Like many successful brands born of the digital age, Google hasn't traditionally been known for advertising, and certainly not TV advertising. So its appearance in this year's Super Bowl was something of a surprise. This is, you'll recall, the company whose founders vowed that it would be a cold day in hell before they'd do a TV commercial and whose chief executive has called advertising "the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America." What Jesus like figure at which of Google's ad agencies had converted the company to a big ticket TV ad advertiser? Had Google started to work with McGarry Bowen?
That Super Bowl spot, "Parisian Love," was created in-house, by the "Google 5," a handful of students recruited from ad and design schools. The 5 program is an experiment launched last year by the Google Creative Lab and its executive creative director, Robert Wong. The company sent a call out to 12 schools searching for interesting talent who would work inside the Creative Lab for a year, and then be sent out unto the industry. So, in the Google 5, Google gets new creative blood and the industry gets young talent that is schooled in the Google, and, by extension, the post-digital/new advertising way�tech forward, open source, collaborative, and smart.
Wong says the 5 initiative was motivated by two things: "getting fresh, awesome talent in the Creative Lab," and "fueling the ecosystem of the industry."
"It feels like every agency I talk to wants more digital expertise," says Wong. "I feel like there's always an unspoken, slight fear everyone has that they're a little bit behind. The thinking was that, hey we have great talent that can come in and play with all the tools here and then agencies will get people that feel confident about all the tools at their disposal. And of course it works for us because that way they know our tools and we can participate in the whole ecosystem."
Wong and the Lab team received around 400 applications for the 5 spots in the program. The original plan was to recruit a designer, an art director, a writer, a filmmaker and a programmer but after vetting the candidates, in a process Wong likens to "casting a reality show," the team selected two writers, Tristan Smith and J Smith, two designers, Anthony Cafaro and Jonathan Jarvis, and a programmer, Michael Chang.
The 5 stood out for being talented and "multidextrous" and, in some cases for their self-initiated creations; Jarvis wrote, directed an animated a web film called The Crisis of Credit Visualized, that explained the Wall St. meltdown in a simple, graphically compelling way and that's been viewed over a million times online; Smith, while nominally a writer impressed with a series of 3D photographs he created as a side project. But all demonstrated the key characteristic of, er, "Googliness," which Wong describes as an amalgam of "ambition, humility, altruism, entrepreneurialism, and sense of scale, big thinkers who feel like they can really impact a lot of people."
In June, 2009, the 5 arrived at Google and were immersed immediately in every project that the Lab had cooking and in the aggressively open, collaborative Google working style. "It wasn't like, OK, here's your little project and we'll work on the important things," says Jarvis. "They were like, we need minds on this problem, you guys come and work on it. So we were working on the same projects as the creative leads and working right alongside them; it was up to us to sink or swim, and to contribute as much as we could."
Within the group and in the larger Lab environment, "there's very little screen privacy," laughs Cafaro. "There was always someone over your shoulder saying, 'ooh, what if we tried this.'" Fresh out of school, the 5 noted that this kind of collaborative environment was a significant change from their experiences to date. "I think ad school trained you a lot of be very competitive, there's this kind of killer instinct they try and create in you, " says Tristan Smith. "You're always pitching your work against teams. I sort of had to reprogram myself here."
The 5 ended up working on a wide range of projects, from launching the Nexus phone - contributing to all facets of the product including packaging, pre-roll ads on Hulu and the boot-up animation on the phone � to the Google Christmas card ("everything here scales!" says Smith).
And, of course, search.
What eventually became "Parisian Love" and a Super Bowl hit, started out as a key Google brief, to "remind people what they love about Google search" but also to showcase some engine particulars they might not know about. "There were all these features that the engineers showed me that I think no one really knew about, like being able to type your flight number right into the search bar without going to an airline's site," says Wong. "So it was about showing people how they could search in other ways and how empowering that could be." Wong says several different ideas were floated until something caught�the idea that it wasn't just one search and one answer, but a lifetime of searches. The 5 team ran with the idea of a search as representative of a moment in a life. They were inspired by Wong's maxim that "the best results don't show up in a search engine, they show up in your life," and, says Cafaro, a short film called The Last Daydream, by Chris Milk.
The team worked to keep the idea pared down, to keep the resulting spot "like theater of the mind," and presented it to the search marketing team. Wong says "everyone loved it and wanted to share it." The spot appeared online in late 2009. It was an engineer who originally suggested putting the ad on the Super Bowl. "For Google, it's a crazy idea," says Wong. "At the end of the day, the founders loved the spot and they were excited by the idea of more people getting to see it. It was a one off, it was random. But it was surprising and that's what made it so cool."
