Three Different PPC Career Paths

Mar. 22

As you know, I’m a huge fan of the corporate pay per click career path. This career path has been extremely rewarding for me and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. PPC may sound like an extremely focused discipline and it is. At the same time, there do exist multiple career paths within pay per click (and online marketing in general). Today, I’m looking forward to discussing three of my favorite career opportunities and my thoughts around their strengths and weaknesses.

PPC Career Path 1: The Agency Route

Careers Achievers

A few weeks ago, I attended SMX West. If you’ve been to SMX or another search marketing conference such as SES or ad:tech, I’m sure you’ve noticed the huge number of search marketing agencies. Put simply, agencies such as iProspect are big business and are only getting bigger. So now that we’ve established that agencies are a huge force within online marketing, let’s discuss a few of the pros and cons of the agency career path.

The biggest pro of the agency career path, in my opinion, is the ability to work with a variety of clients. In the agency world, you’ll typically get several accounts across a variety of verticals and business models. Moreover, these accounts change over time! In my opinion, this puts the search marketer on the fast track to accumulating a very deep knowledge of online marketing. Another benefit of the PPC agency career path: You get serious client face time. If you enjoy the human side of things as much as crunching the numbers, the agency career path can give you that optimal mix.

So, everything sounds perfect, right? Of course not! There are pros and cons with all decisions in life. There’s one big con that comes to mind with the agency path. As an external party, you are one step removed from the core business operations. This typically equates to less day-to-day financial visibility and responsibility. Agency teams are given volume and CPA goals, but it’s sometimes not the same as living and breathing the numbers like an internal team. This isn’t the agency’s fault, it’s a data integration thing. Just think about it: As an agency, you’re not going to be hooked into all of the client’s back end data. An internal team, however, often has access to more intimate data which often equates to more precise financial responsibility.

Pay Per Click Career Path 2: The Startup

Another popular career path in pay per click is the startup route. Let’s start with the pros again. First and foremost, startups offer the ability to grow quickly. When I say grow, I actually mean growing several things: your skills, responsibilities, title, salary, and wealth (via stock options). It’s essentially a case of risk and reward. Startups are the riskiest career path because of their volatile nature (most startups fail). However, if you’re able to join a successful startup (like I did), the benefits can be tremendous! Startups, especially earlier in your career, can be the fast track to rapid pay per click career growth. Moreover, if you leave a startup at a senior title and are able to earn the same title (or even higher) at a more established pay per click organization, you are absolutely golden.

Of course, there also exist several cons with the startup career path. First and foremost, it’s much more challenging to launch brand new pay per click campaigns versus growing and maintaining existing ones (like many of us do at larger companies). This is a good challenge in the sense that you can master PPC much quicker launching a business from scratch. At the same time, it’s a con because campaign launches can fail. If the business model isn’t perfected, your pay per click campaigns could very well lose money for an extended period of time. Moreover, as the pay per click manager, you may get blamed for these losses even if they are not under your direct control. This is definitely pressure that you want to be ready to handle!

The second big con of startups: You may be on your own. Unless you’re rather senior, pay per click is a team sport. Startups, however, have limited budget and often have a pay per click team of one. If you’re super independent, this may be a great route for you. If you prefer a team, however, a larger company may make a lot more sense.

PPC Career Path 3: The Mid To Large Sized Direct Advertiser

All career paths presented here are awesome! However, if I had to rank them, I’d tie the first two as the (very close) runner up and I’d make the mid to large sized direct advertiser the clear winner. Let’s start with the pros of the mid to large sized direct advertiser. Remember in the agency section when I talked about data issues? This is rarely a problem at a large direct advertiser. You can hook directly into your organization’s immense data and leverage it for complex bidding decisions! This alone is the biggest advantage of the direct advertiser: incredible statistical maturity and opportunity.

Now, let’s talk about resources. At the agency, you’re typically working at a company that’s very biased towards one skill set: online marketing. At the startup, you typically have individuals spanning a variety of disciplines but rarely have access to them because everyone is very resource constrained. Now, at the mid to large sized direct advertiser, you frequently have the ability to work with legal, finance, engineering, sales, and product management. In my opinion, this cross-functional nature makes the mid to large sized company a stellar candidate. I said it before: PPC is a team sport. It’s not only a team sport in terms of having a team of PPC managers, it’s also a team sport in terms of working with the broader organization on landing page tests, site tests, ad copy tests, keyword generation ideas and more.

Moreover, let’s not forget budgets! Agencies are often given a fixed budget dictated by the client. Startups are typically budget constrained. Mid to large sized direct advertisers, however, will frequently have unlimited budgets as long as campaigns meet a profitability threshold. You want to be managing budgets in the multi-millions, right? Let’s also talk about budget for hiring and PPC automation. You’re going to have a lot more of it at the mid to large sized organization.

As said earlier, there are cons to every career path – no single path is perfect! In terms of this path, I’d say the largest obstacle can be speed. Let’s face it: The larger the company, the more checks and balances. You can’t just test any ad copy you’d like. You need to get full legal approval and your manager’s buy-in. Another con: Sometimes, career progression can be slower at very large companies. You’re just one person in a sea of many. You really need to stand out if you want to grow rapidly. At the same point, I’m confident that you will stand out if you’re taking the time to read this post!

