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The Sophie Choice

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

The Google ad called “Dear Sophie” ran on “Saturday Night Live” last night just like all the other ads from all the other companies. It has been lauded, accurately, as a sweet story, and indeed it is a nice ad. It’s making news because Google has only rarely ventured into big marketing campaigns on television.

In 1999, as I discussed in In the Plex, Google hired a prospective marketing VP who suggested a big television campaign. Larry and Sergey thought it was a waste of resources that might be best deployed towards hiring more engineers. (Larry did suggest, however, that Google look into beaming its logo onto the Moon via laser.) The board of directors backed up the founders, and the VP candidate soon departed. This set a standard within the company of resistance to conventional advertising.

This stuck until the 2010 Superbowl, when Google surprisingly showed an ad . Larry Page told me a few weeks afterward the Super Bowl that part of the reason he was okay with it was that it broke an internal taboo. Taboos can be constraining. It’s best to constantly question them.

Here’s what he said then:

It’s obviously very contrary to what we normally do, and I think part of the reason we wanted to do it is for that reason. It sort of violates every known principle that we have, and every once in a while, you should test that you really have the right principles. You don’t want to end up too rigid. I think that’s maybe Montessori training or something.

The Sophie ad is something different, less an interesting experiment in breaking an internal rule than a simple push for a product (the Chrome browser) that Google wants more users to sample. You can read the background Claire Cain Miller’s excellent story on the making of the ad.

Miller mentions almost in passing that while the storyline was inspired by a real user, Google used actors in the commercial. This may well indicate a psychological shift in Google’s thinking. I once sat in on a meeting of Google’s “creative” team (this is the term of art for those cooking up marketing materials, not an appellation that implies that other Googlers aren’t creative). One of the employees suggested a campaign that would involve hiring models to illustrate how a product was used. She was quickly shot down. Google does not use models or actors, she was told.

There was a strong rationale for this. Actors and models are, by definition, not authentic. Google is supposed to be a fair judge, unaffected by artifice. Its search results do not appear as a consequence of editorial choices but by the wisdom of algorithms that are constantly recalibrated by observing the behavior if its users. Taste and sentimentality has nothing to do with this.

There were no actors seen in the Super Bowl commercial, and that was part of its charm: even though it broke one taboo, it maintained the company’s geeky dignity of logic and verifiability. The star was the stuff that appeared on the computer screen. But “Dear Sophie” is more of a classic form of Madison Avenue pitching. It’s probably something that Don Draper would come up with if Larry and Sergey were his clients. They would tell him that their product, the Chrome browser, has a lot going for it over its competitors, like speedier response and a single box to type in addresses and search queries. It runs Web applications more efficiently than other browsers, they’d tell him, and if everyone used it, it would hasten a new paradigm of cloud apps. Draper would say that all that stuff is well and good. But for our commercial, we’re going to show a tear-jerking evocation of a father compiling an online scrapbook for to his daughter as she grows up.

Straight out of the Kodak playbook–don’t brag about your specs, but play that song about Where Are You Going My LIttle One, and out will come the handkerchiefs. It’s also a stratagem used by banks and insurance companies.

And now Google does it According to Miller, they worked with an agency called Bartle Bogle Hegarty (notable clients: Johnny Walker, Vaseline, and Mentos), whose “creatives” presumably did a casting call for babies and children who would make us say “Awwwwww.”

It was brave of Google’s founders to resist this kind of advertising in the early days of the company. But now Google clearly believes that to connect with the masses on Chrome, it makes sense to hew to more traditional means of promotion. And the positive reaction “Dear Sophie” has garnered is an indication that this was the right choice.

Nonetheless, for the company that vowed not to be conventional, the concession is one more step down the slippery slope of just that.

Did a Tennis Game Change YouTube?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

We’re seeing reports today that Google is about to “reinvent” YouTube to deliver a number of premium channels that may set the stage for an alternative to cable TV. If you have already gotten your copy of IN THE PLEX, you will find a harbinger of this in a GPS (Google Product Strategy) session I attended in late 2009.

Before the meeting started, Eric Schmidt was discussing a tennis tournament he had watched that previous weekend, streamed by CBS as an experiment. He was impressed by the quality.

After the leaders of YouTube had presented their results to the group the discussion turned to what’s next for YouTube. I don’t know how much the tennis match figured into this but here’s my account as in the book.

