What is 4% of 500 and Other Existential Questions

In 2010 I was a senior marketing analyst at a large internet retailer. After flying as the solo PPC manager for a few years, I got overwhelmed by the sheer volume of campaigns and platforms and decided it was time to get an assistant. I was amazed at just how difficult it was to find a competent junior analyst.

They could answer most of my interview questions with well-rehearsed answers featuring some of the hottest buzz-words in the industry: keyword research, quality score, buyer intent, targeted visitors. However, there was one simple question that threw four out of five otherwise qualified contenders into a scurried frenzy.

What is 4% of 500?

Quick, what’s 4% of 500?
26? No, it’s 38!
My favorite of all: “Can I use a calculator?” (NO!)

These are all real answers I heard from real candidates seeking a real job. And I couldn’t believe it.

“Take your time, think about it.”

What gives? This isn’t SEO. This isn’t copywriting. This is a job where 75% of your time is spent evaluating large data sets in a spreadsheet and making important decisions that directly impact your employer’s or client’s bottom line.

My eyes were now open to the reality that MOST entry-level paid search cadets were basically math-illiterate. In their view, PPC is all about writing alluring creatives and doing “keyword research.” That has its place but these cats would be clueless what to do with the results of their campaign building.

The Paid Search Grunt

In of itself, is it important that they can do 4% of 500 in their heads? Probably not, Excel can calculate that out just fine. But it exposes a much greater issue. The paid search conscript has no intuitive mathematical understanding implying that you can teach him that if cells in column E are less than 800%, lower the keyword bid by $.07 or some other formulaic instruction, but he or she will never truly understand why 800% and why $.07. Basically, your trainee becomes nothing but a grunt, an automaton who, in reality, just does the work that a machine can and, let’s be honest, should do.

With the advent of Campaign Optimizer and now the Rules-based bidding system in Adwords, the paid search grunt is becoming more and more obsolete. This trend toward automated bidding will only continue as the system accumulates better data and makes more predictive bidding decisions.

Still someone has to make the rules. Someone has to decide on $.07 and on 800%. Someone has to tweak the algorithm, someone has to add exceptions based on product lines, and someone has to make sure that your paid search campaigns reflect business reality. That someone should be able to do 4% of 500 in their head.

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