Staying in Touch With the Zeitgeist

November 02, 2015


Last week I had lunch with an incredible group of people: an Academy Award-nominated director, a 21-year-old nuclear physicist, and a New York Times columnist. Just another day in the glamorous life of a digital agency executive, right?

Not exactly.

The lunch was just a small part of the amazing parallel universe Google creates once a year called Zeitgeist, which Google describes as “a series of intimate gatherings of top global thinkers and leaders.” And a few lucky agency wonks, apparently!

On one level, Zeitgeist is Google’s version of the TED conference. The topics are eclectic, inspirational, and thought-provoking. This year’s speakers included an astronaut (from space, no less), Kanye West, a North Korean defector, a golf pro, two Nobel Prize winners, a civil rights lawyer, and so on. And, I assume like TED, the hallway discussions were equally if not more interesting than the amazing speeches. I personally chatted with two billionaires, a few Google executives, forward-thinking CEOs, and some great non-profit leaders.

So why does Google put on this lavish event? I’m sure there are many reasons. First, because they can. Google is doing pretty well as a company, so funding a modern-day Bloomsbury Group once a year isn’t going to put much of a dent in their numbers. More importantly, however, I think it reflects the intellectual curiosity of Google’s founders and executives. Remember, this is a company that could have sat back and counted their cash from AdWords but instead has set out to revolutionize everything from cars to diabetes.

And there’s a lesson here for the SEM community. Life is pretty comfortable for the average SEM pro these days. High-paying jobs are easy to come by. (Don’t like your current gig? Don’t worry, someone will no doubt offer you a 30% raise to come across the street to their company.) And whilst SEM continues to change, the industry won’t be going away anytime soon. So if you want to, you can put your head down and do SEM really well and have a great life (for the foreseeable future, at any rate).

Alternatively, you can take the Google path and decide not to rest on your laurels. You can learn Facebook advertising, attribution, mobile acquisition, and audience segmentation. You can experiment with Beacons and Bitcoin. Heck, you can even try to understand branding and out-of-home advertising (call me if you figure this out, because I certainly haven’t).

As an added benefit, expanding your expertise is a good way to maintain that comfy lifestyle you worked so hard to achieve. Some day – maybe even sooner than we think – SEM will decline and possibly disappear entirely. Learning new skills will enable you to effortlessly leave SEM in the dust and move into the next age of digital marketing. Intellectual curiosity aside, there’s strong business strategy behind Google’s forays into video, mobile, shopping, delivery, healthcare, Internet, transportation, and so on: self-preservation.

The tough part about keeping up with the Zeitgeist is that it is fickle and changes quickly and often unpredictably. Whether you’re a multi-billion dollar Internet giant or a really sharp SEM pro, staying on top of the vanguard of online marketing (and really, of the world in general) does more than keep your mind fresh; it is also just a smart business decision.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe a Google drone just dropped off my groceries on my doorstep!