In conversation with Google’s Robert Wong
July 3, 2012
I recently sat down with Robert Wong, the co-founder and Executive Creative Director of the Google Creative Lab. You may not know about the lab, but its products are unforgettable. Take “Parisian Love,” a 52-second video the lab produced that’s all about “search” and the serendipity of finding true love through the internet. This video instantly went viral on YouTube and was up for three months when it was submitted at the eleventh hour as a commercial during the 2010 Superbowl. That decision forever reversed the company’s stance on brand advertising, what the founders had once called, “the last bastion of unaccountable spending in corporate America.” Since then, the lab has released a handful of commercials. None are obvious product pleas in the bacon-flavoured dog food mold, but all catch our eye and our hearts with familiar desktop demonstrations of web tools we’re all using that are drawing us progressively deeper into more meaningful interactions with others.
Robert Wong was born in Hong Kong and moved to The Netherlands with his family before they all finally settled in Scarborough, Ontario. Well, they settled but Robert didn’t. At first he tried to play the “good son,” sporting an ill-fitting accountant’s suit in downtown Toronto. It wasn’t long before he threw his hands up in the air and moved to New York with his sketch pad and an incoherent sense of more.
Today Robert lives in New York City with his wife and daughters and travels back and forth between Google’s Manhattan office in the Meatpacking District and the company’s HQ in Mountain View, California. Now when Robert walks into the offices of his colleagues, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, he’s still throwing his hands up in the air — but out of excitement, not frustration. Here is an edited and condensed version of our chat:
AGJ: So you went to Sir John A. MacDonald Collegiate in Scarborough …
RW: Yup, right after Mike Myers and Eric McCormack.
AGJ: After high school you enrolled in accounting at the University of Waterloo. Why? That sounds so painful.
RW: Well, that’s how type-A geeky I was. Not that I chose that. It was a co-op program where you work for 12 months and go to school for 12 months. I was trying to make my parents proud. We didn’t come to North America until I was ten and I was the first in my family — of any generation — to go beyond high school. There was a lot of pressure on me, my brother and sister to be a doctor, lawyer, accountant.
AGJ: What changed that?
RW: I had to put toothpicks in my eyes to stay awake in accounting class. I realized after my first year that life is short and I didn’t want my work box and my life box to be separate. But before I could say anything, my co-op director sent me to work in a top accounting firm in downtown Toronto. I went down there with my little briefcase and suit. It was on the 25th floor of one of the “black towers.” [the TD Tower]. Within three months I knew I was kidding myself. I’d been studying accounting for all the wrong reasons: the money, the security, the career, for my family. It didn’t help that I was getting scholarship offers to enroll in MBA programs. I had to break it to my parents that I just couldn’t go through with accounting, not even an undergrad. I didn’t tell them I was dropping out. I asked them, and they were totally supportive.
AGJ: After the toothpicks snapped, what did you do next?
RW: In between all of those accounting and math classes, I drew. But for the longest time, I’d been telling myself that I couldn’t seriously pursue drawing because that was for people who didn’t get good grades. Thankfully, I got over that. After I dropped out of Waterloo, I moved to New York to enrol in graphic design at Parsons. [Yes, he got good grades, earning the “President’s Award” at graduation]. At the time, I thought I was going to be a fashion designer.
AGJ: Instead, you got into advertising. [Here is Robert’s résumé on Madison Avenue]:
RW: No. I hated most advertising. But the very best stuff made me feel so amazing. I thought a good ad campaign shaped culture in a way that design couldn’t because the megaphone is so big in advertising.
AGJ: Some would say now we’ve invented an even bigger megaphone with the internet.
RW: Right. And when things are open and there are no walled gardens innovation and the shaping of culture happens faster and more people benefit. It’s about the democratization of everything. Information should not be in ivory towers. The Google home page isn’t done as a big sexy Flash site, it’s optimized so everyone with a connection — even dial up — can access it. We believe in freedom of expression where you don’t take sides.
AGJ: Google doesn’t strike me as having to advertise itself offline through traditional means like billboards, print, TV spots or even on a JumboTron. The product is free. But every so often the company releases a spot on TV. Why?
RW: The Creative Lab [which Wong co-founded] and the commercials we create exist to remind the world what it is they love about Google. That phrase actually came out of Eric Schmidt’s mouth one day and we all jotted it down quickly. I think everyone who works here has a mission: to do good things that matter. The computer scientists, designers, writers and creative coders are all about, ‘How can I impact the world as positively as I possibly can with the skills I have?’ That’s in the DNA of the culture at Google. It’s certainly what the Google Chrome campaign of TV ads has been about, starting with “Parisian Love,” then “Dear Sophie” and followed up with the “It Gets Better” campaign with Dan Savage.
