National exclusive with Google’s global CMO and CCO
Published as There’s Got to be a Way, June 2011, Marketing magazine. The interviews conducted with Lorraine Twohill, global chief marketing officer for Google, and Andy Berndt, global chief creative officer for Google Labs, were national exclusives in Australia.
I’ve often proffered warnings to the deaf ears of peers on the beguiling nature of the marketing, advertising and media world(s) – parentheses necessary depending on your beliefs about the disciplines’ symbiosis. Of course, we’re skilled at seducing fresh blood; there’s a reason internal meetings occasionally invoke frustrated shaking and related tertiary courses have such huge second and third year dropout rates. We professional persuaders love persuading – whether for the ‘better or worse’ of others usually doesn’t matter. We love it so much we often can’t help ourselves once the challenge is set; when the medium became the message, ethics became the shadow. And the seduction of greenhorns is made laughably easy by the deep shadows, brilliant highlights and three-martini lunches of a yesteryear almost no one currently working was present for.
Staffed by drunks, magazines were apparently the easiest game in town. Newspapers floated about on the rivers of classified gold. But advertising agencies – that was the coolest business of all. On arrival, your drinks cart would be rolled into your 666th floor office, a client would follow with a wheelbarrow of money and you’d set to work spending it on big ideas and challenging the status quo. Then came holding companies, consolidation, the media/creative split. The advertising agency entered establishment territory, trading cool for scale. Some succour was available in the small agency, the experiential agency, the digital agency, the social media agency, sometimes even the publisher. We’ve now reached the point where platforms are slapping their metaphorical foreheads and deciding the best idea is to demonstrate how best to use themselves, and others. Lead by example. It’s where Google has found itself.
I hate clichés almost as much as Andy Berndt probably does, but – sorry – he’s literally larger than life. As I enter the interview room we awkwardly shake hands – not the awkwardness of a limp shake or the infuriating sideways turn, but his hand taking mine in like an aircraft carrier swallowing a jet. No, a pilot. I’ve never met someone who would best be described as excited, and I’m jealous of him for that. He’s not excited about Google or the internet or Australia or being interviewed or advertising – he’s just non-specifically excited.
When Berndt was recruited to Google, as managing director of its Creative Labs, from his post as co-president of Ogilvy & Mather, New York City, agency boots worldwide quaked. The reaction in the international trade press and blogosphere was what you’d expect: if Google, described by Berndt’s former boss’s boss Sir Martin Sorrell as a “frenemy or froe”, was hiring one of WPP’s own leading lights, surely it was getting into the agency business. Henny Penny must be consulted!
The reality was, and is, one of the following either a non-event or much better or much worse, depending on your job title and level of paranoia. Google was hoping to draw more ad dollars, sure, but it wasn’t about to start going directly to clients with creative services. It needed someone to work with agencies and publishers, to point out trees in the forest. Berndt, with a background crossing creative, accounts and management (not to mention his well of excitement), was perfect.
Lorraine Twohill is surely Berndt’s sobriety. Whereas Berndt wears his million-thoughts-a-minute on his sleeve, Twohill’s cogs are keenly and precisely ticking as she sums up my intentions. Beginning eight years ago, she was Google’s first non-North American marketing hire. In her own words, for her it was a ‘punt’ at the time, joining a start-up to run its European marketing (which, initially, was her). Of course, the punt worked out, and she built a team across 25 European countries. Two years ago, she took the big gig from David Lawee, who made a number of headlines during his tenure by describing the job as the easiest one in marketing, essentially a brand maintenance role. The transition makes sense, given her European team building experience. She says she feels like the lead recruiter – and this is great news for you dear reader (more later…).
Both are confirmed intelligences of the calibre that doesn’t ooze ego and is genuinely kind. And both are talkative and open, despite, or maybe because of, having been in the country for too short a while, in too demanding schedules to have overcome the time difference. Midway through our interview, we’re interrupted by a group of engineers (I’m guessing, they look chic-geeky), who probably have no clue as to who they are throwing out of the meeting room. Berndt and Twohill are cordial and we move to another room. To make up for the interruption and their having run 20 minutes late for the beginning, they delay a meeting with ‘Nick’ and speak with me for another 40 minutes. It’s only later, when meeting ‘Nick’, that I’m told he is Nick Leeder, Karim Temsamani’s replacement as managing director of Google Australia. Hard to mount arguments about that famously flat hierarchy then.
