google is doing a lot to support the online to offline tracking challenge with tools such as Store Visits, but that metric is still an estimate and doesn’t track the actual purchases. In terms of last click attribution and retailers operating in silos, these are challenges that require some major organizational adjustments.
Amazon continues to be mentioned in earnings reports for retailers because of its growth. For retailers to be successful in the future, they need to make Amazon a part of their overall strategy. This doesn’t mean that they must sell on Amazon, but they do need to pay close attention. For those that do not sell on Amazon, they need to identify the differentiators they have over Amazon (e.g. brick and mortar stores, loyalty programs, etc.) and get creative to effectively utilize those advantages to drive more customers to their brand. For those who do sell on Amazon, we recommend they utilize all tools that Amazon provides to tell their story and drive sales through optimized product page content (e.g. A+/Enhanced Brand Content, a focus on reviews, Amazon Stores, Search Ads, Display Ads, etc.).
Could you tell us more about your experience in Amazon Search Management and how it benefits marketing teams?
I have been working with Amazon on the content optimization side for close to eight years and started working with the current Amazon Search program a couple of years ago when an existing client reached out for help scaling up their current program. I had been indirectly involved in an Amazon Search pilot the previous year and my team was well versed in Google/Bing Shopping and Amazon content support. I felt this new opportunity was a natural fit for my team and an exciting challenge.
For those that know, Amazon Search in 2016 was a bear to work with because campaign management was very manual and there was limited performance data available. By leveraging our experience working with retail clients and our expertise with Google/Bing Shopping, we were able to create processes to manage accounts more efficiently and create reporting that provided insights not available from Amazon. In addition to building the internal processes, we worked closely with our Amazon reps to get early access to the Sponsored Product and Sponsored Brands (formerly Headline Search Ads) APIs, which really helped us innovate our service offering much faster. Today, we have the technology to provide automated, custom reporting that is not available in the Amazon UI. We have also integrated our proprietary bid technology with Sponsored Products, which allows us to calculate performance-based bids through Machine Learning. We plan to have Sponsored Brands integrated by the end of the year.
The service that we provide at Merkle for Amazon helps marketing teams and brands scale their Amazon programs. Looking at Q2, the median revenue growth for our clients was 111 percent year over year. Scaling an Amazon program without the right expertise and tools can be a challenge because managing on Amazon is very manual and they are constantly updating their tools. Many of our clients previously managed their programs in house and struggled to find the necessary time to put towards their program. We work as an extension of our clients’ marketing teams, which allows their internal team to focus more on their overall program while we focus on growing Amazon with our tools and expertise.
How do you mentor your product marketing team at Merkle?
I empower each member of my team to think creatively and work hand-in-hand to further develop our unique service offering and bring on others to help grow our talented team of Amazon and eRetail experts. By empowering the team, I’ve seen these individuals develop a sense of ownership, which motivates them to provide their best work for clients on behalf of the team.
What is the current state of location data? How does Merkle work with location data technologies?
As an industry, we now have access to more location data than ever before through data collected from apps, cell phones, etc. From a people-based marketing perspective, it is an exciting time because we have the capabilities to effectively interact with customers providing ads that are relevant to their interests and more effective based on their location. The challenge is how to use the data appropriately and make sure we are not violating the trust of customers by using this data. At Merkle, we have licenses with multiple providers to leverage data within our M1 platform.
How do you see location data disrupting the way omnichannel marketing is executed globally?
Location data is a key factor in making omnichannel marketing successful in the US and globally. As mentioned above, we have access to more data than ever before, so I am not sure location data is really a disrupter right now. Instead, location data will be the key to progressing marketing teams to fully embrace an omnichannel strategy. The next level of progression needs to be building the capabilities to truly track online to offline traffic and purchases.
For example, Google knows where a brand’s stores are located to provide a closely accurate value of traffic through Store Visits and can help track the purchases through their Store Sales Direct program. Unfortunately, that data is only for Google and does not track as accurately as direct online clicks to orders that direct marketers have come to expect. As soon as there is a way to more effectively track the full path across all channels, I believe omnichannel marketing adoption will happen faster as retailers fully embrace the omnichannel experience by adjusting their team structures, budgets and goals.
Which brands do it the best when it comes to leveraging Audience Data and Customer Data Platforms for omnichannel advertising?
Brands that are seeking to innovate with the data they have available to them and build more holistic team and strategies around those resources are certainly the ones doing it best in my opinion.
Which marketing and sales automation tools and technologies do you currently use?
