Sunday, April 10, 2011

A public disagreement

I'm about halfway through Steven Levy's excellent book on Google, "In the Plex," and enjoying it very much. He obviously did his homework and he drills down into topics I skipped in IFL, like the sunsetting of our premium ads system and the development of PHIL, the artificial intelligence system behind AdSense. I'm learning things I didn't know, even though I worked at Google at the time. There are, however, a few areas Steven and I both glossed over that I can expand on a bit. For example, on page 76, Steven mentions Larry and Sergey talked about underwriting programs on NPR in 1999, and concludes, "...thus began a long history of public radio sponsorship." Well, yes, but there's more to the story.

Public broadcasting was an obvious promotional choice for Google. Larry and Sergey liked supporting worthwhile endeavors related to science and information. On the other hand they believed paid advertising was (a) ineffective, (b) unmeasurable, and (c) obnoxious. The felt the same about sponsorship of sporting events, which didn't stop the calls from event producers, TV salespeople, and pro and semi-pro athletes in every area from surfing to soccer. The most persistent calls came from one particular group.

"Hiya Doug," the drawling calls would begin. "I hear you folks have a real fast search engine over there. Ya'll know, we have some pretty fast engines over here too . I think Google would be a perfect match for BillyBobJimDale's NASCAR team. Think how you all's logo would look moving around the track on the hood of his car at 200 M.P.H."

I didn't bother asking Larry if he wanted to consider it. His idea of an automotive sponsorship was to give $10,000 to the Stanford Solar Car development project. They pasted a barely visible Google logo decal on the side of their rolling science project. Later, we broadly expanded our automotive sponsorship program to include Carnegie Mellon's robot car entry in the 2004 DARPA Grand challenge. That got Larry thinking about new product possibilities that might someday make NASCAR obsolete.

Just as we didn't do sports, we didn't buy TV ads. No Superbowl spot for us. But tasteful announcements on Morning Edition or a nice logo on NOVA would not only let people know we were hiring engineers, but would reinforce the idea that Google -- and its founders -- possessed an erudite intellectual attitude toward marketing. I liked that idea from a branding standpoint and included it in my first marketing plan, because it let us distinguish ourselves from our competition by NOT spending money on the traditional venues companies used to garner attention. And it made it easy for me to just say "no" instead of enduring longwinded pitches and powerpoint presentations about hospitality tents on the 6th tee at Pebble Beach.

I was the point person for all our contacts with public broadcasting, because having spent more than five years at San Francisco public radio/TV station KQED, I had some experience in how member-supported media worked. It didn't work the way Larry and Sergey expected, which led to frustration for them, for me, and for the underwriting executives with whom I was negotiating.

I began talking with NPR about sponsorship in early 2000. They proposed a package around their highest rated shows: Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Car Talk. The problems began with finding wording that would pass their review process. They wouldn't let us mention we crawled a billion web pages because according to their research, that was half of the entire Internet and thus too bold a claim -- it would make us stand out from other search engines by comparison and comparative language in underwriting credits was verboten. Okay. Well, at least we could have some fun with our Car Talk language right? Something like, "Google. A fast, clean engine for online searching. Never needs a tune up."

No. No comparative language also meant we couldn't claim to be fast, accurate, or relevant. And since we had asked, no we couldn't include glowing testimonial quotes from newspapers or magazines.

We could say something dry and lifeless like, "Google, a search engine for finding information on the Internet from computers and wireless devices." We ended up with a variation of that, but no one at Google was thrilled with it. Larry and Sergey thought the rules regarding acceptable language were unduly restrictive and Larry mentioned that to NPR president Kevin Klose when he came by for a visit in 2003. Klose was interested in learning how NPR might take better advantage of new technology and wanted to encourage Google to dedicate resources, if not cash, to help them embrace the future. I was in the room as Larry gave him an earful.

What NPR should do, Larry told Klose, was make it possible to start listening to a program in the house, pause it as you walked out the door, and then start listening again from the same point when you got in your car. And they should make it easy to accelerate playback of broadcasts. It was painful to listen to all the long, thoughtful pauses during their programming. Larry recorded the programs he liked and played them back at double speed and thus improved the efficiency of his information intake by a factor of two. I don't know what Klose had expected to hear from us, but I don't think it was that.

By that point in Google's history, our hunger for engineering talent had become all-consuming. To figure out where we might find talent like that already inhabiting our cube farms, I surveyed our engineering employees, asking what media outlets they tuned to. Unsurprisingly public radio news programing was high on the list. More than half of the engineers listened to Morning Edition or All Things Considered. Third on the list with 36% was the NPR quiz show, "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." (WWDTM ). So it seemed like a match made in heaven when NPR offered us a sweet deal to become exclusive sponsor of that show. I loved the idea. WWDTM was quick, funny, and news-based and NPR told me the show's producers used Google to research their quiz questions.

Unfortunately, Larry was not a fan. "I just think the information content is low," he told me. Well, yeah. It was a quiz show, not the BBC World Service. More surprising to me was that Sergey agreed. He didn't listen to NPR for entertainment, just news. I argued that the empirical data from the survey made it clear we should move ahead anyway, but even in a data-driven company, it was the founders' prerogative to ignore data they didn't happen to like. It was a great opportunity that I had to turn down.

Soon after, Sergey had me go after another great public broadcasting opportunity, but that one turned us down. Our founders were big fans of NOVA, the PBS science show. It was content rich and very much aligned with our brand as a company that relied on science to improve its products. I asked a PBS rep how much it would cost to be one of the three national sponsors of NOVA. The cost was $2.3 million and they happened to have one slot left. I told Sergey.

"So NOVA gets $2.3 million in sponsorship, divided among the three sponsors?" he asked me.

"No. It's $2.3 million each." That might have been a deal breaker, but it turned out the deal was already broken. The other two sponsors already in place were Sprint and Microsoft. When Microsoft heard we were asking about sponsorship, they exercised their right to block us because we were a competitor. They had been blocked previously by another company and now they were doing it to us. That didn't sit well with Sergey.

"There seems to be something rotten in the notion that Microsoft could block our sponsorship," he complained. It was anti-democratic and didn't fit his notion of the public part of public broadcasting. Besides, in 2003 we weren't directly competing with Microsoft. Okay, maybe a little with MSN search. Sergey wondered if maybe we should push back. The PBS bureaucrats might think it was OK, but what about the viewers of NOVA, or the show's producers? Or, for that matter, the decision makers on the congressional committee allocating funds to PBS? Sergey didn't like to be thwarted by policies and decisions made by people. If something was physically possible, we should be able to bring it about with adequate application of intelligence and innovation. We never made a federal case of it, but Sergey remained steamed at Big Bird's nest featherers for a long time.

Fortunately, KQED came through. We might not be able to secure a spot on the national NOVA broadcast, but KQED was happy to put our spots on in San Francisco during their allotment of promos around the program. They ignored the threatening noises emanating from PBS, which was itself feeling heat from Microsoft. That endeared our local public station to us and secured a spot for them in our limited ad budget for as long as I was at the company. Given the machinations in D.C. around funding public media, I hope Google ups its financial commitment to our local PBS/NPR affiliate. The station braved the wrath of Redmond and its own network overseers. It would be a nice to repay them with a very public gesture of support.

1 comment:

Nelson said...

I thought to apply to Google in 2001 because of one of those KQED spots. So, thanks!