How Google Is Changing Advertising Agencies

Jeff Jarvis Suggests Asking "What Would Google Do?"

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In just a little over 10 years, Google has built a business that is impossible not to admire. In fact, its success begs the question: What would Google do (WWGD)?

Jeff Jarvis
Jeff Jarvis
Media pundit and thinker Jeff Jarvis tackles this question head on with a new book by the same title. In "What Would Google Do?," Jarvis breaks down Google's practices into 12 distinct rules and then applies them to aging industries like media and advertising.

I interviewed Jeff by e-mail on Google's model to get his thoughts.

Steve Rubel: Since you titled the book with a provocative question, I will start the same way. If Google were an ad agency, What Would Google Do? How would they run it?

Jeff Jarvis: I'd say we already know: Google is a new form of agency-as-platform.

As Publicis' Rishad Tobaccowala pointed out in my book, Google served an entirely new population of advertisers who didn't have agencies and that enabled it to set new rules. Google sells performance instead of scarcity (a lesson the rest of media must learn in this post-scarcity economy). Because it rewards relevance, it encourages better, more effective advertising.

Through search, Google enables any brand to speak with customers without advertising. Google still does business with the agencies, of course, because they hold the checkbook -- and that is delaying the tectonic change that will come to advertising as it has to music, newspapers, TV, and radio. It's coming.

Mr. Rubel: A book, however, is very un-Google, as you noted in several places throughout. It's ranking well on Amazon. How did you apply the lessons in WWGD to the way you wrote/marketed the book and what can digital marketers learn from your experience?

Mr. Jarvis: As I write this, the book is up in the 500 range (on Amazon) and, of course, I hope this Ad Age coverage gets it back up to at least 100!

I do confess that in seeking this old-media attention and in publishing an old-media book -- instead of just putting it all online, where it would be searchable, linkable, correctable -- I am a hypocrite. I did not eat my own dog food. Why? Because the book industry still works well enough to pay me an advance. Dog's gotta eat, you know.

My publisher, HarperCollins, is trying many new things. They had me produce a 23-minute, sitcom-length video version of the book. We put full text of the book online (in a widget that that Google can't search). I shared 30 days worth of excerpts on my blog. Most important, the book began on my blog a few years before it was published -- as I explored ideas there and got help, even an entire chapter, from my readers -- and the discussion continues there and in Twitter now (I love seeing readers tweet their reviews and quotes).

Steve Rubel
Photo: JC Bourcart
Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. He is senior VP-director of insights at Edelman Digital.

Where this should go: Readers should be able to buy access to an author's ideas in all media at once. I'm impressed that O'Reilly books offers a lifetime subscription to updates of its digital titles. By the way, I asked in my hardback edition whether the paperback should be ad supported; this wasn't met with a resounding yes.

Mr. Rubel: In the book you stress Google's relentless focus on the consumer. And you wonder whether focusing on the consumer over the client makes more sense. Isn't this what ad agencies already do? And if not, what needs to change?

Mr. Jarvis: In the book, I quote an Australian ad exec saying that agencies should pay attention to clients instead of consumers. Then I quote the ever-quotable Toboccawala saying that agencies should focus instead on their customers' customers. I'd vote for the latter. The real question is whether agencies -- ad or PR -- can truly act as consumers' advocates. If a company has great customer service, do customers need advocates?

Mr. Rubel: Are customer service and peer-to-peer advocacy the new advertising? And if so, how does that change the ad industry?

Mr. Jarvis: Advertising is failure.

If you have a great product or service customers sell for you and a great relationship with those customers, you don't need to advertise.

OK, that's going too far. There is still a need to advertise -- because customers don't know about your product or a change in it or because, in the case of Apple, you want to add a gloss to the product and its customers. But in the book, I suggest that marketers should imagine stopping all advertising and then ask where they would spend their first dollar.