If you ever want to know whether something is cool, genuinely, empirically cool, a kid is the only arbiter worth involving – anyone else is siding with you, or trying to side with you, or disagreeing, or pre-empting something in order to get money, sex or power – a kid just knows. (Even my belief in this reflects my inability to know cool through my own vanity – I know kids know because every kid who sees my orange Vespa dies of joy, and every 20-plus guy glances furtively, with a lust contained by some confusion of masculinity.) And so, when Berndt’s eight year-old daughter leaned over during the YouTube Symphony Orchestra (YTSO) Grand Finale at the Opera House and said, “This is so cool!”, he knew it must be. You can’t script a child finding classical music cool, let alone sitting still through three and a half hours of it.
The YTSO began in 2008 with a call for auditions through YouTube and several major international orchestras – 3000 were received. Judges selected the best from the auditions and then final members, representing 30 countries, were voted in by the YouTube community. Its first live concert was Carnegie Hall on 15 April 2009, by which stage the auditions had collectively been viewed over 15 million times. At the time, Michael Tilson Thomas (aka MTT), conductor of the YTSO and music director of the San Francisco Symphony, told Reuters: “Everyone in the orchestra clearly has had a lot of experience playing their instrument. Some of them are vastly experienced ensemble players in chamber music and orchestral music, some have much less experience. Some have other professions, including being physicians, poker players and financial analysts.”
The second performance will follow a similar audition format, but culminating beautifully at the Sydney Opera House. The show occurrs both inside and out of the venue, with light projections playing in sync with the music on the Opera House’s sails and speakers set up for those outside. Those inside see both the performance and individual stories of players: an Italian girl who began playing harp at age 20(!) to the third generation German trombone player. The performance was watched by 33 million people internationally (in real-time or during the re-broadcast in the 18 hours following). 2.8 million streams were on mobile devices, making it the biggest ever YouTube mobile live-stream. 2.42 million of those were Australian, making a classical music event not just the most viewed program in Australia on March 20, but for 2011 so far.
“And the great part was that when they told the performers that – can you imagine, people who were 14 years old, 17 years old – there are two million people watching this. In classical music, you just don’t generate that rock star kind of thing,” says Berndt.
Google’s long had the halo of innovation and culture, but over the past few years tall poppy syndrome has encircled the brand. Whether you’re a believer or a cynic, derision of its products is rare and the brand recognises that though resources are necessary for an idea, the progenitor will be most passionate and the best at seeing their idea through. The YTSO was a nascent kernel from Timothy Lee, formerly a junior marketer at Google’s London office, who also happens to be a violinist.
“Ideas come from everywhere,” says Twohill. “So we run internal idea competitions, and all of these were ideas that came through young people in the team. And it is really the young people – we hire an awful lot of young people out of university and they just have huge ideas, because they’re consumed with technology in a very different way. They think in a very different way, and they have ideas that are not ideas that we would probably have.”
Berndt tells me it was at one of these competitions that the YTSO was born: “[Timothy Lee] came up in front of 500 people at this global meeting with his idea and said, ‘I play the violin, and I wish we could make an orchestra online, and everyone had a shot to play, and then we gave everyone in the whole world a shot to play Carnegie or the [Sydney] Opera House.’ There was a pause, and then everyone jumped up to a standing ovation, and that was it. It was like ‘We’re going to do this… We have no idea how we’re going to do it.’ And it was the same vibe that I felt when we were there, and he was talking about the people from different [countries] – the kid who grew up near Chernobyl, but then he had to move, his parents kept getting sick, so they moved to Argentina and it was really hard on them, but he had this music that he played.”
“And you find some brave pioneer, because you typically get turned down by a lot of people before you find the one Sydney Opera House type partner who is willing to go, ‘Yes, this is crazy, but we’re going to take a risk’,” adds Twohill.
Usually, when discussing ideas and corporate innovation, the killjoy’s tactic is to bring up reward – the employer/employee benefit argument. So I put it to Berndt and Twohill: Google, YouTube and sponsor Hyundai will have benefited significantly from Lee’s brilliant concept. How do you reward him?
