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SearchTHIS: Open Letter to Steve Ballmer

Kevin M. Ryan
SearchTHIS: Open Letter to Steve Ballmer Kevin M. Ryan

In this crazy mixed up world we live in, there are few certainties. Death, taxes, and search market share battles are among them. Desktop search and other new web-based platforms are hailed as all the rage in our ready-fire-aim search culture, and top providers are going at it like Macy’s and Gimbels.

Microsoft’s chief executive recently found himself under fire for some allegedly harsh behavior. Deposition excerpts from a highly publicized Microsoft versus Google lawsuit involving a certain senior manager’s departure from the software giant to the household search name fueled the flame.

Apparently, Mr. Ballmer used colorful language and expressed a high level of spiritedness when he became aware that one of his top people was headed to Google. Personally, I think the criticism is misplaced at best and yet another diversion that might take our minds away from what’s really at stake here.

In order to achieve the greater good, I will throw myself onto the proverbial grenade to help Microsoft (and, perhaps, others) stay focused and alive.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Mr. Steve Ballmer
Chief Executive Officer
Microsoft Corporation
One Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA  98052

Dear Steve:

You rock!

Microsoft has all of the important pieces in place for a very bright outlook. Judging by recent reports, you are well on your way to ensuring the future success of the giant blue machine with policies that let the dead weight go, cultivate the spirit of growth and preserve the delicate balance of policy and action.

There are a few sand traps to avoid landing in while you drive into the search green, so if you will honor me with 60 seconds or so, I'd be happy to share my thoughts. Please do not share this information with your competitors, as it will undoubtedly provide them with an unfair advantage in the coming years.

It's not about the [expletive deleted].

Seriously, don’t let those penny ante fruit loops over there on the search side of the business toy with you. So you allegedly said [expletive deleted] and threw a chair. It’s not as though you hit anyone with it, right? Trust me, during my tenure in this business, I have seen far worse. I am sure you have as well.

At the last Yahoo! Search Brand Summit, Bob Garfield must have said [expletive deleted] at least half a dozen times. Joseph Jaffe has popped off with a few [expletive deleted] in his time, but anyone with a British-sounding accent can say anything they want and it is not only socially acceptable, but sounds intellectually stimulating. So I guess we can’t count Jaffe, but you know what I mean.

You have passion, my man, and the guts to back it up. In this emasculated society we have created for ourselves, we need more of your brand of chutzpah, not less.  Have you seen the movie, “Team America, World Police"? There are three types of people in this world and some times you have to be a [expletive deleted] to the [expletive deleted] or we are all going to end up covered in [expletive deleted].

It’s not about the talent hijacking.

Not surprisingly, the press has been quick to jump on the alleged recent “mass exodus” of talent from Microsoft. Of course, there is very little mention of the extremely capable people (some of whom I know personally) that have moved over to Microsoft in the past year or so. I hope that winds you up as much as it does me.

Try to think of it this way; your last employee departed for ten million dollars to start a research center. I’ll agree that protecting your interests is important, but ten million dollars, Steve. Now I ask you, what could make one man worth ten million dollars?

Notwithstanding that it is tremendously flattering to think someone you hired is worth it, for ten million dollars, I could find you twenty three incredibly bright people (or me and two others) that would carry the business into a triple digit lifespan in magnificent ways. And that still wouldn’t be enough to win.

It’s not about who got here first.

96 percent of all personal computers are running windows -- and thank heaven. I have seen what happens when a firm decides to abandon the Microsoft operating system; it’s not a happy sight. Furthermore, I wish the rest of the world would just start using Microsoft Outlook. It would certainly make our lives easier. 

Like you said back in March, Microsoft may not be the first at everything, but it can certainly be the best. You didn’t have the first console game system but now look at Xbox. Okay, bad example. Then again, four years without a profit is nothing in the grand scheme of all things console gaming. Xbox 360 on the other hand, if it lives up to half the hype, is going to change the world. (I have some ideas for new console gaming buzzwords if you are interested.)

The search world has grown faster than anyone could have imagined. Even the rinky-dink industry that is focused on what has been dubbed search engine marketing lacks genuine staying power. Search sites are missing the boat and they have yet to realize it. Text messaging, optimized content, toolbars, directive text ad profiling and ZIP code searching -- all desultory attempts at creating what you hold in your very hands. 

It’s not about who won the battle.

