Google innovations in APAC: marketing hacks, culture and failing fast

Lee Hunter, Google’s head of marketing innovation for Asia Pacific, talks mobile technology, Google innovation workshops in South East Asia, the importance of combining ideas and culture, and failing fast. Interview by Samuel Tait.

Lee-HunterSamuel Tait: As head of marketing innovation what does your day-to-day role entail?

Lee Hunter: In terms of marketing innovation, I end up being engaged all over the region. There are a couple of areas in which I’m spending a lot of my time. One of them is focused on this new middle class of people who have become active in technology and connectivity for the first time – looking at how Google can play a role to help them with the products that we have and the tools that we can provide them to showcase the power of the web.

innovation-inside-badgeAnd then APAC is the heart of mobile. It’s where we’re seeing huge growth and it’s where we’re seeing a lot of innovation happen. We invest a lot particularly in my team on how can we not only help people get connected, but once they get connected, ensure they experience the best of what the web can offer. We’re spending a lot of time working across the Philippines, and Indonesia. We’re also starting to get into India also.

In addition I also spend a lot of time working across a number of our products where we have particularly interesting strategic issues that we’re trying to deal with. We know that we have to come up with new creative approaches, and call them marketing hacks. We make sure we bring in agencies, we bring in other partners, we bring in people involved in our product and our marketers together to try and solve very specific issues in a short finite period of time. The sessions can focus on anything from the products that we have through to brand initiatives where we think something aligns with Google that we want to get out there in the world.

ST: Can you provide an example of how one of these marketing hacks work?

LH: A good example would be what we’re doing around South East Asia and these newly connected people. In this session it was a full five days. We got together people from across the region. We’d done a hell of a lot of insights and research up to that point where we’d not only looked at the quantitative stuff, but gone really deep into qualitative research, talking with users and trying to understand exactly what they’re thinking, and use that as the foundation for the session.

The team spent the five days going through the insights, moving into creative ideas and then ultimately into prototyping and planning. We had an agency there, product people, marketers from the region, as well as some people like myself who are trying to help push things forward in a certain way. Trying to find that intersection of the three areas that I spoke about before, to solve this huge problem we think that our technology and products can help.

The solution developed broadly speaking is around the idea of when people get connected for the first time, how do we make sure that Google plays the right role in that early connectivity? Not only servicing the delivery of our products, but the actual use of our products in a way that we think can best benefit.

When you talk about the Philippines they’re a very socially oriented country. How can we make this fit into their lifestyle, not only just in terms of the academic sense in which people think about Google a lot, in that we can just provide them quick and easy information, but how does Google play a role in the social aspect of their lives, and thinking about what is possible. We want to introduce our products in the right way so that it resonates with them and it creates a sense of lasting usage. Making sure that we pop up in contextually relevant points. Whether that’s when they are meeting with their friends over a coffee or at an internet café, or whether they’re going shopping at the mall, and how do we use these contextually relevant points to talk about Google?

ST: Are there any specific tools or processes that you use that help in bringing these different people together to ensure you get great output from the sessions?

LH: We tend to be fairly adaptive with the sessions as we run them quite a lot. Some of the things that really work are spending a lot of time interrogating the brief, and really try and understand that. We use an exercise which might sound foolish for a lot of people but it’s the ‘why exercise’. When you really think about the strategic statement that you’re trying to deal with, you keep on asking yourself, ‘why?’

Through reductive thinking, you can get really to the heart of the problem that you may have not otherwise thought of. So we spend a lot of time interrogating the brief, going through that process.

If we’re not starting from the right place then ultimately, we’ve found that the results you get aren’t always useful. They’re harder to get off the ground because they have less of a strategic link. Then we spend a lot of time thinking about the environment around us, not just our users but the partnerships that we may be able to leverage, the things within a market that might be a great fit. That could be content. That could be partnerships. That could be media. It could be any number of things.

We also use a creative exercise to really think about how that mix might come together in expected but also unexpected ways. We try and spend a lot of time with the unexpected routes, because that can sometimes get us to really interesting places. It can be anything from a simple exercise of card sorting, where you talk about the mix of things, the users, the partnerships, the brand that are available, and the context where you might see them. That could be shopping malls. It could be out of home. It could be television. You mix them all together. You pull out one from either side. You say, “Give me an expected way of using this and an unexpected way of using this.”

You’d be surprised what people come up with when they start with a random starting point. It can be anything such as asking, “How would you create a partnership with a brand within a shopping mall that would be unexpected?” People can get to really great places.

