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Google This!

Google CIO Douglas Merrill has two words for today’s advertisers: Give up! Chances are, your brand’s already being Googled.

BY JIMMY MAGAHERN

Published by: TechConnect, Winter 2008

Until the very moment Douglas Merrill stepped up before the packed conference room in the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton to deliver what the Arizona Technology Council had promoted as a two-month-early keynote address to December’s Governor's Celebration of Innovation, virtually no one in attendance, save for maybe his co-horts at the Google table up front, had any idea what the Google CIO was going to talk about.

“Going in, I really didn’t know what he was going to address,” says Mark Nelson, account executive for B.I. Marketing in Phoenix, who was one of the over 125 attendees at the $100-a-plate luncheon on October 25. “What attracted me was the Google name. They’re such an amazing company, so innovative. I just figured they’d have an interesting speaker.”

That Merrill was. Wired and wiry, the long-haired 37-year-old CIO and VP of engineering comes across in public as a combustible cross between the younger Steve Jobs and Quentin Tarrantino – all infectious energy and untamed quirkiness.

“I’m allergic to podiums, so I’m not going to get up there,” Merrill said by way of introduction, opting to speak from the floor at the front of the room and cautioning attendees on his penchant for pacing. “People in the back: you’re gonna get seasick; that’s okay. Just close your eyes, breathe normally, and we’ll all be fine.”

When Merrill quickly did get down to business, it turned out his topic for the day was advertising – specifically, the future of the dying beast, focusing on innovative ways of reaching a public increasingly resistant to being marketed to.

“The old ‘priest and the pulpit’ method of advertising doesn’t work any more,” Merrill said, citing a recent TiVo study that revealed two out of every three 30-second commercials today are skipped. “Those days of turning on a television and passively consuming an ad, where somebody’s talking at you, are over.”

Clicking through a series of no-frills PowerPoint slides, Merrill pointed to the popularity of blogging and user-created Web content. “What’s driving this change is people getting to tell their own stories, people engaging with the world,” he said. “People not passively being talked to.”

Ironically, Merrill’s presentation itself was pretty passively consumed, despite his eschewing the pulpit and making repeated jabs for a show of hands to keep the crowd engaged.

It could be that few in the room full of local business leaders, who had come expecting innovation tips from the tech superstar, were quite prepared for a 25-minute lecture on advertising.

“I was surprised myself by his choice of topic,” admits Jackie Wetzel, advertising coordinator for the Business Journal, which provided sponsorship for the event, publicized only as “An Examination of How Innovation is Critical to Google's Success.” Still, the fact that it was coming from Google seemed to make the message digestible, even – yes – innovative.

“These guys are smart,” says Nelson, who allows he found Merrill’s talk “relevant and insightful,” even though, as a marketer, he’d heard much of it before. “Clearly, they’re doing all the right things.”

In a way, our willingness to pay special attention to any message delivered under the Google banner was one of Merrill’s underlying points.

Touching on a handful of recent ad campaigns that have actually worked, Merrill looked at a 2006 television commercial for Pontiac that, after singing the praises of the new G6 sedan with the usual ad hyperbole, closed with a screenshot of the familiar Google search page and the announcer saying: “But don’t take our word for it. Google ‘Pontiac’ and discover for yourself.”

“Now, Pontiac didn’t control what happened in that Google search,” Merrill pointed out. “What if the top result in that search was ‘PontiacSucks.com’? But that’s not what happened.”

Turned out the G6 was actually winning J.D. Power awards for quality at the time, and owners, more importantly, were passionately blogging about how much they loved their cars. The result: Pontiac sales went up in the regions where the ads were tested (including Phoenix).

“Pontiac said, ‘You won’t believe us anyway. Go ask our users – you’ll probably believe them.’ And they were right.”

More and more, Merrill said, that’s precisely how customers are making their purchasing decisions: by rejecting what’s said in ads in favor of what they can dig up through their own Google search. The objective, unfiltered and diverse viewpoints of the crowd beat the well-prepared patter of Madison Avenue.

Given such a climate, what’s a marketer to do?

“Give up!” Merrill answered, to a spate of nervous laughter. “Advertising has always been about message control. But that control’s vanishing out from under us, at a rate that’s faster than we can handle. It’s moving from message control to user message creation. Users have all the power.

“But if you get your users engaged in your brand,” he concluded optimistically, “they will feel more connected with you than they ever did before.”

