Google’s Kim Larson: ‘Every great creative director I’ve met recently has said – bring me more data’

In an interview with Mumbrella's Ravi Balakrishnan, Google managing director of global creativity services Kim Larson discusses what agencies ought to do to remain relevant in an industry where automation of creative processes and data driven insights are getting ubiquitous

Many agencies and the people in them are quite uncertain and anxious about the future – especially given the rise of automation. How do you respond to these misgivings? 

“It is easy to generalise around agencies but you cannot do that. For instance, there’s a misunderstanding in the industry that creatives do not like data. I have spoken to many creatives who say they love data. Every great creative director I have met recently has said: ‘Bring us more – give me something I can take to the client’. 

“There’s a huge appetite for more interesting data and better access to it from creative agencies. 

“Secondly, it is just a different way of working where we have to unlearn some of the old behaviours and go in for a more collaborative approach. It does take practice and you see some agencies really embracing that new way of working – with changing structures and compensation models. Agencies that can incentivise that behavioural change will get there faster.”

A while ago in India, Google was trying to get ad filmmakers to shoot cuts of commercials that worked in mobile-native video ad formats. But one of your recently introduced products allows for transforming still images into an animated ad, or for making shorter more mobile-appropriate cuts of films. Are you still interfacing with filmmakers or is this a technological solve, instead of waiting for that industry to pivot? 

“We still talk to a number of influencers. We have a tripartite council in India – Kantar, production house Nirvana Films and (Ogilvy chief creative officer south and South East Asia) Sonal Dabral to advise on how the creative process should be at the get-go. 

“So that it is not an afterthought to create for the mobile format versus television or a cinema screen. Interfacing with filmmakers is still very much a work in progress. 

“There are some things we can do in post-production and editing – I call that asset optimisation. But mobile first comes from a tightness of the shot. That has been a bit of the unlock where we have tried to work with our creative agency partners.

“While you are in there during the shoot, make sure you add in those closer, tighter shots. Pacing and framing can be done in post production but some of that needs preproduction forethought. 

“Create With Google is a complementary process, happening in parallel with our discussions. There are many efforts on to ensure the creative process evolves with the audiences.” 

What do agencies need to do to keep up with the pace of change, considering a lot of the work, particularly on the production and studio side seems in danger of being eliminated?

“My experience with creative agencies and production houses is that there’s still so much work to be done. The nature of the work is changing and so I don’t think we have eliminated work.

“There are some things we are doing now that you could just never afford to do – for instance, a Cadbury Fuse campaign for India that had 92,000 versions created and targeted based on interest states. 

“Some of what we are doing is the first of its kind. Machine learning is only as smart as you make it. You have to teach it the rules and I am not sure how you are going to teach it the rules around building an idea.” 

What about the formulaic ads that have survived unchanged for ages now – particularly for FMCG firms? These ads which include product windows and problem solution plots still run in parallel with the more thematic campaigns. Aren’t those ads ripe to be mechanised?

“There are a few templates in advertising but we have seen that over time, predictability does not perform well. Even in those formulaic ads – the traditional story arc put the payoff at the end. We recommend an emerging story arc where you have to open stronger with a hook. And then you string the ad along with more high points, until it is resolved. 

“It is a different way of creating stories. If that becomes the new template, we will then have to figure out the next thing to break it. Formula gets tired and people tune out. In the attention economy, it is the best agencies that shine.” 

How has your role within Google evolved over the years? 

“I joined a little over seven years ago and at the time, the brief was very different to what it is today. 

“We were still a search first company and given my background in Nike and consumer advertising, the goal was – how do we make the big leap from TV to online video? 

“In my first few years, I spent a lot of time explaining the why of YouTube – the merits of the platform, the communities that exist and the creativity that it unlocks. We are past the ‘why’ now – the reach is excellent and the platform has proven itself.

“Now, I spend a lot of time on ‘how’ given the complexity of advertising today and the pressure on budgets. Since each ad has to work really hard, how do we make sure we are providing best practices and guidelines, so they can be effective out of the gate. 

“It has been amazing to watch the industry make this journey. With machine learning and AI, I feel we are at the cusp of what we can enable.” 

What sort of a role do you see voice playing given its popularity especially in the developing world?

“If you were to ask me what’s one of the most exciting things coming, it is voice for sure. Voice on search is farther along. When it comes to voice on YouTube – there’s so much that we can unlock with that. Like everything on YouTube, it will come from the creators first – they will figure out how to use it in a really innovative manner. And then, the advertisers will catch up. That’s been the trajectory. 

“To give you an example, of my daughter – who is 11 – never types. She talks into everything from phones to remote controls. That behaviour will be the first port of call for the next generation.  I don’t know (the impact it will have) yet.”


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