“We let them do it,” says Twohill. “He worked in ads/marketing, he worked in B2B, small business marketing, that was his day job. He had a very analytical job, and we let him go do it. We free them up. And that’s a critical thing, we let them see it through – and the art project is another example where it also came through a similar ideas process we run every year, [an] ideas competition, and it’s very tough on them, they get grilled.”
“It’s the gong show. You get blown off stage,” adds Berndt.
“They pitch their ideas like entrepreneurs,” continues Twohill. “And they have to think through how would this change the world in some way, and that has to be part of it.”
The YTSO is the most recent and local of some giant initiatives and slight annexes of agency and arts organisations’ territory: Life in a Day (film), The Wilderness Downtown (music ‘video’/HTML5 demo), ‘Search On’ (the Super Bowl ad), Chrome Speed Test ads, Demo Slam, YouTube Play and Google Art Project (www.googleartproject.com).
The Art Project came up through one of the brand’s ideas forums. Google allowed one of its geo-marketing employees to drive a project digitising some of the world’s prestigious museums and galleries. Not just the art, the museums. It allows the user to experience roaming these famous museums in the familiar street-view format. There was of course some resistance:
“That was an 18-month odyssey, because these museums are government owned. They’re very suspicious of Google; they don’t want their art to just be thrown out there and appearing in Google Images the next morning. They have masterpieces,” Twohill emphasises.
“It’s just a thing of beauty, and you can create your own personal collections. It’s very viral, very social. We have letters from school teachers all around the world saying, ‘Who can we give a gift to? This is the most amazing thing we’ve ever seen.’ Because they’re getting all the kids to create their own collections of art from all of these different museums.”
An unexpected role
Although the art galleries piece is unsponsored – likely due to the large number of public organisations involved and regulation around these pieces, it, like the YTSO, fits neatly with Google’s positioning as a cataloguer of the world’s information. Both have demonstrated the potential of creativity and technology to the world, but particularly with the YTSO and some of the other artistic projects, Google is connecting the dots for agencies and brand partners.
Google’s communication strategy with these initiatives, particularly YTSO, is one of making heroes of the participants. Importantly, sponsor Hyundai bought into this strategy in its above the line communications, highlighting individual musicians alongside its ‘New Thinking. New Possibilities’ positioning. It was also an opportunity to showcase its new models in Circular Quay with a stage alongside for the visiting musicians.
Berndt explains that the motivation behind many of these art/technology mash-ups can be linked to a simple reach calculation. Compared to a product demonstration given to a select few, creating amazing content viewable freely and almost guaranteed to reach millions is a no-brainer.
“Arcade Fire’s The Wilderness Downtown, it’s probably the thing I’m most proud of, ever, simply because it was weird criteria and that, if you’re an engineer and, let’s say, you’re not even crazy about music, you just want to talk about HTML5; it’s a great way to show somebody what HTML5 can do. But if you’re just a mad music fan, you just want to see that video – to make something that elastic. I think this really proved that. All these bands and record companies started calling us, ‘We want to collaborate musically’,” says Berndt.
“Leading by example: we collaborate with brave pioneers, who are open to saying ‘yes’, challenge convention and challenge the usual formula for their space, whether it’s classical music or indie music. We’ve done probably five or six projects now in the music space, all of which are known to everybody in the music space now. There’s not a single person across music who doesn’t know about YTSO, and they’re already thinking how to do [new] things, all of them now,” adds Twohill.
“Over the journey of this program, there would probably be about upwards of 20 million people interacting with this, with the channel on YouTube, and I think something we do a lot with our programs is connecting people and their passions, and if you connect people with their passions and you empower the community around that, you have this incredible energy, and it just hits off, and becomes a very social activity… And so we took the same concept and worked with a lot of brands around the World Cup to help them do the same. Because anyone can do this using YouTube. So we helped the big guys with the big budgets for the World Cup to do the same: [for example] global contests around sport, which they have a passion for, and connecting communities around sport. This is a model that you can take to so many different companies and so many different passions,” says Twohill.
The real best job in the world
Google’s former VP of marketing, David Lawee, was fond of saying he had the easiest job in marketing. He doesn’t have the gig anymore and I’m not sure I’d have ever agreed with his statement. Sure it’s fantastic to sit atop a beloved brand, but tall poppy syndrome isn’t Australia’s parochial affliction, schadenfreude is global. And with a brand so glued to a single product in the public’s eye, it must be bloody daunting to attempt to expand that perception. Twohill and Berndt undoubtedly have enviable roles, but they are talented individuals navigating difficult subtleties in their users’ perceptions.
