In the nearly three years since I joined Google India, I’ve lost track of the number of times people have asked me what I do.
(And no, the designation doesn’t seem to help.)
I’ve also been asked, several times, about what it’s like for a creative director to move to the client side in a brand role.
And that’s why I thought it was time for a blog post to answer these questions and satisfy the world’s curiosity. And, as is my wont, to offer $0.02 worth of gyaan that may help you if you’re contemplating a similar decision.
(At this point, I suggest you step out for a bio-break, or a cup of coffee. This is going to be a #longread.)
“How did you get into Google?”
My journey to this point began more than two years before I actually joined Google. When I was working as Creative Head at Jack In The Box Worldwide, back in 2011.
I’ve been (and remain) a longtime Google and Android fan. I was among those who wept when Google Reader was shuttered; among those who found a reason to use Google Wave and other awesome Google services; and a very vocal advocate of Android.
I also followed Google’s creative work closely. Especially the awesome interactive experiences that the folks at Google Creative Lab built – cultural experiences built atop products, which made me fall in love with the brand all over again.
One night in bed, faffing on my laptop, I started chatting with my wife about how Google would be the one client I would kill to join. And about how perhaps they could use an agency Creative Director to help build great integrated marketing campaigns for the India market. On a lark, we navigated over to google.com/jobs – and was blown away to find that there was an opening for a similar role in Singapore.
With complete excitement, I swiftly polished up my CV and uploaded it to the job listing, said a prayer and called it a night.
And completely forgot about it for the next two years.
Cut to November 2013. I’m prowling the halls of a Delhi hospital, nursing my father-in-law. And an email from a Google recruiter pops up in my inbox. It seemed they had a role open in India, and my CV had come up in their database.
My first phone call, purely for screening, happened the next day from the hospital. I was then connected with a recruiter for a more serious conversation – the ball was rolling.
Nine interviews later – nine gruelling, thought-provoking and absolutely amazing conversations later – I bid adieu to home, Bombay. And the wife and I winged our way to Gurgaon, where we’ve been ever since.
“So what exactly do you do there?”
The role I was hired to play was a new one altogether for Google. So, I don’t hesitate to admit that it took me – and my colleagues – quite some time to figure out how to make it work. I walked in expecting to work like an in-house Creative Director. With the kind of responsibilities that an agency Creative Director bears. But I was mistaken. My designation – Brand Lead – pushes the in-house Creative Director envelope quite a bit further. And goes beyond a traditional brand marketing role, too.
I head up Brand & Creative Marketing for Google India, and am hence responsible for any and all creative work for Google India. This includes, primarily, our marketing campaigns. It’s my job to work with Product Marketing Managers to tell great stories for our products and initiatives, across every medium possible. TV ads, YouTube videos, digital, social, traditional media…you name it.
Apart from being as creatively strong as possible, it’s on me to make sure that the work we do is “on-brand”. That it reflects Google’s core values; that it looks, feels and sounds Google; and that it accurately reflects our brand mission of helping make information universally accessible and useful.
I lead the thinking on our social media strategy. I lead our creative agency relationships, identifying great partners to work with and managing them end-to-end. And, lastly, I look after a bunch of special projects that fall under Brand Marketing.
A lot of this sounds like a regular Creative Director job, I know. But here’s the difference:
I haven’t been hired to write the scripts, or craft the copy. That’s the job of our agencies. My job, as I see it, is to set the parameters, create the sandbox, in which our agencies can play. To be a bridge between us and them, thus guiding and shaping the work in a fluid, fast-moving environment. And, if ever needed, to put on my copywriter hat and work side-by-side with them.
There are several aspects to this. One: I work very closely on the brief. Making sure it’s clear, contextual, single-minded and inspiring. Trying to foresee the kind of work it will lead to. Two: I bring our different agencies (brand, digital, social) together to build a campaign that’s not just 360°, but truly integrated. Three: I work to make sure our brand and products are being depicted correctly. Four: At the risk of sounding immodest, I try to keep the benchmark high, pushing our agencies to consistently deliver work that’s truly worthy of Google.
