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Robert Wong

robwonginside Robert WongChief Creative Officer
Google Creative Lab

How do you go from a career of left brain number crunching  to being a right brain heavyweight at Google Creative Lab? You could try doing things the Robert Wong way, but then that would require you to  be born Chinese, live in the Netherlands and become an accountant in Canada first.

While practicing accounting in Toronto, Robert woke up one day, flew to New York, and became a graphic designer instead. Since then, he has had the privilege of working on some of the world’s most loved brands — Apple, Harley-Davidson, Jack Daniel’s, Timberland, ESPN, MTV, NPR and other acronyms.

Before heading up Google Creative Lab, Robert was Executive Creative Director of Arnold Worldwide. Before that, he was Vice President of Creative at Starbucks. His work has won every industry award and has been showcased at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. But he’s most proud of his loving wife and his two perfect daughters.

Robert is serving as one of the esteemed “Monster Judges” of the Tomorrow Awards. As the entry deadline quickly approaches, we caught up with Robert to discuss the amazing path his career has taken.

Oh, if you’re a creative in 2010 and you don’t know what Google Creative Labs is, we suggest you look them up. But don’t use Bing.

IHAVEANIDEA: Not many people thought of Google as an ad making place until that “Search On” Super Bowl spot. Why don’t you start by telling us about how you guys came up with that?

Robert: The team that worked on Search On was part of our Five program.  It’s something that we created where we get five Creatives from the best schools we can find and invite them to hang out with us for a year. It’s kind of like an internship after school; they get paid, and get all the free food they want from our cafeteria before they move on into the industry proper.  They get digitally savvy and get to see all the tools and possibilities that technology brings to the industry.  And then the next five will come in, and another bunch after them, etc.

As a Creative, not so much for the designers, that wants to make it into the advertising industry, Google is not a natural choice. They think “Ok, I’m not going to do a T.V. spot in the year that I’m going to be here.” But regardless, they joined anyway, and probably just thought, “Well, I’ll hold off until I leave Google.”

The first cut of Parisian Love was done last November and turned it into a YouTube Video, but since everyone loved it so much we decided to make it into a Super Bowl Spot. So basically, these guys were 7 to 8 months out of school and got a Super Bowl spot on their reel.  Imagine! It was pretty spectacular for them.

IHAVEANIDEA: If I were to explain what you guys really do at the Lab to a Creative Director or Art Director at an agency, what would I say?

Robert: The simplest way to explain it is – Okay, you’ve just won the Google Account. What do you do now?
The “What do you do?” question is an interesting one, because we don’t have a pipeline of how much we’re going to spend.  Most people are used to filling boxes. Here nobody knows what those boxes are, and we don’t know what to fill them with (laughs). You have to tinker around, paint the boxes, and you have to paint the platform. We don’t really know what we’re doing to be honest with you, we’re just making it up as we go along!  But it’s for Google, so you know that you have their Mojo and their engineers with infinite little bits of technology behind you.

IHAVEANIDEA: So what does it take to work here then? What do you look for when hiring people?

Robert: The first priority would be for the people to “Googley” by nature.  One of the things I strongly believe is that everything you make is a reflection of who you are. Or at least your best work is.  So, it’s always really important to align a person with the brand. They have to be scary smart for everyone else here.  They need to have a certain amount of humbleness, a “don’t take yourself too seriously” attitude, and be really deeply interested in things and possibilities. Interested in doing big things.  They need to believe that they can make a big impact on the world and in history.  That sort of crazy ambition.  That’s what the Google brand respects. So that’s number one.

After that, every creative director will ask for the same stuff: be talented, be able to work in teams, be a nice guy I wouldn’t mind having beers with etc. That kind of stuff.

IHAVEANIDEA: So when Google launches something like Buzz for example. What’s your part in that?

Robert: We didn’t have anything to do with it. There’re a lot of things we don’t touch because Google does so much stuff and we’re a very small team.  We try to find the intersection; we usually work on products that have already launched, products that are already successful. The ones you need to add a little thing to.

IHAVEANIDEA: Is there a technology in particular that scares you? Something that you don’t quite understand or that has you worried…

Robert: You know what, I don’t understand most of it, but I’m not scared by any of it. I think that as human beings, we go towards improving ourselves, and I think if you look back historically we have.  I think people are probably better parents now than they were a hundred thousand years ago.  So of course we’re going to make mistakes and there’ll be a million disasters, but in general, unknown things lead to progress and that’s good.  So not scared, but precautious.

Especially in this industry, most of us have ADD, we get distracted by lots of shiny things, there are so many shiny things out now, that you may be overwhelmed by too much possibility.

It’s easy when you go into a room and you only have one toy to play with, four hours and nothing else to do. But if you walk into the same room and you only have one hour with ten different kinds of toys to play with, you’re pretty much going to be all over the place.  I think that the precaution and the trick is, how do you, define the discipline and give yourself enough time to play with each toy.  Or give the people that you manage enough time to play with a toy. Not just a Google toy, it could be any toy.

IHAVEANIDEA: What’s your five year vision for the ad world? It’s going to be wrong, for sure, but what do you think is the one big drastic change that will happen? Take us for a ride in the Robert Wong time machine…

Robert: Well, by definition your question puts Advertising in a fine box.  And my fundamental belief is that, and I always try to like blow up boxes, there will be no box around advertising, or design, or marketing, or products, or services, or technology or platforms.  Somehow, I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s a deep integration across all that stuff.