Here’s how to win the war in search. Forget about the talent scalping, techno venery and our umbrageous societal cravings. Search (or any other development for that matter) has always been about the people using it: be the one to bring them something they simply can’t do without.

The names of search providers will be long forgotten when anticipated utility finally meets practical integration. Google versus Microsoft, Yahoo! versus Hollywood; its all hogwash.

Desktop search utility defining long term market share? On what planet? Low volume keyword price gouging? Bad search engine, very bad. Aggregating multiple sourced search engine listings on one not-so effective page? What in the name of Merlin’s dentures for? Mapping the human brain? Good luck with that one. These tactics fail to answer the questions everyone is asking.

Fix the spyware problem on my machine… you had me at: “fix.” Help me find a game spoiler without having to switch sources 17 times and you’ve got a winner. Stop the endless stream of PayPal phishing emails and I’ll sign up. Help me locate Paula Abdul’s dress maker without leaving the Emmy red carpet show and I am in. Assist me in establishing a connection to a wireless convergence device that does not entail strangling retail automatons.

Help me to use things I didn't know I needed; make my life better, and I am yours. The signs are there, and Microsoft has most of the pieces in place -- all you have to do is use them.

Just one small matter to discuss

Go ahead and keep trimming the fat. Make the firm young again without losing the important aspects of bureaucratic big corporate. You keep jamming, and I’ll keep playing Xbox, searching, and sending you those anonymous error messages every time my wireless network causes an Outlook crash. If anybody gives you any [expletive deleted] about it, tell them I said to go [expletive deleted] themselves, or just give them the “Team America” speech.

That’ll be ten million dollars. Please use PayPal to transmit the funds.

Very truly yours,


Kevin M. Ryan

P.S. Where do those Outlook error messages really go? I have always wondered about them.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan’s current and former client roster reads like a “who’s who” in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Kevin Ryan is chief strategy officer at
Zunch Communications.


We hear a lot about teams in marketing, and we talk a lot about breaking down the silos that divide those teams, but one fact that often gets overlooked in that discussion is just how important collaboration is to virtually everything marketers do.

"Surprisingly, it's not knowing the latest trends, digital tricks, and SAAS tools that make a successful digital marketer," says Tom Gallego, founder and chief creative officer for L7 Creative. "Success in digital marketing today means engaging skilled partners, who you can trust and rely on to deliver winning strategies that support your specific marketing goals while building long-term brand equity."

So what makes a good marketer a strong partner? It's a mix of things, according to Gallego.

"They are great managers of people and possess a passion for their careers and the brands they are charged with growing," he says. "Their work ethic is fueled by a sense of purpose and commitment to their vision."

But while that vision is essential for uniting a partnership around a specific goal, it's not set in stone.

"The most successful marketers have a vision and plan with built-in flexibility to make necessary course corrections along the way," he says. "They are demanding, but not autocratic."


It may not be what quality hiring managers look for on the resume or bosses pick up on in an interview, but a good marketer is a humble marketer, according to Fiona Gill, VP of global client excellence at Kenshoo.

"No digital marketer, no matter how talented, can manage things totally on their own," she says. "Those who try to do it all and suffer every detail, inevitably fall behind and fail to try new potentially valuable things."

But being humble has another advantage, according to Gill, who says it's an important bulwark against hubris.

"Failure comes with the job," she says. "A humble marketer might try to correct a failing channel, but they won't do so endlessly. Humble marketers know when a marketing investment is not a good fit and they cut their losses and move on to the next opportunity."

Grasping the big picture

While so much of marketing today is all about the specialist, it's still important to be able to think like a generalist. It helps you see the big picture, according to Stan Valencis, president at Primacy, and it helps you work with a diverse and always-expanding group of marketing professionals.

"The old cliché, get the right content in front of the right people at the right time, has never been more apropos," says Valencis. "Understanding the full digital ecosystem and each role is the only way to optimize your content strategy and corresponding media spend."

A customer's mindset

Many marketers want to think like the best marketers in their field. There's nothing wrong with that idea in theory, but the best thing you can do in practice is to train yourself to think like a customer, says Eric Schiffer, CEO of DigitalMarketing.com.

"[Marketers] need to be able to think about everything they do through the lens of the consumer," he says. "Consumers have more control and say than [they] ever [have] in history. So designing the user experience with keen insight into consumer motivation and behavioral dynamics is critical to success, and then it's about measuring, monitoring, and adjusting that experience in real time for each customer."

