Why Google Seems to Favor Small Shops

Though Tech Titan Insists 'Size Is Irrelevant,' the Newest Shop in the Plex Is Little-Known Agency Muhtayzik/Hoffer

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- With a brain trust of thousands, a bank account of billions and an insatiable appetite for acquisition, the Google beast is growing more gargantuan by the day. But for a company that's got "plexes" instead of offices and has spent years wooing business from adland's biggest players, when it comes to the marketing of its own products and services, Google thinks tiny.

For years, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company wasn't much of what Madison Avenue would call a client. It occasionally tapped small ad agencies, like Naked Communications and the now-defunct Toy, but wasn't one to ask for much outside help. While most of its advertising today is birthed in the Google Creative Lab, led by former agency executives Andy Berndt and Robert Wong, the company readily admits it's leaning more than ever on outside agencies.

Since late 2009, it's handed a ton of promotional work for the Chrome browser to Bartle Bogle Hegarty, but is also entrusting marketing projects to many smaller outfits, like Johannes Leonardo and Big Spaceship out of New York and Cutwater, Goodness Mfg. and Muhtayzik/Hoffer on the West Coast.

The last, a San Francisco-based shop with just 20 staffers that represents one of the newest additions to Google's agency roster, was unknown -- even in ad circles -- until September when it released a video to promote Google Mobile and location search for GPS-enabled devices. Dubbed "extremely bizarre" by Mashable, the online ad featured a man uttering the word "pizza" over and over again.

Taking a route different from rivals
Google's strategy of cherry-picking a variety of small agencies for work contrasts with the strategy of its competitors in search. Microsoft's Bing and Yahoo spend millions in measured-media dollars a year with established agencies like WPP's JWT and Omnicom Group-owned Goodby Silverstein & Partners, respectively. Google's overall measured media spending is relatively low, with the bulk of its advertising appearing on Google's own properties. But it is rising. Though the company spent a total of $11 million on U.S. measured media in 2009, in the first nine months of 2010 that number more than doubled to $26 million, according to Kantar Media.

Google the marketer would rather not be pigeonholed as having a fetish for small shops. That could be because after years of trying to convince Madison Avenue that it is their friend, Google the media company has made serious headway, striking up strategic relationships with agencies and holding companies such as Publicis Group and Omnicom Media Group. Google's agency team -- which is largely focused on befriending and working on ad solutions with the ad community -- has grown to 100-strong under Torrence Boone, former CEO of Enfatico, the agency built under WPP to service Dell.

"We work with agencies of all sizes," Mr. Wong, the executive creative director of Google Creative Lab, told Ad Age. " What matters is that the people, the work and how the work gets done is a good fit with our unique Google culture. And as we do more work, we're continuing to look for more agencies to help."

Google as a client
While the agencies contacted for this piece declined to comment because of client confidentiality, a few ad execs familiar with the Google account revealed what the search giant is like on the client side of the table. In short? Demanding but very collaborative, and let's just say not the biggest tipper.

"They don't want agency-client relationships in any traditional sense," said one executive familiar with Google. For one thing, its briefing process is different; agencies don't work in a creative vacuum and then return to present a dog and pony show of creative ideas. Rather, "sometimes agencies spend a few days there and it's really collaborative," this person said. "It's unlike other clients because of their capabilities internally."

Agencies who work with Google these days are also tasked with behind-the-scenes work, and might have the chance to help the company develop products and shape platforms and user experiences. And for that reason, too, a smaller shop may make sense. For secretive Google, the fewer folks privy to the next big project it's plotting, the better.

Despite the search giant's size, it moves like a startup -- so smaller, more nimble partners tend to have an easier time keeping up. And with the notable exception of that Super Bowl spot last year (bought with the help of Horizon Media, a smaller, indie shop), Google doesn't spend much on advertising, so a bigger shop isn't likely to devote the same resources a smaller one might.

Much of the stuff Google has been selling so far is essentially free to consumers, and the most important component of any creative advertising, said another executive, "is about making [Google's products] accessible and easy to understand ... you don't have to spend a lot of money on that."

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