The big difference that a creative person can make inside a client org is to bring creative agency knowledge into a client institution. It means that, as a team, we now have a better understanding of how a particular brief or feedback will impact the end product, with lesser room for miscommunication and misunderstanding. This leads us to sharpen our briefs, consolidate and hone our feedback, leading to better work, with fewer iterations.
I’d like to think I’ve also helped ensure that we’ve avoided the “agency v/s client” mindset that occasionally creeps into client minds, by being a bridge to and supporter of our agencies.
“Sounds great. What does it take to succeed at the role?”
Every person who takes on this kind of role is going to tackle it differently. I don’t believe one size fits all, but this is how I tried to make it work for me.
Your first priority should be to understand the organisation. Ad agency structures are pretty simple, and one always knows who one’s stakeholders are. It’s a lot more complicated at a client, especially one with the scale of Google.
Leadership isn’t about dictating a way forward; it’s about taking everyone forward together. Be a team player. Try to take your peers along. Most marketing managers don’t have the inside knowledge on how agencies and advertising work that you do. Few have been to a shoot. Few have built large-scale campaigns. Make them your friends and allies. Take the time to explain your point of view. Consult them for input on the work you’re doing, and take feedback constructively, making sure everyone’s on the same page from the start. It isn’t always easy, but I’ve learned that it will save me time, money and heartache on every single project.
Great work depends humongously on the people doing it. One of the things I’m grateful for is having great partners to work with. They’re worth their weight in gold. The best agencies bring a great mix of humility and self-confidence to the relationship, are open to feedback, and willing to fight to see a good idea come to life. They learn from their mistakes, and are committed to helping you learn from yours. They’re keen for me and my team to learn and contribute more to the advertising process. And, most importantly, they’re not assholes.
The converse of this is that you need to really support your agencies. Be honest and transparent. Don’t shy away from glowing praise or constructive criticism. Stand up for them when I know they have a great idea, no matter what the opposition. Help them navigate the organisation. Don’t conduct business just over email and the phone. And pay them fairly – it’s the only way they’ll be able to give you the work that you want.
Expect to stretch yourself in ways that you never have. On my first project, I handled everything, including deliveries to media. I negotiate with agencies, and draft their contracts. Not quite what an agency creative director is used to, but par for the course on the client-side.
The most important thing, though, is this: let go of your ego. Every creative person worth their salt has an ego, probably well-deserved. You have to realise that you’re surrounded by smart people who know their business better than you. And that you’re working with agencies (and creative icons) that collectively have far more wisdom than you alone. Be open-minded. Walk into office every day believing that there is someone else out there who can bring a new perspective and make your work better. It’ll help you get the best out of your agencies, and keep you from competing with them.
“Do you think I should also shift client-side?”
There isn’t a black-and-white answer to this. And there are several things to consider, notably the difference between working in an agency and on the client-side.
The first thing most people ask me is about the work-life balance. Truthfully, even though we work really hard, it’s been better for me than in my agency days. Even a 9-5 day is intense, simply because we go without the Counter-Strike breaks that agency folks take – and need to, frankly! That changes when we’re neck-deep in a launch, when my team and I work the same long hours as our agencies.
I’ve also been asked if I miss coming up with ideas and writing scripts. Well, I’m still coming up with ideas. All the time. It just happens before the brief, rather than after. I begin most projects with a mindmap full of cross-platform ideas, which we then build upon together. And I have occasionally put on my creative hat to help our agencies crack an idea or craft a script, so I do stay in touch with the trade I’ve learnt over the last 16 years.
The one slight doubt I had, which has disappeared over time, is this. Most agency creatives enjoy working on a variety of categories and brands, rather than just one. I did too. You learn a lot more than you would working on one category. And can implement successful ideas from one category for another too. You won’t get this freedom if you move client side. But, if you work for a company with as varied products and initiatives as Google, you do have a wide variety of things to work on.
Doubts and questions aside, I think you should just ask yourself one thing.
If there is a brand that you’re truly passionate about; whose purpose you truly believe in; whose products you’d publicly defend to the death; for whom you’ve secretly been coming up with portfolio ads; you may have found the client-side gig you’re looking for.
I know I’ve found mine.
As always, the views expressed here are personal and not intended to reflect those of my employer.