When Google began recruiting agency execs in 2007, it had no reputation for marketing anything, much less itself. Andy Berndt was co-president of Ogilvy, New York, at the time, with no desire to leave. Robert Wong was creative director at Arnold Worldwide. "When they called me, it was an odd job description," Mr. Berndt said. "But it's like when a spaceship lands in your backyard, and the door opens. You just get in."
That spaceship became Google Creative Lab, responsible for marketing everything from Android and Chrome to Google Docs and the Nexus One, and even its core product -- the one that needs no marketing -- search. It's also defining what it means to be a creative professional inside a culture driven by scientists and engineers.
Google Lab's projects tend toward the lo-fi and emphasize brainy over glitzy, with one big, fat multimillion-dollar exception: "Parisian Love," the web video that Google placed during the 2010 Super Bowl. But even that was Google all the way. The video itself was created by a group of design students recruited to, among other things, "remind people what they love about Google search." But the end product had an added effect. "It summed up why we come to work every day," Mr. Berndt said. "People at Google were proud of it. It explained to people how we feel about what we do better than speeches or any PowerPoint could."
Google's traditional ethos is that the product "should win on it own merits." But the Super Bowl ad showed the founders are open to any idea, even if it means spending a few million to boost morale. "The expectation from the founders is how big you can think and what sort of insane impact can you have," Mr. Wong said. "For a creative person, you have a shot at doing for the Google brand what the engineers do for the Google brand."
The very first work created by Google Creative Lab was the familiar little green Android space robot, now a powerful symbol of Google's Android brand. But Android isn't about Google; it's meant to be repurposed by carriers and customized by users. Hence, earlier this year, an Android app, Androidify, which allows anyone to make themselves into a little green bot. That app soared to No. 1 in the Android Market.
Media spending is still tiny compared with other big consumer brands: only $11 million on measured ad spending in 2009 and $29 million in the first nine months of 2010, according to Kantar Media. (Verizon, by comparison, spent more than $3 billion in 2009.) Messrs. Berndt and Wong admit that after years of working on the biggest stages, going small is an adjustment. The Super Bowl ad was a one-off, which doesn't mean it won't happen again -- just that the Creative Lab's output is going to look more like the Arcade Fire video "The Wilderness Downtown," made to show the capabilities of HTML5, but also the possibilities for a music video. Viewers can input their own addresses (or the addresses of their childhood homes) and see images from the neighborhood integrated into the video.
"It lets you do things in a browser that makes it feel like that browser is your computer," Mr. Wong said. A demo video, sure, but wrapped in a bigger question: "Is this the future of the music video?"