Interview: Andy Berndt, Managing Director, Google Creative Lab: Bridging Digital And Traditional

Much of the ad industry is trying to figure out what to make of Google (NSDQ: GOOG). The “frenemy” description WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell has used to describe the search giant’s perceived “encroachment” into advertising has largely been accepted throughout the industry. And this past fall, when Google hired creative veteran Andy Berndt to lead the internet company’s new marketing unit, Google Creative Lab, many traditional agency heads viewed it as another sign that Google was emerging as a challenger and a threat.

But Berndt, who left his post as co-president of Ogilvy & Mather in New York after eight years to join Google, insists nothing could be further from the truth. In an email exchange discussing his new role, he offered me a set of bullet points stating what the Creative Lab is not: “We are not an ad agency. We will not pitch clients. We will not have client business. We won’t compete with any agencies.” The sole aim of Creative Lab is to build Google’s brand across a variety of platforms, even some that don’t exist yet, he said.

imageAt the moment, Berndt is quietly work on a few small projects, though he declined to offer specifics. He did say that his main focus right now is on hiring and setting up Creative Lab offices at Google’s Mountain View HQ as well as in New York, London and ultimately, Tokyo. His notion of staffing up is fairly open-ended: “We are also building what you might call an ecosystem of collaborators, from designers to writers to agencies to production companies to every kind of creative resource. We’d like to have a loose and unofficial network of like-minded creative people around the world who come together on projects.” More from my email exchange with Berndt follows, as he touches on his past experience and the challenges facing traditional agencies coping with the rise of digital advertising:

Experience: I asked him how he felt his career at Ogilvy prepared him for his current post. “Ogilvy is way out ahead of most agencies in terms of branding and integrated thinking across media and platforms, particularly anyone at scale, and their depth in things like data and digital direct marketing and analytics is one of the best kept secrets in the business. So all of that is helping me here at Google (though I wouldn’t call myself an expert in many of those spaces). As far as mixing creative and management experience goes, I’m never sure how to answer that question. I don’t think you manage creative people. I think you create an environment for them, and cast the right sensibilities for the right projects. And you avoid getting too impressed with yourself or thinking you have all the answers.”

Kill the labels: Berndt rejected the view that he’s left the role of being a traditional creative behind. He argued that great marketing has always relied on ideas, whether executed for billboards, TV radio or the internet. “Here is where these labels begin to fail the industry, and burn so many cycles of angst and energy. We should kill them off as fast as we can. What is the Dove evolution video? Which category is that in? It’s a masterful piece of storytelling that used an innovative route to make it more important and personal than it would have been otherwise. There are examples of genius work everywhere, and the best ones blur the lines. The categories are obsolete. If we have to have categories, they shouldn’t be “digital vs. traditional,” they should just be “good vs. bad” (and hey, those create enough angst all by themselves….).”

Industry adjustment: As traditional agencies and marketers get more used to the digital landscape, Berndt presents a simple narrative for how the industry’s new leaders will progress: “The traditional industry will keep shifting itself around (some willingly, others less so) until it adjusts to where the real stasis should be in offline vs. online spending (and we’re nowhere near it yet….), but the core will stay the same. I think we’re looking at a natural trend, in that all new platforms give an early advantage to those who can best manipulate the technology itself, the best technicians. After the platform becomes user friendly, when it is opened up to the best storytellers and designers and communicators, they tend to add another level to it. The rare time when you find people who really appreciate both sides of that coin (innovation and storytelling) is where truly amazing things happen. Think (of) Steve Jobs as the ultimate example. Those agencies (of either traditional or digital origin) that find a way to think holistically, instead of throwing either baby out with the bathwater, will fare best.”