In an age when competition and pricing are opened up online and when your product is your ad, you need to spend your first dollar on the quality of your product or service. If you're Zappos, you spend the next dollar on customer service and call that marketing. If the next dollar goes to advertising, there has to be a reason -- and if the product is good enough, that reason may fade away.

Mr. Rubel: You also talk a lot about transparency. Google, however, isn't the most transparent company. What does the ad industry need to change here?

Mr. Jarvis: Google is not perfect. It expects us all to be transparent -- so we can be found in search, so we can benefit from our Googlejuice. But Google is not sufficiently transparent about its ad splits or its Google News sources. So, as our parents would say, this may be a case of doing what Google says more than what it does.

Online, it only makes sense to be as open as possible, to have answers to every possible customer question online, to join in conversations with customers as people rather than institutions. Transparency leads to trust. Transparency is just good business.

Mr. Rubel: How does WWGD apply to b-to-b marketing?

Mr. Jarvis: Customers are customers, communities are communities. In the mass of niches, there's nothing to stop every community -- moms or plumbers or chemical engineers -- from joining together online and sharing their knowledge and interests. See the success of blogs such as TechCrunch and PaidContent with targeted B-to-B content, advertising, job boards, and events. In the highly specialized world of online media, B-to-B represents a big opportunity.

Mr. Rubel: If Google were a Super Bowl ad, what would it look like?

Mr. Jarvis: It wouldn't. Google does not treat us as a mass. And it has better ways to spend its money.

Mr. Rubel: Can advertising become a platform?

Mr. Jarvis: In a sense, Google is that. It provides the means for anyone to reach anyone, whether through ads or through their own sites and conversation. This, I believe, is Google's greatest lesson for media, advertising, marketers, as well as government: provide a platform for your customers and communities to succeed and you, too, will succeed.

Is that advertising? Well, if we redefine advertising, it might be. Most every company and brand can become platforms for their customers and except for the means to accomplish that, there's nothing new in this. A great company always helps its customers do what they want to do. That's a platform.

Mr. Rubel: What parts of the advertising assembly line (e.g. research, creative, media buying, PR, direct, digital, etc.) has the greatest risk of getting Googled or the greatest opportunity to become Googled -- and why?

Mr. Jarvis: Everything is changed by the Internet, and not just by Google, of course: We have more means to learn more about customers today than focus groups or certainly panels, ratings, and samples ever told us.

Customers make the best creative when and if they recommend and talk about products. Media buying, I believe, will morph into network creation; in a mass of niches, there's opportunity in curating those niches to create critical mass and that work is being done today not so much by agencies but by technology, media, and network companies. PR becomes everyone's business in a company, which must have direct relationships with the public, person-to-person. Direct? The Internet is direct and we're still not done with the argument over whether it is anything more.

Everything in marketing is changed.

Mr. Rubel: Finally, in the book you wrote that "The agency and the advertising need to get out of the way in the relationship between customers and companies." This seems like it's an endorsement for public relations -- if it's done in such a manner. Yet, you are sour on PR and lump its future as questionable with the legal profession. Why? And what needs to change?

Mr. Jarvis: Though they can and certainly do use the Internet to improve their businesses, PR and law can't take on all the attributes of the open age because they serve clients and thus can't be transparent or consistent. The true test of a firm's willingness to prove me wrong would be firing a client that doesn't act Googley. I don't see that happening often.

Having said that, I know what you're fishing for here: If -- in my radical oversimplification -- advertising is failure and relationships are everything, is PR in a better position strategically than advertising?

Well, maybe, but there is this: A company and its employees must cultivate direct relationships with customers and communities without middlemen. So what is the role of the PR agency? It can advise and goad a company to build those relationships. But then, like a good consultant, it needs to get out of the way, to leave. I doubt we'll see that, either. The economics of agencies are built on getting clients to spend more, of course. So the real question is whether new economic models can support both agencies and Googlethink.

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