Interview with Google’s head of marketing innovation APAC

If you asked most people to name an innovative company, Google will be likely to come up early in the conversation. It’s not surprising then that since its IPO in 2004, its share value has risen over 1200%. Earlier this year the company was once again ranked as one of the world’s ‘Most Innovative Companies’ by Fast Company magazine. It’s been said that Google’s secret to innovation success is due to the empowerment of its employees – Samuel Tait met with Lee Hunter, head of marketing innovation for Asia Pacific to find out.

innovation-inside-badgeSamuel Tait: What was your path to taking on the innovation role at Google?

Lee Hunter: I’ve been with Google for about eight and a half years and current run marketing innovation for Google across Asia Pacific. When I first started with Google I was so excited and I had this thing in my head that this is a place for ideas – it still is.

I developed an idea in my first three months, which was called the Google Online Marketing Challenge. Basically it was a student competition around Adwords. Even though I was a new guy, I pitched this idea, managed to get through to the head of marketing who loved it and let me do it. It gave me the confidence to actually go and make it happen. We ended up having 10,000 students and universities from all over the world. The challenge is still going on to this day eight years later.

That experience gave me the appetite to come up with new ideas and see where we can push things. Since then I moved across to YouTube, where I was involved in a lot of the globally-oriented innovative projects; things like YouTube Symphony Orchestra, and Life in a Day, a film we created with Ridley Scott. Always trying to be a little bit unexpected, a little bit different, and trying to see where we could go with this mash up of the technology, and the platforms we have and what our users were reacting to.

After 10 years overseas – I spent seven in London and three in San Francisco, working in each of the Google head offices – it was time to come home. I’m now based in Sydney, working across APAC on marketing innovation. My task now is to try and figure out where there’s this wonderful mix of what our users are wanting, where our products and technology are heading, and when we as marketers can do something really different and perhaps unexpected. Turn up in those cultural conversations and make sure that people are really recognising things that we do.

ST: Based on your experiences throughout Google how do you define innovation?

LH: My definition of innovation would be the expectation and the support of doing new and unexpected things. I wouldn’t want to be so narrow as to define it purely around technology because it doesn’t always need to be. For me, innovation is about the new and unexpected, and having a culture and a process which actively support that.

ST: What is the role of innovation within Google?

LH: There’s this wonderful quote from Larry Page, which is, “If you’re not doing some things which seem risky then you’re not doing the right things”. I’m slightly paraphrasing there but the idea being that we should always be testing and trialing and pushing ideas, within the thinking of a Venn diagram between:

  • An interesting problem,
  • something we’re seeing happening out in the world with our users, and
  • an interesting use of technology.

At the intersection of these three things is where we try and push innovation. Within marketing a big part of my role is to try and actively promote that, to try and really get everyone across the region thinking in these ways. Provide them the support that it’s okay to push these things.

ST: How do you approach risk and failure that are inherent to innovation?

LH: Our culture is about it being okay to fail, that it is okay to fail. Again, this is something that Larry says: “It’s okay to fail if you fail fast and you learn something from it, and then you move on.” This is something that’s ingrained within the culture that we actively keep very much at the heart of what happens when Google marketing is done. There are noble failures. It’s okay to try things if we recognise that point at which it might not be working and we can adapt to it, or we very quickly learn and move on.

I think the risk is when you take too long to figure out whether something is not working and you don’t learn from it. That’s when it becomes a risk. You can mitigate that when you share the learnings.

ST: What is the role of the customer/user within innovation?

LH: A big chunk of our role in marketing is to really champion the user, and to really understand what they’re thinking, what they’re looking for. Make sure that their feedback is built into the things that we do with our products. When we work in huge aggregates of numbers, in the millions and the billions, to find that user voice and to really then champion for them is a huge strength of what we do as Google marketers.

Adding that human voice to things is really critical in making sure that the user feels like they are participating. If you think about things like YouTube Symphony Orchestra or Life in a Day, at the heart they are ways of talking about a platform we have and adding humanity back into it, showing the best of what’s possible.

We also think about the customer/user it in terms of open source creativity, the idea that ideas can come from anywhere.  The role of the user is really to be there as a source of inspiration for what we do, as well as provide feedback for the things that we build. I think the inspiration bit is something that we’re always looking for from the users.

ST: What do you see as some of the major challenges facing marketers at the moment?

LH: The thing I spend a lot of time thinking about and promoting is mobile and digital as a means of communication – specifically talking about that context piece. What I see at the moment is that we’re not using it as much as we should. When you look at the statistics it is where people spend their time. And mobile, if you get the marketing right, is one of the most powerful ways to communicate with them.