An open mind

If you're a digital marketer today, there's a good chance you didn't go to school for what you do. In fact, if you're over a certain age, the industry that you work in didn't exist when you were a kid. But if you're a Millennial in the marketing business, you shouldn't assume that you've got it all figured out because of your digital native status. In fact, one of the only constants in our industry is change.

"One of the most exciting parts of working in digital media is the endless number of first to market opportunities available to us," says Bruce Harwood, associate director at The Media Kitchen. "In traditional media, it's much harder to do something truly unique and out of the box that has never been done before. It's always a plus to have a client that is not afraid of these opportunities and appreciates the benefit of getting their foot in the door before everyone else, [and] it's important that marketers are open to new and untested opportunities."

But don't mistake "untested" for unmeasured.

"It's extremely important to realize the importance of measuring each portion of the campaign to understand the true value of each tactic," says Harwood. "The best marketers are committed to measurement."

Commitment to continuous improvement

"The very best marketers openly ask 'What could we do better?'" says Tania Yuki, founder and CEO of Shareablee. "Even if they are leading their category, they are not satisfied with where they are, and encourage those around them to stay restless, curious, and healthily paranoid."

While building that commitment in yourself isn't something that's easily done or understood, Yuki says some of the best evidence that a marketer has the building blocks to improve comes down to the willingness to face facts, especially when those facts aren't good news.

"[Strong marketers] know that success is not always linear, and they want to understand what's working and what isn't so they can learn and continually get better, so the truth does not scare them," Yuki says. "They acknowledge that new platforms require new rules, and what worked for one, or once before will not ensure future success. This can be particularly tough if it means reporting that a campaign was not as effective as it could have been, but it is the way the very best brands stay sharp and ahead of the game, and it also creates a culture where people do not fear failure, and are therefore willing to take risks."

Life-long student

Similar to having a commitment to continuous improvement, strong marketers are also lifetime students, says John Lincoln, co-founder and president of SEO and social media at Ignite Visibility.

"You always need to be combing blogs, studying, learning, and getting new certifications," says Lincoln. "In digital marketing, if there are two people with equal abilities and judgment, the deciding factor between who is better simply comes down to their thirst for knowledge. Internet marketing really is an industry where knowledge is power."

Willingness to experiment

You've probably heard this thousands of times: Digital marketing depends on testing and experimentation. Well, you've heard it so often because it's true, according to Dave Rigotti, who worked on Microsoft's Bing marketing team before joining Bizible.

"The biggest part to being a successful marketer now is to have a willingness to try new things, but to ground all of your decisions with data," he says. "It's all about taking calculated risks that are one step ahead of the competition. So you need to be the sort of person who's really comfortable with testing your marketing to see what's working and what's not."

Strategy and tactics

"Typically marketers would fall into two buckets," says Scott Rayden, chief revenue officer at 3Q Digital. "You had your marketing tacticians and your marketing strategists. I believe the successful digital marketer of the future will be a convergence of the two. The best marketers I've been around have had the unique ability to understand marketing at a tactical level, but could also understand how to leverage business data, consumer data, and marketing data to build strategy."

According to Rayden, what's forcing marketers to be able to think tactically and strategically is the nature of the industry itself.

"So much is changing in our industry right now and there is a huge focus around relevance and the personalization of advertising," he says. "Great marketers need to be able to develop, articulate, leverage the right team and resources, and execute on strategies that do a better job connecting brands and consumers in meaningful ways."

Knowing something besides marketing

For some people, it might make sense to say that the best marketers are those who studied marketing. But there's a contrary view on that topic that's worth considering, according to David Erickson, VP of online marketing at Karwoski & Courage.

"I am fairly skeptical of formal professional communications degrees because I think they teach a lot of stuff you'll quickly learn on the job but too little of the critical thinking skills required to excel," says Erickson. "I think people who have earned English or political science degrees, for example, are more likely to have the mental training required to be a successful marketer in the digital age. The study of literature requires you to learn how stories are put together by breaking them down to understand what the writer is saying. Political science majors, especially those who practice politics, will learn to decipher human motivations, perceptions, and how to network."

Michael Estrin is a freelance writer.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet. Follow Michael Estrin at @mestrin.

"Business person standing against the blackboard" image via Shutterstock.


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