“I want you to create a new kind of broadcast,” [Schmidt] said. “It’s so obvious what the product should be. You goal should be to have a million quality broadcasts of…who knows what?”

Not long after that, YouTube began streaming live events, including a U2 concert at the Rose Bowl and a Barack Obama press conference. It also streamed its version of Google Goes to the Movies–a full-length version of Taxi Driver. These were apparently the first examples of Google’s intended millions of broadcasts.

The upcoming YouTube move should be seen the in the context of not only Google, but Netflix and Facebook and other Internet powers becoming alternatives to cable powers. The cable companies (and telco services that try to fill that space, too) are increasingly retaining their hold on us not by the monopoly power they have in owning the what was once the only conduit into our homes, but the regulatory boundaries they maintain and the contractual shut-outs they hold to prevent programming to move freely, onto the Internet. It will be interesting to see how long this artificial barrier holds up.

Meanwhile, I await news that YouTube is streaming tennis.

Jonathan Rosenberg, We Hardly Knew Ye (But Googlers Did)

Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

Yesterday Google announced that Jonathan Rosenberg, the senior VP who heads product management, will be leaving this summer.  The reason is interesting in itself: the once and (as of yesterday) current CEO Larry Page asked a number of top execs to commit to staying at Google for the next few years, during which the company would push hard in new initiatives.   Rosenberg, who had long planned to depart about the time his youngest daughter reached college age, declined to commit.   (Google could not name for me another executive who similarly failed to re-up.)   He did tell the San Jose Mercury News that he would be writing a book with Eric Schmidt.  (That brings the total of books Schmidt is writing with current or former Googlers to two, and Eric’s been out of the CEO role for only a day.)

Rosenberg was not well known outside the company, but a major force within.  As the exec who oversaw products, he was the boss of many of key Googlers who worked in search, apps and other areas.  (For instance, Marissa Mayer reported to him.)

It took me a while to arrange an interview with him for IN THE PLEX. Though he often participates in quarterly earnings calls with analysts and the press, he rarely sits down with journalists.  But I found him candid and fun to talk to.  Here’s what he said about the concept of Google being a chaotic company, and his role in company management:

Rosenberg:  “I don’t measure myself by my ability to reduce the chaos. I measure myself by my ability to feed resources to the best most exciting opportunities that we think can win, and at the same time try to create as many of those opportunities bubbling up [as we can]  that can be the next set of winners.  So it is chaos. I think the criticism is valid. but it’s also like the Winston Churchill democracy quote: ‘Democracy is a horrible form of government, except when you compare it to all the others.’ I don’t know a better way to do what we’re trying to do.”

Rosenberg will leave Google a very rich man, an outcome that he foresaw when he took the job in 2001, after turning it down several times, in part because he wasn’t offered a big enough stake in the company.  What finally convinced him was Eric Schmidt’s insistence that he sit down with Google’s CFO and go over the company’s financials, then a closely protected secret.  No one outside the company knew how much money Google was making   Rosenberg later described the moment to me:  “I came out of the room and I said, “Okay, I made poor choices saying no, and what are you offering now?’”

Even though Rosenberg was not an engineer, the founders respected him.  He had a rocky first year when figuring out that Google was not a company where executives directed employees, but presented data that would convince employees to share their views.   And he was smart.  Here is an example:  When interviewing for the job, he was asked to make a presentation to the top executives.  He had just prepared a talk, and suggested that he give it as his audition.  But he made a change:  knowing that Sergey Brin was supposed to be some sort of math Olympian, he introduced a subtle error in a spreadsheet calculation.  When he gave the talk, he stopped when the spreadsheet came up and stared at the screen.

Rosenberg: “And I look at it and I said, you know what, that’s a mistake. There’s got to be a mistake in one of the spreadsheets, because it should be about an eighth of that, and I look at it and I immediately dig into the linked Excel spreadsheet and fix it, and then before I fix it I say, ‘You know, this should actually divide it by eight which should come around to 16.5.’ Sergey’s like, “No, 16.7 or so.? And I’m like, “No, it’s actually like 16.58 maybe,’ and then of course, the answer is correct. So Sergey is sitting there thinking, like, ‘Wow, that was pretty cool.’”

One other consequence of Rosenberg’s departure:  a lot less profanity in executive meetings.  That guy had a mouth.   He was kind of like the Louis CK of Google.

Who will replace Jonathan Rosenberg?  Not clear now.  One possibility: Larry will claim he can do the job himself.