Image of Careers Achievers © iStockPhoto – rjmiz

4 Trackbacks

  1. Landing Your First PPC Job | PPC Ian
  2. PPC Jobs Are Great For Travel | PPC Ian
  3. Acquisio's Choosing a PPC Management Pricing Model eBook | PPC Ian
  4. Huge Search Marketing Spenders | PPC Ian


  1. Robby Bryant says:

    You speak from experience. Agencies are awesome due to the cross-vertical wealth of knowledge you can put yourself in touch with, start ups help you understand how to build business in challenging environments from the ground up, but going direct helps engage you with all aspects of established business and crucial data sets that set the ideal stage for success. The reality is you will likely need to be successful at an agency or a start up prior to engaging direct, but once you have history in the space; direct is the route our profession should aspire to accommodate, as this is the first line of offense, and last line of defense if any job cuts come into play.

  2. Ian says:

    Awesome comment, thanks so much! As another pay per clicker who’s on top of his game, I always thoroughly enjoy your insights on our great industry.

  3. Hoo says:

    Ian, maybe you could start a PPC only job board as a part of your blog?

  4. Tony Nguyen says:

    Great Post…I am a startup and consultant. There’s was a post at PPCBlog about the viability of starting a PPC business, of course; it is a low barrier to entry business, but you hit it on the head, it’s a team sport.

  5. Ian says:

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog and for the awesome idea! I have actually been thinking about a PPC job board and it’s definitely something I’d like to do at some point – you read my mind! Everyone, until I get that set up please don’t hesitate to email me at if you’re interested in applying for a PPC job. Please include your resume and cover letter so I can review and connect you with the right opportunities if I see a good fit. Hoo, thanks again my friend, I really appreciate it!
    All the best,

  6. Ian says:

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog and for the great comment, I really appreciate it. I’m looking forward to checking out your website and learning more about your PPC consulting business. Your career path is another great one. I have seen many people build up great consulting practices and also going the consulting route while leveraging the income to start an affiliate marketing shop. Both are super exciting (and lucrative) options in my opinion. Thanks again!
    All the best,

  7. Ian, I have seen a LOT of jobs looking for SEO/SEM campaign managers at smaller firms. In your experience (the corporate world) do these companies truly understand the value of a campaign manager?

  8. Ian says:

    Profit Addiction,
    Yes! In my experience, both small and large companies really value pay per click campaign managers. In fact, it’s my opinion that online marketing careers are essentially recession proof! Now, it’s important during the interview process to really understand who your manager will be and the overall culture of the company. If you do your due diligence and pick a great company, the upside in this career is amazing. As just one small example (in a sea of many), I actually ended up reporting directly into the second most senior executive at my company only a year out of college (everyone else reporting into her had at least 10 years of experience on me). I can’t think of another career with that kind of exposure and upside, that quickly. Thanks again, really appreciate the plethora of insightful comments!
    All the best,

  9. Ian, that’s crazy.

    I remember you saying something in another comment/post about the inability to divulge your salary. However, is it largely performance based, or is there a baseline and then depending on how well you perform you are rewarded?



  10. Ian says:

    Hey Jeremy,
    Another awesome question! As mentioned before, I’m sworn to secrecy so I’m not able to discuss my personal situation. However, I can definitely give you a flavor of how the SEM career path is compensated in general. There are a variety of positions in the corporate SEM chain of command. In order of increasing titles, you have: Administrator, Coordinator, Associate, Specialist, Senior Specialist, Manager, Senior Manager, Director, Senior Director, and sometimes even Vice President. When you start out, most if not all of your salary will be guaranteed (base). As you progress, an increasing percentage of your salary is commission and/or “bonus” based, but you’ll almost always have a very solid base as well. The base will typically increase with title in addition to commission/bonus. Depending on the company you’re at, the commission might be based on pure numerical targets. Other companies make the bonus more subjective based on “goals”. Some like to blend the two. In addition, many SEM employees are eligible for stock options, one of the huge advantages of the corporate world in my opinion. Base and also bonus are sometimes negotiable. Hope this helps, thanks so much for the great questions and comments – I truly appreciate it!
    All the best,
    PS – While I’m not a licensed financial adviser (so you’ll want to take the following for what it’s worth), I do want to point out that different tax rates often apply to base salary vs. bonus or commission. For that reason, it’s often advantageous to take an online marketing job that pays a solid base salary (most of which typically do).

  11. Ian,

    Thanks for the answer! Like I said, if I ever do look for an SEM type position, all this information will greatly help.


  12. Ian says:

    You are very welcome! I sincerely appreciate the multitude of great comments and questions. I have also been very much enjoying your blog. It’s difficult to find blogs out there that really get into the low level details of tactical online marketing. Your blog is one of the few and I highly recommend it to all PPC Ian readers.
    All the best,

  13. Ian,
    Thanks for the support, I greatly appreciate it. I’m glad I am building something useful for my readers and not just another “ready my blog so I gain community to advertise to.”

  14. Andrew says:

    Agencies are awesome due to the cross-vertical wealth of knowledge you can put yourself in touch with, start ups help you understand how to build business in challenging environments from the ground up, but going direct helps engage you with all aspects of established business and crucial data sets that set the ideal stage for success.

Leave a Comment