Kara Swisher recently mentioned IFL in her column on All Things Digital. A nice plug, though Kara doesn't remember me from her days covering Google's startup phase. I'm not surprised. The press rarely got face time with Googlers who were not designated spokespeople. Our PR team, led by my boss Cindy McCaffrey, kept a tight rein on all communications, which meant that initially Larry and Sergey were the only public faces of Google. Other names joined the list of approved representatives over the years: Matt Cutts to address the webmaster community, Alan Eustace to talk about engineering recruiting efforts, and Marissa Mayer to speak on issues related to the look and functionality of Google.com.
We didn't talk about marketing at all. We wanted everyone to believe that Google had grown entirely by word of mouth rather than through promotion. That was largely true, though not entirely. I talk about the philosophy behind that approach and some of the marketing efforts we did put in place in IFL. Basically, Larry and Sergey didn't like paid advertising and distrusted those who tried to use anything other than objective data to convince people to act in a certain way. To make sure I didn’t travel that wicked path, Larry told me the Parable of the Pompon.
Shortly after the company formed, Larry decided to promote Google to an audience he believed open to messages about better ways to search. He paid a service to distribute cheerleading pompons imprinted with the Google logo at a Stanford football game. A local ad executive admonished him that the promotion was ill-conceived. Clearly, he told Larry, the fledgling search engine needed professional marketing help.
“Look at this,” the ad man said, pointing at the black and white Google logo printed on the pompons. “This doesn’t represent your brand very well and it doesn’t make your company seem very professional.”
As Larry told me this story, his normally calm demeanor gave way to agitation. “Who says the logo needs to be in color?” Larry demanded. “How can there be a ‘professional’ way to make a pompon?” The very notion that these things mattered enough to waste time discussing them seemed to frustrate him enormously. Marketing was not science – it was just – marketing. He had no faith that outside practitioners knew any more than he did about how to build the company’s awareness and he didn't trust those who made it their life's work to pursue the marketing arts. I often suspected Larry's views were based on observation of prominent industry figures such as Larry Tate and Darren Stevens. He just didn't see much value in my chosen profession. That made my role as marketing manager an exciting exercise in tightrope walking over an active mine field.
Sergey felt the same way. My group once created some sales collateral for our advertising program that featured stock images of happy, smiling business people, along with actual quotes from real advertisers lauding our system. Sergey was outraged.
"Either use photos of the real advertisers, or don't use any photos at all," he told me. It was morally repugnant to him to deceive potential clients by misrepresenting our current advertising base. Clearly we were ethically challenged to even propose such a thing, though in my experience it was standard practice.
Eventually we reached an uneasy peace with our founders about the role of marketing, but it took years. And from what I hear, things swung the other way soon after I left in 2005. I've been told there were three reorganizations of the marketing group in that time, with the latest change an attempt to get back to the way things were before the first restructuring.
Clearly Larry was correct. Marketing is NOT a science, because if it were, Google would have undoubtedly mastered it by now.