Sri Sharma is founder and managing director of Net Media Planet, a search agency which charges its clients based on performance and operates in 29 countries. The agency was recently ranked in the top 20 of the Sunday Times Tech Track 100.

We interviewed him about his agency’s work with clients such as Dell and Evans, and his thoughts on Bing, mobile and real-time search. 

Can you explain how Net Media Planet has evolved from “super-affiliate” to a search agency which generates client revenues of more than £80 million annually?
We started as a paid search affiliate. PPC (pay-per-click) was and is our specialism. Over time we have extended our work across affiliate networks and working directly with brands/advertisers. We have focused on delivering outstanding results and developing close, honest partnerships. Along with our global reach, this is what has helped us to grow. 
From your experience as an agency, how has paid search spending been affected by the recession?
Overall, search marketing continues to grow despite the recession. We have seen different verticals and different clients react in quite different ways during the recession. The major players have invested more in PPC; this is probably because they have chosen to divert marketing funds away from other forms of advertising and invest in search.
However, the smaller companies appear to have cut back on their PPC spend (in general) as they have on all advertising budgets during the recession. Different industries have had different reactions. For instance, due to the number of competitors and the nature of the travel industry promoting online buying, the travel companies realise that search is an area they cannot afford to cut back on.
On the other hand, retailers have had to ensure that they are getting the best ROI possible for their budgets and have been picking and choosing their battles when it comes to which keywords they target. 
One of your differentiators as an agency is the way you can offer clients a cost-per-acquisition charging model. Do you think that other agencies might start doing this as well as more companies demand a more performance-based approach?
Yes. Many are paid partly on percentage media spend and partly on performance for hitting targets. It’s about serving the client needs. Some clients will be happy with the existing model and some will want greater focus on return on investment and risk reduction. I think this will be an evolutionary time for agencies.
Can you also tell me about your involvement with Dell and the use of pay-per-call which helps drive B2B sales?
We work with Tradedoubler on the Dell campaign. Using their telephone tracking technology we proposed driving Dell B2B leads through mobile search. We created a mobile-specific landing page with a tracked telephone number for the user to click and call; we then optimised the PPC for mobile search, and we were then able to drive incremental sales leads for Dell Business, with an uplift of 60% in 3 months. We then rolled this out across Europe.
Is there anything else you have been doing which you regard as innovative or particularly successful?
One of our favourites was integrating with the Beth Ditto at Evans campaign launch for our client Evans. Prior to the launch, on the 9 July 2009, we launched a paid search campaign to target the customer segments who were interested in the Beth Ditto at Evans collection.
When users clicked through to the site they were able to register their email address for a fantastic competition and for email updates about the collection.The keyword campaign was refined and extended to identify converting keywords. So, on the day of the collection’s launch we were able to utilise this optimised keyword list to target customers. This allowed us to drive higher sales for the new collection right from the start.
How do you see the search marketplace evolving? Is the Bing and the Microsoft-Yahoo! tie-up likely to make a difference to Google’s virtual monopoly?
The Bing and Microsoft-Yahoo! tie up will not make a big impact on Google in the short term, but in the long term it has the potential to make a difference in the US and UK markets, and also globally. Microsoft has committed 10 per cent of its operating income to search investment.
The advertising it is putting in, particularly to reach out to younger searchers, and also the strong technology focus, will drive this forward. Early signs are showing that Bing is taking more market share, but this is a long battle. Microsoft can provide the innovation to give Google a good run for its money. 
How much of an impact is mobile search going to have, as more people move to smartphones and increasingly use iPhone apps?
Smartphone sales increased by 35% last year. By 2015, they are predicted to account for 50% of worldwide phones on the market. That’s lots of mobile phones with the capability to surf online. The mobile phone is less web transactional today but over time it will get there. I give it 2-3 years to get going still. Then everyone will be browsing and shopping online on the way home from work.
For paid search, this leads to increasing opportunities to engage with users along the buying cycle. As an example, mobile apps have just started showing targeted paid search adverts on the iPhone and Android. Mobile search is definitely growing.
What about ‘real time search’? Is this trend relevant for your clients yet or is this still on the horizon?
This is still on the horizon and an area that we are monitoring closely. The Google Caffeine algorithm change, this autumn, will drive more accurately updated natural search results. It could bring more reliance on paid search marketing as it makes natural search optimisation more difficult.

A paid search platform on real-time industry driver Twitter seems to be off the cards for 2009 after co-founder Biz Stone rejected advertising on Twitter as a revenue route this year at a recent Twitter Conference in LA.

Sri Sharma will be speaking on affiliate paid search strategies on the second day (14th October) of the a4uexpo affiliate marketing conference in London this week.