With SIC, Seattle’s Digital Marketing Ecosystem Finally Gets Its Due

Despite more than a decade leading digital advertising in Seattle, Razorfish chairman Clark Kokich is giving his first speech in his home town tomorrow.

That’s an odd oversight for a 21st century Mad Man who’s sought after in advertising hotspots around the world. But Kokich’s newfound recognition close to home says something about what has lately become a vibrant part of the Seattle tech economy.

As Kokich helped grow Avenue A, Razorfish and aQuantive in their various iterations here during the 2000s, the business of digital advertising was largely done elsewhere — in the traditional global advertising centers of New York, London, Paris and Tokyo.

“I think we might have justifiably been accused of not paying much attention to the Seattle advertising community,” Kokich told me last week, as he was getting ready for his keynote presentation Tuesday to the Seattle Interactive Conference (SIC), an event in its second year dedicated to the confluences of creativity, technology and marketing that today seems obviously Seattle. “I think that’s changed a lot, because a lot of our people over the years who started with Avenue A or Razorfish have moved into the local business and seeded a lot of startups or moved to other agencies.”

Some of those seeds are growing up and joining a dynamic local ecosystem that’s playing an increasingly important role in the global business of buying, selling and tracking the effectiveness of digital marketing.

“I don’t think people in Seattle understand just how big the digital ad business is here, and how much innovation and how much revenue is flowing through Seattle, because in traditional marketing Seattle was never an important center. It was always kind of a secondary market,” Kokich says, adding that the transition to digital has pulled the advertising industry west to the technology hubs Seattle and Silicon Valley.

Today, digital marketers ignore Seattle at their peril.

Microsoft has a multi-billion-dollar presence in advertising through MSN, Bing and its ad platforms (although this summer’s $6.2 billion write-down of its 2007 acquisition of aQuantive speaks to Redmond’s struggles with profitability in this business). Amazon is making a big push. Google and Facebook have a growing presence in the area. There’s global pay-for-call advertising leader Marchex. “And then you’ve got literally scores of startups in ad technology, in social, mobile and analytics — there are a lot of young companies innovating,” Kokich says.

SIC founder and curator Brian Rauschenbach points to SEOmoz, Neil Patel’s KISSmetrics and Simply Measured — “all these tools that are being built here and incubated out of the Seattle community that are being used globally”.

SIC founder and curator Brian Rauschenbach

Rauschenbach launched the event last year to wave Seattle’s digital advertising flag.

“Instead of us getting on planes and travelling, let’s host the conference here in Seattle and make a claim that we are a technology city that needs to be recognized, and people should be coming to us,” he says.

He expects attendance at the downtown Seattle event to double this year. About a fifth of the 4,000 developers, designers, entrepreneurs and digital marketers are coming from outside of the Pacific Northwest. They will hear from Kokich, as well as filmmaker Jason Silva, computing magazine pioneer David Bunnell, actor Tom Skerritt, the inestimable John Hodgman and many others during the Monday-Tuesday program.

Rauschenbach and Kokich both expect a lot of discussion about big data, which represents both the biggest challenge and opportunity in digital advertising, as it does in many fields.

“This explosion of unstructured data that’s coming particularly from the social world where people are having hundreds of interactions every day with content — trying to capture that information and turn it into usable data that you can use for marketing is an extraordinary challenge,” Kokich says. “Nobody’s cracked the code and there’s a lot of people working on it.”

Taking inspiration from South by Southwest, SIC also has a growing musical and cultural component — which Rauschenbach hopes to expand in 2013 though a local partner, freeing SIC organizers to focus on the interactive component of the event.

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