“Selling is the worst thing we could do,” say Berndt.
They also dance a broad continuum of technology’s elite, whose technical knowledge outstrips theirs, to the tech Luddites, who may be savants in other aspects of business.
“Without being condescending at all, [we have to] get ourselves back to empathising with someone who is kind of new to this stuff. Because if you’re in these meetings every day and you’re thinking about what’s coming next, it’s very easy to go out there and start the conversation right in the middle and leave people behind… Even yesterday, we had these great meetings with everybody, and they all politely say, ‘OK, silly American, this is what it’s really like’.”
“At Google, marketing almost equals knowledge,” says Twohill. “Something that I get asked by a lot of other CMOs (chief marketing officers) is what [do] we do differently? Whether you’re reaching young kids coming on the web for the first time in India, or anybody coming on to the web in India, whether you’re reaching small business in Australia. In all cases, our marketing is about education, it’s about knowledge: just help them understand.
“And a lot of our creative, which is what this team nails so beautifully, is really very much in that space. Educate them and inform them, and let them make their decisions. So a lot of our Chrome work was in a site called whatbrowser.org, and it was really about: do you know what a browser is? Most people don’t. Do you know you have a choice? Most people don’t. Do you know how to pick your browser? And then here are the five or six options you have,” adds Twohill.
Google’s halo has meant that above the line brand awareness campaigns haven’t been necessary – in the West at least. It speaks to how intrinsic the brand is to our day-to-day lives that a TVC promoting the Chrome browser in Japan is almost inconceivable to much of the Western tech/trade press. I remember being caught off guard by the ‘Going Google’ OOH in my own city. A quick (Google) search reveals quite a few European/North American businesses moving into Asia, transferring their usual Google AdWords strategy and then seeking help on search marketing forums as to why it isn’t yielding the usual results (e.g. one poster’s translated keyword generates thousands of clicks per day in his home territory and fails to generate even hundreds of views in Japan). It’s in these territories the brand is finding a need for above the line.
“We have done spot examples of it where we felt we needed it,” says Twohill. “So, it wasn’t like a ‘we are not doing this’ decision. It was more of a ‘we didn’t need to do this’ decision, and there’s an awful lot we were doing on the web. Especially in Western countries, the web is everybody today – just everybody. So, you can do a lot of really creative magic, and reach an awful lot of people through the sheer scale of the web, and we’re also very good at using our own products, learning from that, sharing that with advertisers. That’s a formula that we’re comfortable with. There have been spot examples where we’ve gone offline in places like Germany where there are some challenges. It made sense to go and tell our story in a wider way, and in Japan where we were not so well-known, we’ve done TV and been more bullish, been more aggressive. And in the US we did a Super Bowl ad – just because we loved it.”
Probably because of its search success and pedigree – and ensuing brand halo – Google has embraced product-first marketing: when the product has generated its own user base and word of mouth, spread the good word.
“I’ve always thought there was a good feeling of letting the products prove themselves – there’s an ethos coming right from the founders about the reluctance to use marketing to replace word of mouth,” says Berndt. “Marketing can abet it once enough users feel that a product is really helpful and useful, but they don’t want it to stand in for the absence of word of mouth.
“So Chrome, for example, we’re very happy to talk widely about, because everybody who uses it kind of says, ‘Thank you, this is great. I like having this.’ So, that’s the green light to say, ‘OK, tell everybody.’ And even an interruption might be valuable, because a user will be grateful, but an interruption that doesn’t yield a sort of, ‘Thank you, that was a lot better’ [response] is not considered something that we would like to be part of. And that’s great. It comes down from the top and, I don’t know, I have spent my whole life in advertising, so you think I would be coming at it from the other side.”
“You have to earn marketing,” Twohill chimes in. “Your product has to be ready. I think that’s a conversation we have very regularly: where do we dial up? The product has to prove itself first, and I think that’s a big part of our philosophy.”
Life in a day
The reality of their roles is similar to the brand’s creative execution: it’s less about Google, or in this case Twohill and Berndt, than the people – in this case, the country/region heads.
