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.

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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.”

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