IHAVEANIDEA: Communications?

Robert: I think there’s much more to it than communications.  Some of the best stuff that is released is not communication, but more part of a product or a company’s service.  By definition communication implies, at its best, a two way street. But for the most part it’s one way. So I think it’ll go beyond communication, it’s how a company is and how a customer or whatever, interacts with it.

IHAVEANIDEA: A traditional team at an agency is an Art Director and a Copywriter. But more and more people are starting to tinker with that and mix people from different backgrounds. How do you guys do it?

Robert: Right now I have a team that’s a filmmaker and a designer and another team consisting of a programmer, and a writer.  Sometimes we have teams of two people, sometimes its one person alone and other times it’s three people.  There’s no set rule, we’re always tinkering with it.  We’re just letting people’s natural gravitational forces pull each other.

IHAVEANIDEA:  You’re like me in that you’re from all over the place.  You’re an Asian from Canada who grew up in Holland is now living in the US. How did each region change and influence you?  If you could take one thing from each place…

Robert: Before I get to the depths of it, the main thing is that for me there was nothing black and white.  As simple an example as when someone pinches you and you say “Ouch” in North America, in Holland you say “Ow”, in Spain you say “Ai” and in Chinese you go “Aya”.  Even something that should be a visceral reaction of pain you don’t think about is different in every culture. So there’s no right answer. That’s the most important thing: There’s no right answer.

One of the things that I remember is that in English Class people obsess about grammar and what’s correct and what’s not. But that’s not the point of communications. The most important thing is what the other person gets from you. Some of the best poetry is grammatically incorrect.  Because sometimes, it puts the point across better when it’s incorrect, so you get the sense of it. It’s all about memories. I have a diary that I wrote in Dutch that I can’t read, but I remember conversations I had with people while I was in Holland that have somehow been translated to English in my mind.  So you realize that there’s stuff underneath the simple language barriers that is deeper and closer to your reptilian brain. I think that thought me to communicate on another level.

As far as Chinese culture is concerned, I think that what I learned by moving to those places was also related to a social economic chain. I was very poor in Hong Kong, so I learnt that you have to work really hard and not take anything for granted.  In Holland I lived in a very small town. They had a very open and friendly culture over there. In North America, I learned a lot through Mass Media. That’s where I watched T.V. for the first time, familiarized myself with the US culture etc. So I don’t know how much of my personality is shaped from Eastern Philosophy and how much is from the rest, but my mom would right now say that I’m way too Western, and totally not Chinese at all (laughs). But it’s definitely a mix, that’s why we shape our approach on mixing everyone, their backgrounds and their different skill sets. We believe that diversity is the “best strategy” and “Diversity will win”.

IHAVEANIDEA: You have taken an interesting turn in your career by leaving the agency world to take on a creative position on the client’s side. First with Starbucks and now with Google. A senior or intermediate creative may look negatively on such an opportunity. Did you think it was a bad experience?

Robert: No! I recommend everyone to do it.  Before Starbucks, I was made Chief Creative Officer and I was overseeing about twelve hundred creatives from around the world.  So I felt like I had done as much on the consultant side, and I really wanted to know what it was like on the other side. What it’s like to be the client. And I think it’s an important thing for everyone to learn because only on the client side do you feel that feeling of accountability and responsibility for the performance of you work.  Maybe I am overstating it, but you really feel it.

I also got to do many agency reviews, so you get to see a lot of different creative disciplines and understand how they work. Design firms, Architects, all that sort of stuff. It’s hard to get that at a traditional place. And of course you get to know first hand what keeps the marketing group and the CEO up at night. You understand the brand from that perspective of intimacy.  But we also work with a bunch of agencies so I am able to sort of work with some of the world’s best Creatives and you end up scaling the impact even more.

IHAVEANIDEA: So how do you keep plugged to the ad industry proper?

Robert: I don’t do it that much, but like everyone else you know, I have my Google Reader and the different sources pouring in.  There’s just too much stimulation, so I live bubbled up through other people.  There are some great people in our team that are always showing me the shiniest stuff.  I am quite fortunate on that front and I let them do the filtering for me a lot (laughs)

IHAVEANIDEA: You’re part of the inaugural Monster Jury for the Tomorrow Awards. Do you think there’s going to be a region of the world that surprises people when it comes to looking forward to the future?  Do you think there’s somebody that’s clearly ahead of the pack in terms of people are looking ahead?

Robert: That’s a good question.  I don’t know, I think on the one hand, a mature market like North America, is ahead because the budgets maybe apply to it.  But on the other hand, you might have emerging markets like Asia, where the budgets may not be as big, but there’s potentially more experimentation because the stakes are lower, so shinny things can come out of there. I think this could go either way.

IHAVEANIDEA: Okay, last question, have you ever flown in Sergei’s private plane?

Robert: No, I have not.(laughs)

Although, he did visit us yesterday.  Coming in to check out the Google Creative Lab.

IHAVEANIDEA: Do people get nervous?

Robert: Not at all, everyone’s excited.  They just want to do cool shit.

Interview by:

ignaciocreditpic Robert Wong

Ignacio Oreamuno
El Presidente
IHAVEANIDEA

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