The tenure of the original 5 came to an end this June, at which time the Lab ended up hiring Tristan Smith, Cafaro and Jarvis. J. Smith got a job at Wieden + Kenendy Portland and Chang is a free agent programmer who recently created the much discussed "Google Doodle" that augured the September launch of Google Instant and is currently working on projects for Barnes & Noble.
Up next: another group of "talented and nice" polymaths that includes Grant Gold, a designer, out of School of Visual Arts, Chris Trumbull and Natalie Hammel, writers from VCU, George Michael Brower, a technologist from UCLA Design Media Arts and Chris Lauritzen, a designer/"wild card" from Art Center College of Design's Media Design program.
Wong says the fresh 5 have been thrown into a range of projects covering search, Google TV, Chrome and other undisclosed ventures. Like their predecessors, the new recruits have been struck, as Gold notes, by "how ideas are allowed to just roam around with limitless possibility." "The Lab is very flat and open," says Lauritzen, "which gives it a kind of chaos that can feel a little overwhelming at times. It's also what makes it such a cool place to be, especially for someone learning how the creative industry works. There is a lot of amazing stuff going on, and its' all accessible."
Already, Brower has contributed to one of the creative highlights of the year, the stunning interactive video The Wilderness Downtown, a collaboration between director Chris Milk and Google's Aaron Koblin, The Lab, B-Reel, @radical.media and designer/developer mr. doob.
The Arcade Fire coup and the Super Bowl spot are part of a growing body of work out of the Lab created in collaboration with an array of partners, agency and otherwise. The Lab built on the success of "Parisian Love" with more Search Stories, working with Pixar to create a Toy Story 3-themed spot and launching a web tool allowing the public to create their own search story. Much of the Lab's recent work has centered on the Chrome browser. In May, the group worked with BBH New York on "Speed Tests," which pit the browser against the likes of sound waves and a potato gun-fired potato in a series real-time, in-camera demonstrations.
It's an admirable track record for a creative entity just three years old. Former Ogilvy co-president Andy Berndt was recruited in September 2007 to build the new unit; Wong, an ex Arnold ECD and VP Creative at Starbucks joined in 2008. But this is Google after all, so when Wong tells you the ultimate goal for the Lab is to "win the Nobel Peace Prize," both of you can keep a straight face.
The Lab is now a 50-person unit, working closely with Google marketing and with a growing roster of agencies including BBH, Cutwater and Johannes Leonardo among others. Wong offers a long and a short version of the Lab's mandate. "The Google Creative Lab is a small team that strives to rethink marketing across every kind of media, currently existing or not�with Google as its sole client. Our mission is to 'remind the world what it is that they love about Google.' Our job is to manage and steward the brand, find new ways to communicate the company's innovations, intentions and ideals, and do work of which we can all be proud. We want people ambitious and crazy enough to think we can actually change the world." The short version: "Do epic shit."
The part about reminding people why they love Google, though, can be considered one of today's more interesting brand challenges; to take a company that was built on, whose name represents one thing�search�and build that brand persona as the company expands in size and scope�and occasionally scares people. "It's human nature to root for the underdog," says Wong. "When you become successful, it's about how do you exceed people's expectations. That is a brand challenge now, to make sure the brand lives up to how awesome the original thing was."
Even if the Nobel Prize remains elusive, the Lab can successfully claim to be creating a new template for the creative process as much as it's creating work to burnish the Google brand.
The Lab, says Wong, seeks to provide a means of translating what made Google products successful, the things that guide the engineers � intense focus on the consumer and user experience, flat operating structure, focus on prototyping and on an iterative process, scale and tech innovation� and apply them to the marketing process. "We push our agency partners to be like us.. to collaborate at an unnatural 'vulcan mind meld' level," says Wong. If he could push further, industry wide, Wong says it would be toward "more listening, less talking; more feeling, less thinking, more doing, less promising, more inventing, less polishing."
The Lab's agency partners won't say its approach makes things easier, exactly, but that it does tend to foster better work. Calle and Pelle Sjoenell, ECDs at BBH say working with the Lab is less a client/agency relationship and more a co-development process between peers. "You feel like you're working with yourself," says Calle Sjoenell. "They are not really a client, it's more like we are one agency together. It's a tough process because there are so many smart people involved. But you get to be your best."
The Five pictured above (l.) Tristan Smith, J. Smith, Anthony Cafaro, Michael Chang and Johnathan Jarvis. Photo credit: Erin Mulvehill. Shot at the Blind Barber in New York's Alphabet City.