Making a dent in the universe
Google Creative Lab’s Steve Vranakis explains why creatives are best suited to making the world a better place.
Creatives are, by their nature, the right people to make the world better.
That was the premise of Steve Vranakis’ address to the Dubai Lynx, when he spoke about “creative activism”. When
Campaign quizzes the executive creative director of Google’s Creative Lab after his talk, he repeats this assertion.
“I feel we are sort of best positioned to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems,” he says. “The theme of my talk is: I believe that we are much more powerful than we think we are – we need to give ourselves more credit – and that we are at the most very basic natural-born problem-solvers.”
The industry spends most of its days earning a crust by solving challenges for brands, he says. “But by the same token we can apply that thinking to tackling some of the world’s biggest problems, whether they are social, economic or environmental.”
Although such altruism has been around for a while, now it is coming more into the spotlight, says Vranakis, who maintains doing good can be more than corporate social responsibility. CSR was seen as “that thing on the side that you had to do to make it look like you were making some sort of a contribution positively”.
“What’s happening now,” he adds, “Is that brands are seeing it as much more integral to their business. They are seeing the new millennial generation and mindset who actually care that brands are doing these type of things.”
This also encourages companies to highlight the good they do. “People are shouting a lot more about the types of things they are doing because they genuinely believe in why they are doing them.”
And Creative Lab is leading by example.
It is a sort of hands-on think tank embedded within Google, and Vranakis says the commercially aligned work includes advertising. His team launched the Pixel Android phone last year; it launched the Home device, and the web browser Chrome. But that is not all the Lab does. “Throughout our entire organisation, the global leadership team is quite transparent with the objectives the company wants to deliver against,” says Vranakis. “It is very transparent and very open. There is a huge culture of trust, and they are very trusting with what we want to do and why we want to do it.”
This may manifest itself in different ways in different product areas and different regions, but it comes from “this big united approach”.
“My day-to-day remit is we will look for opportunities as to how we deliver against these OKRs [objectives and key results],” says Vranakis. “You can see the sort of thing that we are supporting: it’s the different types of product areas, the different types of initiative, and that sort of thing that we will be supporting. My group in the Creative Lab, specifically, will look at interesting, innovative, experimental ways of bringing these to life. And then we will look at how we scale them.”
In the London-based Lab, half of the team’s time is spent on commercial, revenue-driving work, and the other half, he says, “is much more around the brand and the reputational-type work, which is as important. They become part
“People are shouting a lot more about the types of things they are doing because they genuinely believe in why they are doing them.”
and parcel, and you would struggle to do one without the other.”
He describes the Creative Lab team as “a bunch of creative people who work across Google brands”. He says: “We are trying to make a bit of a dent in the universe.”
This dent is made with projects such as Inside Abbey Road, which uses virtual reality (a smart phone tucked into an inexpensive Google Cardboard headset) to let anyone see inside the iconic London recording studio. Project Jacquard was announced last month at South by Southwest, and uses conductive fibers woven into clothing so your denim jacket can act as a touch screen. The team has brought dinosaur fossils to life.
And it has followed a “technology for everyone” philosophy (Vranakis admits that when he uses the word “democratisation” he sounds pretentious) to get tens of thousands of Indian women online, partnering with the Tata conglomerate to transport web devices to remote rural villages in India using bicycles.
While Vranakis is quick, in that almost cult-like Silicon Valley way, to credit “the company delivering against what we honestly believe in,” he also says that a rigorously structured approach to projects is another key to their success, or at least to their worth.
“You hear these clichés about taking the fear out of failure and all that sort of thing, and I don’t have anything against that,” he says. “But if you are running a business and you are accountable to people, it’s not that easy to say oh, it failed, no biggie, let’s just write that off.”
If a project does fail, take learnings from it nonetheless. “It’s a very controlled sort of process, and the whole idea of how you prototype is that you will never have gotten into it so much that it massively exposed you.”
“It’s less about being rejected,” he says. “We embark on a journey through this making process, where we get to something very quickly. Throughout that process, usually within a week, or two weeks maximum, we will see very quickly if it works or if we can validate that proof of concept.”
So there are plenty of ideas that don’t get finished. “We are able to drop things at a moment in time when they won’t have a massive implication because the process is managed,” he says. “And because we are approaching them in the right way.”