Q&A: Kayak’s Robert Birge

NEW YORK Travel site Kayak has relied primarily on search engine marketing since its launch in 2005. Now, with $40-60 million budgeted for its next full year of media spending, the Norwalk, Conn.-based company is seeking a lead agency to handle creative and media duties. In a conversation with senior reporter Andrew McMains, Kayak chief marketing officer Robert Birge explained how he picked his finalists, why he loathes requests for proposals and what impressed him about the “smart,” but ultimately fruitless, approach of Element 79.

Adweek: Why does Kayak need a lead agency now?

Birge: We’ve grown successfully through search engine marketing and other tactical marketing efforts, including PR, and we’ve done very well. . . . But that’s just not going to continue our growth trajectory fast enough. We need to build awareness and clearly define in the market how we’re different and why you should come to Kayak instead of starting somewhere else.

Proportionally, how much of your marketing budget goes to SEO?

Currently, a very large percentage. In terms of where we’re going to start when we broaden the mix, it could be as much as half. We’re broadening the marketing the mix, so we’re no longer going to see it as one thing or another. We’re going to see how all of that works together against our objectives.

What is it about finalists Goodby, Saatchi and 180 that made them stand out?

The quality of the work, the quality of the strategic thinking. All of them are very good at doing work that is famous and gets remembered but also has very clear selling messages. We think the [respective] cultures will work very well with us. We were quite adamant that we have only three [finalists] in our process. That way we can commit the right amount time in terms of helping give them information from our side, giving feedback and making sure there are not so many different agencies in there that it’s chaos. . . . I also think the mix of those agencies — in terms of what each brings to the table differently — was important to us. 

Why didn’t you go the RFP route?

It’s an unbelievable waste of time. It’s just getting agencies to do a whole bunch of busy work that’s actually incredibly costly and time-consuming on their part and ends up in some 100-page written document that is never going to have a material impact on business. 

Don’t you also have the advantage of knowing the industry better than most having worked at TBWA\Chiat\Day?

I guess that’s true, although I also sit there and say, “How could somebody be a marketing decision maker with a lot of money and not know what different agencies bring to the table?” Yes, we did feel that we had a good understanding of the agencies that we were talking to.

What was the smartest unsolicited approach that you got?

Without question the smartest approach — and we definitely gave them serious consideration — and you’ll have to ask them to show you what the approach was — [came from] Element 79.

What was it about their approach that made you consider them?

I thought it was smart from A to Z. And so did our two co-founders. The only thing I’ll tell you about their idea is they delivered it into our Twitter feed. To me that was just a little added bonus, but of ways to get into a new business conversation, it was the best I’ve ever seen. . . . That’s an agency that’s got a lot of potential. I quite like the two principals there. And actually they had pitched the Orbitz business [previously]. [Agency CEO] Brian Williams is a Dartmouth guy and [Kayak co-founder] Steve Hafner and I are as well.