After the presentation, attendees who actually worked in the marketing fields seemed in universal agreement with the Google exec.

“I totally got that,” says Nelson, whose company engages in what he calls “old-fashioned grass-roots marketing” to get people talking favorably about its clients’ products. “We do street team work for Toyota, where we’ll actually take a Tundra up to a construction site and say, ‘Come on over and check this truck out!’” Hopefully, he adds, Joe Sixpack will write a nice blog about his experience.

Anne Garland, associate with David and Sam P.R. in Phoenix, says she advises all her clients to be transparent about their company’s shortcomings, since the public is already Googling whatever dirt they can find on them.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t withhold anything. Be proactive,’” she says. “If a detail is worth keeping hidden, it’s worth finding. If there’s a crisis, immediately update your websites to make the information that you’re working toward a resolution readily accessible to interested parties.”

And Wetzel echoes Merrill’s take on Pontiac, advising clients that if they just focus on making a good product, their users will handle the word-of-mouth advertising for them.

“I think one of the things that companies are starting to do is trust their own product,” she says, “and feel confident that their supporters will recognize the value in their product, and put that information out there. So that if people spend a little time learning about your company, they’ll discover there’s a lot of other people very satisfied with what you provide.”

We may no longer be willing to listen to anything force-fed to us by Madison Avenue. But we do, apparently, trust Google to reveal what people are really thinking.

The Ritz-Carlton presentation was, in its own way, proof of that. On that day, Valley tech leaders had physically come to Google on a search for the keyword “innovation” – and wound up staying through a half-hour oration on advertising. And loved it.

“Thank God for Google!” Mark Nelson raved afterwards, echoing the general tone in the lobby. “It’s made my life a lot easier, when I’m trying to research something. How did we ever do it before?”

”–

Photos by Jerry Foreman; illustration: Switch Studio

CIO Douglas Merrill shares the Google view of advertising.

Given such a climate, what's a marketer to do? "Give up!" Merrill answers.

Google: The Arizona Connection

Midway through the brief Q & A period following Douglas Merrill’s presentation, an attendee near the back of the room articulated the question most Valley techies still have regarding Google’s Tempe office:
Specifically, what the heck is Google doing here? What brilliant new computing innovation is being incubated on the second floor of the University Services Building on Rural Road, where Google has been leasing space from ASU since early last summer?
It’s a question Merrill, who normally works out of Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California but whose job includes supervising the operations of the Tempe office, apparently gets asked a lot, judging from his generalized response.
“In Tempe, we’re hiring software engineers who understand a broad variety of things,” he said. “We have 55 engineering offices worldwide, and they all more or less do exactly the same thing: work on a broad range of products. We’re gonna hire every smart person we can find in Tempe.”
It may sound like more of the typical Google-speak the rest of the tech community has come to find maddenly evasive, a recursive closed loop of vagueness that keeps the company’s wizardry ever behind the curtains.
But in fact, a general vagueness about roles is one of the keys to Google’s success. Interviewed shortly before the Tempe office’s official grand opening last fall, the unofficial CIO (even Merrill’s own title is loosely applied) described Google’s engineering offices primarily as “talent pools,” set up in places likely to recruit the best technical talent. What specific tasks the new hires are assigned are secondary – and likely to change.
“Everything we do is about getting great talent and applying it to really hard problems,” he said. “We always look for clusters of talent that we don’t yet have access to. And in Tempe, you’ve got a world-class university at ASU, you’ve got another one just a few miles down the road at U of A. And you’ve got lots of other world-class companies doing engineering work in the area – which just told us the talent pool must be there.”
Merrill says every Google employee is, by design, moved around a lot, assigned to one three-month project then rotated to another, with rarely anyone staying in one particular area longer than 18 months. The idea is to keep bright minds stimulated, while taking advantage of the Internet’s ability to facilitate interaction beyond office walls. It’s that “wisdom of the crowd” mentality, that’s been driving the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon, applied to a particularly wise crowd.
“If you think about how companies used to be,” Merrill said last February in a presentation posted on the company’s media portal, “we built large companies, and systems to support those companies, that assumed you only had to work with one or two other people. You didn’t generally have to work with hundreds of other people.
“We aren’t all in one building,” he continued. “The talent doesn’t all live in one city, or one country, or one continent. Talent is wherever it is. And increasingly, companies have to work across geographical boundaries.”
With Google Tempe, the company has opened a door to the Valley’s best tech talent to join in that great global Google-ness.