ST: How critical is it to have people from different backgrounds as part of that process?

LH: It’s really critical, the different perspectives. When we have these marketing hacks, we make sure that we get a great representation of different voices; people who might be designers, people who might be strategically oriented. There might be creatively oriented people that are in the market experiencing it every day, championing the user that they see and they work with. If it’s just a marketing team on it’s own then we get one perspective to come up with unexpected things. We want to make sure we get a whole variety of different things in there.

Ideas can come from anywhere and you have to have these different intersections because that gives you the chance to be unexpected with your platform.

ST: How do you measure the success or what metrics do you use in relation to measuring the impact of innovation?

LH: Given that we are a data driven company, we spend a lot of time thinking about the metrics and what they might be. When you’re trying to do something that’s never been done before and get into that level of innovation, it’s not always easy. We spend a lot of time looking at things like user metrics, how people either engage with products or our brand, and measuring pre- and post-engagement. We also look at social sentiment and buzz that is happening around a project, which are incredibly important.

Across a range of things we try and come up with what we believe is the best metrics of success. Those are areas in which you can measure however the difficult part is to say how much is good enough. Sometimes there’s no benchmark with these things. We are always trying to push ourselves, so we always create a stretch goal. Working within a very data driven organization, we’re quite tough on ourselves around that stretch goal. For example if we haven’t hit what we believe to be the stretch goal we investigate the data. What did we do wrong? How can we learn from that? How would we have changed that? How do we adapt? How do we iterate and make it better?

ST: How important is that feedback and learning loop to Google’s success?

LH: It’s absolutely critical. In every presentation you see and in every report that we put out internally around the marketing exercises we do, there’s a lot of focus on what we’ve learnt and advice about how others might be able to use that information in tangible ways. We have derived the insights that we got out of it so that we can move forward. It’s a huge part of the culture that we have. We challenge each other if it’s not there and say, “How can we learn from this? What can I take from it?”

That’s where we get to good scalable ideas as well. Even though it might not work in one region, they can then try and adapt that and take it and use it in another region. It might become a seed of a new idea. So failing fast is okay if you do it quickly and you learn from it. Similarly, the path to a great idea is littered with a lot of bad ones first. It’s always about learning. It’s always about trying and putting things that out there and learning from the experience.

ST: Are there elements of culture you think are critical to successful innovation?

LH: The first is actively ask for ideas; that creates everything. The second being that you create a culture whereby it’s okay to fail if you do it in the right way. I think between those two things, that’s the core of how things work at Google. And really wanting to partner with people. Whether those partnerships might be with producers or agencies or users, they can sometimes reveal really interesting ways and really unexpected and powerful ways of talking about your brand and your marketing that you may not have otherwise thought about.

Collaboration is so ingrained in the way that we do things. Any time we want to try and do new things, one of the huge elements we talk about is what potential partnerships we can put into play here. How can we work with others to get this out into the real world in an interesting way? We have great products and great platforms. Sometimes the best stuff happens when we are just the platform and we give over the creativity and expression to others to use. That works particularly well on platforms like YouTube, where creators can up with really interesting magical ways of doing new things that you would never have thought of.

That is always something that I think about – if you close that door of collaboration, you end up with very much the same thing. It’s that the idea of if you keep on doing the same things, how are you ever going to create something different? In the delivery of an idea, it is having a culture whereby people do feel free to express or to try and put things out there. In terms of the execution, I think it’s getting back to that notion of making sure that you recognize you might have reached a point that means you are potentially not on the right track and might be one of those failures.



ST: Do you have any advice for anyone looking to succeed in their own innovation programs?

LH: The first piece of advice would be to open source that creativity. Get involvement from any of the partners that you work with, any part of the spectrum, through your employees, the user, to other brands.

The second one would be to spend as much time as you can on investing in building a culture of innovation. Actively asking for people to contribute, and making sure that it’s okay, no matter where they are in the hierarchy of the organization.

Then, the last piece would be around culture. To support that notion of it’s okay to fail if you fail fast as long as you learn from it.

In case you missed the first part of this conversation, check out it out here: Interview with Google’s head of marketing innovation APAC » 

Samuel Tait
BY Samuel Tait ON 30 September 2015
Samuel Tait is a digital marketing and transformation specialist who has consulted with clients across a diverse range of industries to drive growth through a fusion of consumer psychology, data, and technology. He is managing partner, business innovation at innovation consultancy I/O.