“Finding Marvins [Marvin Chow, marketing director for Google Asia Pacific] is a big part of our job. Finding more Marvins. Until you have Marvins, you just can’t do it. You need to have Marvins. One of my biggest things that I push back onto is every time you hire a head of marketing for a country… or Lucinda [Barlow, head of marketing, Google Australia/New Zealand] here in Australia, [is another] great example. If you get the right Lucinda, the right Marvin, country head, regional head, then you can do magic – you can do magic in 40 countries, not one country. So, that’s why I say hiring him is part of my job, because if you hire the right head of a country, he will create a great team of unconventional kick-arse people who think big and just do wonderful stuff. If you hire the wrong person, and we have made mistakes, then that whole team underneath that person in that country, is affected [and so is] their output in that country. So finding Marvins, finding Lucindas, that’s a big part of our job, and it’s not easy.”
Google’s been the goal for many graduates and veterans alike for close on a decade now. In the marketing division, at least, Twohill has three tests:
“We’ll take any superstar,” she says. “We don’t have all these fancy org charts. It’s like, if you’re great, super talented and we love you, we’ll make it work. Call us. This is exactly how we hire. We will always say ‘yes’ to superstars who we know just fit. And you can’t tell from a piece of paper. Anybody we interview is, on paper, stellar: academics, off the charts career, superstars, everybody has to be top of the class, academically and professionally.”
“I have a few exceptions,” Berndt grins.
“99 percent,” Twohill smiles back. “But it doesn’t mean that they’re right for us. There’s just not [necessarily] that click. For me, it’s like, what if I’m stuck for 14 hours in an airport with you, am I going to want to slit my wrists? You just don’t get hired. And aptitude versus attitude: you don’t have to have a big ego, you really don’t. We’re a very down to earth team; we have no time for nonsense. So, a big picture for me is aptitude versus attitude; we’ve got to get work done and have a really good attitude. And noise to action, you know, we don’t want noisy people who are high maintenance. I seriously don’t. So, very much they’re my three filters: aptitude to attitude, noise to action and the airport test. And, if you pass those, you’re in, and it’s fine. So, it becomes constantly a challenge of finding those people.”
“There’s a sense of that spirit of you need to be over drawing attention to yourself, you need to be into the zone of a certain maturity, where you’re very comfortable drawing attention to other people and the things other people do – and so that can be hard to find, especially for people who have a bit of an alpha gene, and who are entrepreneurs and who drive things themselves. So [it’s] getting that balance of ‘I want to try great new things, but I don’t have to be in the spotlight’,” say Berndt.
“And a lot of judgement – especially talking with each of the country leads here, and you have such different situations and different markets across Asia, for example, that there’s a lot of judgement left to people in the field as to what’s right.”
“Entrepreneurs do really well at Google,” says Twohill. “But it’s shocking coming into Google, because you have to remember everybody coming into Google has been top of their class or their company and then they come into Google, and everyone is like that and suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ You have to adjust, and I think it is, especially at the senior level coming in, I feel like the senior folk we hire feel like they’ve landed on Mars for the first three months, and I always warn them of that…
“Because we’re an engineering culture, that’s very much the case with Larry and Sergey [Page and Brin – Google’s founders], and engineers like to solve problems. So the culture at Google is very much ‘give us a problem and we’ll solve it’. And it very much permeates through the culture of the marketing team, as everything we do is to solve a problem, whether there’s a big problem or a small problem.”
And the Easter egg for those attentive readers who’ve made it this far? The brand is looking for a head of consumer marketing in Asia and a head of display in the US…
Behind closed doors or, more truthfully, at the bottom of a couple of glasses, many marketers claim agencies have built the cane for their own back through overcharging, under delivering or disinterest. Ad guys shift the blame to corporates, unwilling to pay for strategy, but happy to be overcharged for creative services, or point to account consolidation or dispersion. The world’s not less creative now than it once was, I’m just wondering if that mythos mentioned earlier attracts the wrong kind of creative, or the culture shock on arrival dissuades it. What business would Bill Bernbach go into now? Has the modern day Smith & Wesson, social media, removed the thrill of broadcast that was once the agency world’s allure to the creative? Would those advertising pioneers of yesteryear go to tech these days?
In the days of major North-American FMCGs bringing media buying in-house, platforms creating departments to lead agencies and brands to water and performance networks, these are important questions for an industry keen to reimagine its glory days.
“We’re big believers in always saying ‘yes’ and everything is possible,” says Twohill, “there has got to be a way.”