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A Day In The Life Of An SEO Agency Senior Executive

Winston Burton, SVP of SEO at Acronym, shares the highlights of his career journey and what it's really like in leadership at an SEO agency.

A Day In The Life Of An SEO Agency Senior Executive

My journey to becoming an SEO executive has spanned over 14 years, working at leading agencies and optimizing for some of the world’s largest brands. I also spent a few years working as an in-house SEO at some medium-sized businesses.

Today, I work at Acronym as an SVP of SEO. I’ve been at the agency for 7 years and manage the global SEO team, which consists of over 20 SEO professionals in the U.S., London, Singapore, Berlin, and Canada.

Working at an agency can be both challenging and rewarding.

It is my hope that sharing the story of how I got where I am today and what being an SVP of SEO means will help you in your own career journey, as well.

Getting Started In SEO

I first learned about SEO and internet marketing in 2003, when I was getting my Master’s degree in Internet Business from Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.

Prior to that, I worked as a Q.A. specialist in the pharmaceutical industry doing auditing and computer validation. However, I was fascinated by the internet and so decided to go back to school to learn more about the world wide web.

I started my own pharmaceutical job board in 2006 and needed more traffic, so I reached out to an SEO company for help.

After watching them optimize my site, I  learned how interesting and complex it was. Fascinated to learn more, I was inspired to start doing more of it myself.

I landed a job as an SEO specialist at Digitgrit (now Zeta Interactive), built a successful SEO practice at Havas Media, and the rest is history.

A Typical Day In SEO Leadership

Being a senior leader at the agency, I do a lot of business development – leading pitches, creating strategies, showing how SEO works with other channels, for example.

I manage the team to ensure we have the right tools, resources, staff, processes, and services to manage clients and potential clients, in addition to generating thought leadership materials.

I also read a lot to see what is going on in the industry. It’s important to stay on top of other perspectives and new technology when we’re collaborating with global vendors and international teams.

My Master’s degree in ecommerce helped me gain the fundamentals of how the internet works. It has changed dramatically over the years, but I’ve learned that understanding the fundamentals will help you get a deeper understanding and appreciation for the history and the backbone of how things are connected.

Being in the industry this long has also taught me a lot, especially about working with both international and domestic clients.

Finally, I’ve also realized you should always do your due diligence and dig deeper. Focus on big-ticket items and strategies that will drive business results.

A lot of agencies offer similar services. Why should a client go with your agency rather than the other 5 to 10 that are in an RFP?

Always differentiate yourself. Listen to your clients and make sure you understand their goals and objectives, challenges, key performance indicators, and what they are hoping to get out of an engagement.

Plan to show who is doing what and set realistic expectations early on so there are no surprises later, i.e., things not being implemented, etc. Build compelling case studies and offer unique perspectives on updates and changes in the SERPs.

Managing The Challenges Of SEO At The Executive Level

Managing SEO at a global agency is no easy task with clients and SEOs across time zones, different languages and multiple search engines in play, and more.

Prioritization, communication, and strong processes are vital for success.

The ability to account for cultural and language differences, as well as determining which countries will offer the best ROI, is essential.

Another challenge for executives, particularly at the enterprise level, is that some clients have incredibly complex needs.

One day you might be dealing with a migration that failed when they worked with a previous agency.

You might have a new client lose a lot of traffic and revenue after being negatively impacted by a core update.

You could be working with limited resources, etc.

I once had a client insist on using a whole bunch of keywords that were used inside the company, but not by their audience. Educating the client on why that was not a good idea was key, and that takes tact and people management skills.

Working with the web developers that some brands employ, we are often forced to use techniques that run against common SEO wisdom and so workarounds must be found.

SEO in principle has a fundamental approach – but every new client brings their own twist to it.

That’s the beauty of working in an agency with strong leadership and a focus on training and education. It means they frequently encounter challenges and are constantly developing solutions.

Finding Inspiration And Thought Leadership

The person in the SEO community I admire most is Mike Grehan. Mike is a pioneer in the space and a great visionary. He was talking about things 20 years ago that are now coming to fruition.

The other people I look up to in the industry are Brian Dean from Backlinko. They offer amazing content and do impressive research studies.

I also have a lot of respect for Hamlet Batista, who sadly passed away. I learned a lot from him in a short amount of time and we had plans to do some meetups together.

I am also a major fan of Jim Boykin from Internet Marketing Ninjas.

I advise that every SEO pro stay up with the latest technology. We live in a dynamic world where automation is key. There are some great platforms and solutions out there that are making a lot of noise in the space and really helping to streamline the SEO process, so we can focus more on strategy.

Assess them to see if they can help reach your KPIs internally and externally.

Also, evaluate and test different methodologies to see what’s working to drive overall business goals and objectives and, most important of all, conversions.

If you are not doing that, it is time for you to refocus. SEO is all about bringing qualified traffic to a site that converts into customers.

Don’t be afraid to fail and accept new challenges; that’s part of being innovative and well-rounded.

Do your own research. Try to get as much experience as you can with paid search, programmatic, social, and analytics, but don’t forget to build skills in leading a team, as well. You need to see the bigger picture, as it is all connected at the leadership level.

Tips For Prospective Leaders In The SEO Industry

To succeed as an SEO executive, you must be able to hire and build a strong team, listen and be receptive to feedback, and motivate those people who have the potential to be your company’s rock stars.

Provide a creative and consultative working environment, and set out a clear path for your employees to advance their careers. Enable them to work on different accounts across various verticals to broaden their experience.

Always be humble and include your team to get their perspectives on each issue, whether that is why they feel traffic may be down, how to improve rankings, how we can win this pitch, etc.

No man is an island. A great leader is only as good as the team he is leading.

Remember, too, that numbers don’t lie. Always show results and continue to bring innovative ideas to clients and prospects, even if they sound outlandish.

If you want to move up the ladder, you have to be able to demonstrate how your leadership translates into business results, too.

Continue working on that plan to grow new business by 20+% year over year, get incremental revenue from existing clients by offering new services, think creatively – and be ready to prove it.

Also, if you’re lucky enough to write a column for the most prestigious publication in the search industry, definitely go for it.

Being an SEO executive for a leading agency can be a rewarding career. It offers not only longevity but also all of the rewards inherent to helping colleagues grow in their careers and clients reach their key performance indicators year after year.

If you had to choose only a few key areas of focus to drive your career in SEO leadership forward, I would say these are the “secrets” to my success:

  • Always hire the best talent.
  • Collaborate with your team.
  • Never be afraid to try out new ideas.
  • Keep up to date with the latest technology.
  • Test different optimization tactics and strategies out for yourself.
  • Read industry publications and follow thought leaders in the space.
  • Be innovative and strive to set yourself apart from competitors.

More resources:


Featured image: Shutterstock/Gorodenkoff

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Winston Burton

SVP, SEO at Acronym

Winston Burton is an SEO and digital marketing expert with over 16 years of experience optimizing some of the world's ... [Read full bio]

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