AGJ: Tell me about “Dear Sophie.”
RW: That came about when Daniel Lee, one of the engineers at Google, set up a Gmail account before his first child was born. He wanted to write to his daughter while his wife was pregnant, before she was born and as she was growing up. One day he’ll present her with the whole thing: the emails, the family photographs, home videos and maps he created of where they lived. I thought it was brilliant hack! And the point of the ad was that old browsers were made for viewing and browsing web pages, but nothing more. The Chrome browser features applications and plug-ins like Gmail, YouTube, Picasa and MOV files as well as Google Docs and Maps … so it’s so much richer and stronger. The ad also celebrates all the people in and outside of Google who are using the tools to do amazing stuff.
AGJ: I liked it the Chrome ad for “It Gets Better.” I thought it fit in with your belief that the internet can build a better world and inspire a life with better results.
RW: That’s what we we wake up to do. If you want to make a difference, it starts with doing things for others. Sure, we pump out technology but it’s never about the technology itself, it’s about the genius of what people do with the stuff. We followed that up with a two more Chrome ads with Lady Gaga and Johnny Cash. But those ads and the search piece on love at the Superbowl are the only ads we’ve done.
AGJ: What other initiatives has the Lab turned out?
RW: Last month we launched the World Wonders Projects which takes users on tours of castles, parks and archaeological sites around the world, things like the Palace of Versailles. In the same way we went into museums with our Street View cameras, we’ve filmed the Wonders of the World. It fits in with our theme of making good stuff accessible to more people. Another one of our goals is to make heroes out of people who make and use art. We launched the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which is made up of 101 musicians from 33 countries all chosen on YouTube. We also launched YouTube Play to give video artists a chance to showcase their stuff with the Guggenheim Museums. Anyone from around the world can submit a creative video for the chance to become part of the Guggenheim’s permanent collection. It’s a biannual thing. Let’s see, what else have we done? Oh! How can I forget? We spearheaded Life In a Day, an online movie that collects 4500 videos taken by people in 192 countries around the world and it documents the happenings from one day on earth: July 24, 2010. Ridley Scott produced it.
AGJ: When you were on Madison Avenue working as an ad man, you said once, “There needs to be more listening, less talking, more feeling, less thinking, more doing, less promising, more inventing, less polishing.”
RW: [Laughs] I still feel that way. I’m always trying to find the shortest distance between an idea and the magic and inspiration a person in the real world will be able to feel and see and touch. To do that you have to skip a lot of unnecessary steps. For example — and I don’t know if you’ve ever done any consulting — but one of the things you have to do, and we skip, is building multiple page decks to justify your fees. No one has the patience for that stuff here and no one would ever read it. Our founders certainly don’t have the patience for it. They always say, ‘Just show me.’ When we present our ideas to them, we do everything in either the form of a poster or a video where all you have to do is press “Play.” It has to be a prototype you can interact with. That’s it! That’s where the rubber meets the road. There’s no one giving commentary in real life. It has to be brilliant and move and touch people with all the thinking built-in. It you have to explain it, it probably isn’t very good.AGJ: What old-school habits as a graphic designer have you carried forward to working at Google?
RW: Certain things should never change. I keep coming back to qualities like empathy: think of the user and leave your body so you can really experience it from the other side. And storytelling. Everything is a story, not just words on a page or moving images with sound, but we all learned and got motivated by stories, stories of someone’s life or the story behind a certain product and how it went on to change the world. Everything in life is a narrative with a protagonist and a goal and motivation. Having all the work come from that place is important, and also very, very hard to do. And one more thing, less of anything wins. So stripping an idea down to its pure essential. That’s a big one.
AGJ: Does graphic designer even feel like the right description for you now?
RW: You know what? I still put it as my profession on my business card and passport. I like the idea of trade schools, of learning how to make stuff as opposed to doing lots of abstract thinking. Making is the cool thing now. Other than graphic designer, I don’t know what else to call myself? I have an engineer friend who before he worked here at Google he was in a job that tried to promote him to “Chief Innovation Officer.” That’s when he knew he had to quit, meaning that if innovation wasn’t carried through the core business everywhere, that was a big problem!
“In Conversation” is a popular Q&A Segment on “Society Pages” that features interviews with creative risk takers. Other people I’ve profiled include Bruce Mau, an industrial designer turned global thinker, Maureen Judge, a Genie Award-winning filmmaker whose real life docs focus on family dynamics, mezzo-soprano Erin Cooper Gay, and Evan Jones, a pioneer in Alternate Reality Games. Evan’s computer feats have forever changed our relationship to our phones, TVs and computers and have won him not one, but two Emmy Awards.