We mainly use proprietary technology and in-house tools. Our technology was first developed in 2004, and with our in-house team of data scientists and engineers, we’re able to constantly adapt to market changes and new platforms such as Amazon. We can quickly build out and modify API connections.
Outside of Merkle technology, we work with Feedonomics to use their feed management platforms to optimize product page content on Amazon and product data on many other channels.
What are your predictions on the most impactful disruptions in marketing operations for 2018-2020?
That is a good question. One of the reasons I enjoy working in digital marketing is how often the space changes and that disruptions are a regular occurrence.
One of the most impactful disruptions over the next two years will be Amazon’s ad revenue platform growth. I believe that they will take over the number three spot in terms of ad revenue share by jumping over Bing and Oath in early 2019, if not by the end of this year. Amazon’s ad platform is not only a profitable unit for them, but it is also a very enticing marketing channel for retailers because of its exclusive ad inventory and audience capabilities. Amazon has invested a lot in their platform over the past couple of years and have not shown signs of slowing down.
Another potential disruption is the rise of retail sites introducing their own ad platforms to promote products on their site. Similar to Amazon, sites such as Walmart, Target and others now offer a paid platform to promote products being sold on their site. This opportunity is giving CPGs and other brands a chance to compete for the digital shelf space, which is much larger than the traditional brick and mortar shelf space. While I don’t believe this disruption will be as big as Amazon’s ad revenue platform, it is a space that we will continue to watch because it could affect how CPGs and other brands spread out their budgets in the future.
How do you prepare for an AI-centric world at Merkle?
Being flexible and nimble is key to preparing for an AI-centric world. AI is an opportunity that changes by the day, so being flexible and nimble is allowing us to proactively innovate AI tech while still being able to change quickly as needed. We have a strong team of researchers, data scientists and analysts that help keep us on the forefront of AI innovation.
How do you inspire your people to work with technology?
We work with technology every day, either in-house or through partnerships with other platforms. I like to push my team to find the best tools within our technology or the industry for the benefit of our clients. We do this by testing each tool and then creating discussion about the pros and cons of each. Challenging my team with these tests inspires ownership in the overall decision-making process and a stronger buy-in to use the technology because they have a better understanding of the value it provides.
One word that best describes how you work.
What apps/software/tools can’t you live without?
Microsoft Office (mostly Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Teams) – Email can be my nemesis at times, but within the Office platform tools such as OneNote and Teams have become crucial tools to support sharing across teams and improved communication.
Timehop Mobile App – This is a non-work related/guilty-pleasure app that I love because it provides a break from the grind and shows me personal memories and “on this date” random facts.
What’s your smartest work-related shortcut or productivity hack?
I am not sure I would call this a shortcut or a hack but using OneNote to take notes and keep track of project updates has been a recent tool I have used to be more productive. Organizing my projects in different folders and typing in my notes makes it easier for me to go back and review notes. Plus, it is a simple copy and paste to share my notes versus writing them in a pad and then typing them out to share.
What are you currently reading?
Currently I am re-reading Start-up CEO by Matt Blumber. I read this book a couple of years ago as we were growing our Feed Management team. I’m currently re-reading it as I’ve realized this book finds new relevance at different phases of my career and has always been a great resource.
Outside of work, I read Hippos Go Berserk by Sandra Boynton to my son daily. He loves that one and I highly recommend it to anybody with small children.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice that I have received in my career has come from a few different managers across my various roles.
- Early on in my career, one of my most valuable life lessons came from Gene Sherry, Executive Director – Campus Recreation at Georgia Southern University. Gene taught me that it is okay to say “no” because I kept saying yes to new opportunities and overloading myself.
- Some of my favorite pieces of advice has come from Alan Rimm-Kaufman and George Michie, Co-Founders of RKG, including:
- “Worry about the stuff you can control.”
- “Keep an even keel.”
- “The goal of the great manager is to replace herself/himself.”
Something you do better than others – the secret of your success?
I don’t know that I can say I do things better than others because I have worked with so many smart and talented people over the years. In terms of my success though, I think being an idea person with a solutions-driven mindset has been a key factor in my career progression. These traits have helped me take on entrepreneurial initiatives within Merkle, in particular, including the development of the Feed Management and Amazon teams from scratch.
Ultimately , the secret to my success is the team around me. I would not be where I am today if not for the teams that I have worked with in my career.
Tag the one person (or more) in the industry whose answers to these questions you would love to read:
- Matt Mierzejewski – SVP, Merkle
- Rachel Schnorr – VP, Merkle
- Travis Johnson, President, Commerce at DAN Americas
- George Gallate – Board Member of Elite SEM
Thanks for chatting with us, Todd.
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