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Google Creative Lab
Do something epic

by Sam McMillan

Yes, they are called Googlers. They sprawl on couches. They work undisturbed on laptops, soaking in the sun pouring in from the enormous south-facing windows in a two-story loft on the sixteenth floor of the old Port Authority building in Manhattan. They gorge on free snacks. They call their billionaire bosses by their first names. They get the best, newest, coolest tech toys straight from the Google mothership. Google Glass, Google Voice, Google Now. Google+ Hangouts. Chrome Mobile. They use the word “magic” a lot.

Despite the corporate giant that has their backs, they act like a startup. Etched in the glass doors that separate the office from the open foyer is the slogan “All my shit’s online.” On the glass walls of the conference room, engineers graffitied a flow chart with “Submit to ideas” and “Get reminded it’s now” connected in a multi-colored crazy quilt of boxes and arrows. A framed poster depicts an astronaut in an extraterrestrial landscape with the slogan “Teach on Mars.”

Their job descriptions are fluid. The first day on the job a new Googler might be told to get to work with the sketchiest of instructions, acknowledges vice president and founder of Google Creative Lab Andy Berndt. “I’ll tell them, ‘Meet this person in this conference room at this time. Good luck.’ And, as their boss, I have no idea what the room contains or what they’ll come up with.”

At Google Creative Lab, creative is as creative does. The office door (above) explains where the action is,
while inside, employees spend 99.9 percent of their time comping (below).

What they are coming up with is some of the most interesting, emotionally satisfying and technically audacious marketing and advertising produced today. From the How It Feels video that announced Google Glass to an unsuspecting world (and seems destined to make “OK Glass” a catchphrase of its time), to the Parisian Love commercial that inaugurated Google’s first Super Bowl ad for Google Search, Google Creative Lab efforts rack up millions of hits on YouTube, and win best-ad-of-the-year awards year in, year out. Its marketing for Google Search is so unashamedly emotional that a box of tissues is required for viewing. Its foray into print, seemingly tossed off with a Sharpie, won a million dollars in free ad space. When they aren’t framing their awards, the people at Google Creative Lab develop interactive games, visualize big data fly-throughs of the galaxy, or enable crowdsourced animation projects that get exhibited in London’s Tate Modern.

When it comes to a big company that makes advertising that looks small, perhaps no one does a better job than Google. “We want to connect with people in a big way,” chief creative Robert Wong says. Case in point: Parisian Love, one of the first broadcast commercials to come out of Google Creative Lab. It was based on an innovative idea, Berndt jokes, “Boy meets girl.”
Deploying a simple sequence of screen grabs, and a cursor typing text into a search box, Parisian Love takes viewers on an emotional journey via one search term after another. We follow along as an American moves to France to study abroad, learns the language, meets a woman, finds a church, gets married and then searches for instructions on how to build a crib, accompanied in the final seconds by the sound of a baby laughing.

“It was made on the cheap,” Wong says. “We showed it to Larry, Sergey and Eric. They said, ‘Let’s put it on the Super Bowl.’ It was 56 seconds long. Who makes a 56-second commercial? We had to slow down the final version to fit the format.”

Google Creative Lab could have made an instructional video on how to use Google Search, Wong says. “Instead, we bake the broccoli into the cupcake.” Baking a broccoli cupcake is exactly what Google Creative Lab did for Dear Sophie, an ad for Google Chrome that in a scant 90 seconds introduces users to the wonders of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Picasa, YouTube and Google Search, simply by following along as an expectant father types messages into a form field or a search box, then adds photos and videos of his daughter’s birth and childhood. Accompanied by a tinkling piano track and the clattering of a keyboard, the ad tugs the heartstrings so hard it opens the tear ducts.

Despite what Berndt says about going into a room completely unprepared, there is a method to creating the groundbreaking work coming from the sixteenth floor. Berndt says the work produced by Google Creative Lab is informed by a strategy he calls, “‘Jump to the end.’ In other words, how quickly can you get to the ending? That’s not intellectual laziness. That’s compression.”

Or as Wong explains, “We lead by comping. Ideally, we spend 99.9 percent of our time making four things: We make posters, videos, mock-ups and prototypes.” For example, the 2011 crowdsourced documentary Life in a Day began as a video comp. Instead of a dense creative brief or a 20-slide PowerPoint deck, someone created a video to “encapsulate the big systematic idea.” When people saw the trailer that read, “Life in a Day, a film produced by Ridley Scott. Shot by you,” it made the idea tangible, so people could react to it. Then the hard work of actually making it real began. And yes, Ridley Scott signed on to produce.

Jumping to the end is “an intensely creative act,” says executive creative director Iain Tait. “It’s not simply making it up. Jumping to the end requires an incredible amount of fast rigor combined with optimism to make something that, in the end, will be amazing.” And Google Glass portends to be nothing short of amazing. To introduce Google Glass, Google Creative Lab made a video to jump to the ending. While Glass was still on the lab bench, filmmaker Tu Uthaisri picked up a camcorder and made a film called One Day that shows what a day might be like behind Google Glass. Instead of explaining all the cool things Google Glass could do, the video simply lets people understand how it would feel to wear the device.

Berndt says the project began from the creative direction: “I don’t want to see the world through a computer. I want to see the world,” and then “worked backward to the form factor. If we can imagine it, we can make a rudimentary video of it.” McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at