A lot of the time I find brands are stuck in a fairly traditional way of doing things so I spend a lot of time really championing mobile and digital, and that role that it has in marketing. I think partly it’s due to a fairly stubborn mentality of “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. We just keep on doing these things because we’ve done them before. I think it is also caused by marketers being not really sure how to move forward, particularly in mobile.

The best mobile campaigns are the ones that deliver value and utility. The campaigns that just try and interrupt you and try and place a brand in your face, that doesn’t work. I think it definitely takes a lot more creative effort and time to find the magic in a mobile campaign. I think for a lot of people that can be a little intimidating. There are parts of Google where we work with the brands that we have as partners. We spend a lot of time talking about how they might be able to use mobile. We give them a lot of assistance. We talk about insights they have. We talk about maybe how their brand might turn up in these contextually relevant moments. It’s about creating partnerships and figuring it out together.

I think in Australia, I would love to see us move more quickly into digital and really embrace mobile a lot more. Think about the value in utility that we can give to the users, and from an Australian point of view, I struggle to think of really great examples of where that’s happening. I think if I look beyond Australia there are examples. For example, Pedigree dog food in New Zealand. This is a Pedigree project where if you’ve lost your dog then you can very quickly use the mobile to register this fact in a very location specific area to say, “This dog is lost. If you see him can you please connect us together again?” You’re using the power of the mobile in a contextually relevant way to add value and utility because I have this need, my pet is missing.

The power of mobile means I can jump on it right now and I can make that work in a location relevant area. The brand can satisfy the user in a way that isn’t interruptive and completely based around utility and value. When you provide the utility first, the way that the brand becomes part of that experience is a much better way of using mobile than being an interrupter. That means thinking about the user first. Think about the things that they need that can be helpful in their lives through the power of mobile. Make it contextually relevant and use those mobile specific elements that you have like location and time of day, all of these things that might be really powerful within that context. Bring them all together and figure out the best way for the brand to be part of the experience.

ST: What do you see as the roles of strategy and leadership, in the delivery of innovation?

LH: From a leadership point of view, I think it’s really supporting that 18-year-old actively wanting innovation from the people within your business, and fostering that culture. I come back to that quote from Larry, “If you’re not doing something that doesn’t seem as crazy or risky, then you’re not doing the right thing.” Within the marketing organisation we spend a lot of time really actively pushing for innovative ideas from the marketers within Google, and asking them to talk to their partners with a view to try and find out where these new opportunities might be. It’s really about that active request and fostering that culture.

I think from a strategic point of view it’s about really understanding the user in particular, and spending a lot of time getting those insights. Going deep into the quantitative and qualitative user data, and really making sure that you’re championing them. As a strategic starting point it is where we put a lot of focus, and then that interrogation of the brief, really getting to the heart of why we’re doing this. We spend a lot of time on this because unless you get this foundation right, unless you really understand the user and the insights, unless you really understand the strategic issue that you’ve interrogated it, you can’t get to something innovative.

ST: Some people would say that an idea has no worth unless it gets executed. How do you approach the two sides of innovation; the ideas and the execution at Google?

LH: We place value on both parts, but I think especially from a marketing point of view, it needs to be something that moves through execution and lives in the world. In the past we’ve done a lot of that through the strength of partnerships. We found partners to work with, whether that are brands or platforms, or even allowing users to speak on our behalf. You always need to get these things out into the real world, to execute. I think that’s the way in which Google views innovation. An idea has value if it ultimately leads to execution. The idea on its own might be a starting point for you to learn and iterate from, but you have to be thinking about the execution part, otherwise you’re just shouting at a thought bubble.

ST: What companies do you most admire for their approach to innovation?

LH: The first one is basically anything that Elon Musk does. In particular Tesla, not only in the way that their products have been used, but in the way that he’s open sourcing his patents and really allowing others to leverage the work that he’s doing and see where the technology gets to. I think it’s incredibly inspiring.

From more of a marketing and a brand point of view is Lego. I think that the way that Lego has revitalized its brand through partnerships is just phenomenal. The way that they’ve explored different avenues of content, everything from licensing with Lord of the Rings, through to the Lego movie, it’s just been incredible, particularly within gaming.

I spent a bit of time in China recently and there are a lot of companies I could name, but in particular I’ve been impressed with Xiaomi, the mobile manufacturer. I think you would hear a lot of people argue that Chinese companies tend to be copiers, but I actually think they’re incredibly innovative. They just might be innovative in different ways that we don’t pay as much attention to. For example their manufacturing process. The speed at which they can move to market, their ability to adapt, their ability to again fail fast and iterate is incredible. The growth that we’re seeing and the way that they’re reaching out to new markets is something that I think is just really new and innovative, and something to keep an eye on.



Samuel Tait
BY Samuel Tait ON 24 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.