Google’s Chris McCarthy: a view from The Zoo

- in 2015, INTERVIEWS

I recently interviewed Chris McCarthy, the Creative Program Manager Lead for SEEMEA region at The Zoo, Google’s dedicated team of creative technologists. He was the president of the inaugural jury for Cristal Festival’s new Brand Culture award last December.

This forms part of a new series that was kicked off by the Culturally Connected Brands post by the team at Truth, having highlighted cultural relevance as an important strategic consideration in the last edition of the Best of Branded Content Marketing (BOBCM). Interestingly, Cristal frame their new Brand Culture award as follows:

Today it is relevant for brands to think their communication strategy in terms of cultural strategy (Brand Culture) and not only editorial strategy (Brand Content).

Their aim is to highlight innovative communication strategies that are “coherent with a brand’s values”. Given that there’s no shortage of award categories, I asked Chris why he thinks a Brand Culture one is now significant enough to be also included and how the jury decided to award prizes. We also discussed the link to the Branded Content category, what he does at The Zoo and seismic cultural shifts going on in the media landscape.

Brand Culture Category a useful development:
Chris explained that there was consensus among the jury that the award category is a useful development that’s both interesting and worth paying attention to:

Brands need to understand that connecting with people is a social exercise that is conducted through the messy, murky construct called culture: the stuff we consume, talk about, watch, and interact with.

Inviting strategists and planners into the ad awards conversation:
As someone who has worked in strategy teams for many years, he signs up to the idea of brands being cultural actors wholeheartedly, and so applauds the fact that Cristal has recognised that Brand Culture matters and is worth rewarding. He particularly likes the way the category covers both creativity and brand strategy, and how Cristal have brought strategist and planners into the conversation with this category because historically their input has been under-represented at ad award shows.

Defining the Brand Culture category:
As a jury for a new category, Chris explained that their first job was to sit down and think through what the Branded Culture category is all about and how they would judge it. They arrived at two basic beliefs and aligned the prizes with these:

1.) How well brands expose and transmit their culture:
This belief is based on the notion that a brand embodies a form of culture within itself and is more than just a bunch of people who put ads out there; and that strong brands have strong cultures, which are a set of beliefs and values, or ways of behaving, conventions, etc.

For example, Chris mentions what Google refer to as being Googley, and although people may laugh at this, he thinks it’s a really useful term that means being both spontaneously helpful in the kind of way you’d like to be helped out yourself, but also about building stuff together. He believes that this is something tangible, which people within the organisation can feel is different from other places they’ve worked at, and it’s also something that comes across in the way that Google communicates as an organisation:

The ways people behave and act, are underpinned by a value set based on what we believe in and the things we hold to be important. So if you look at any strong brand then that culture is something that is relevant and can be communicated outwards

2.) The impact brands have on wider popular/human culture rather than just on the transactional and commercial levels: This about the belief that there’s a role brands play in people’s lives that is not just about they produce stuff, you buy it and they take your money. It is about how they impact people at a cultural level, and there was a lot of work that Chris and the jury saw that did just that.

He highlights the #LikeAGirl campaign from Always that’s been nominated in our Expert Examples section, as one that he thinks exemplifies what the jury were looking for by having an impact and actually living up to P&G’s corporate promise of “touching lives improving life”:

It’s the best work P&G have done in a generation that’s both brilliant creative and strategic work. It’s touching people because it’s very emotional and powerful, and insight driven. They’re having a cultural-level conversation about how we regard and treat women in the world, and how we want the next generation to regard and treat women; and it’s one that the brand is legitimate in having, and sadly pretty much needed in today’s world.

Brand Culture and the rise of #SocialPurpose:
Chris points out that there is a backdrop to the award with a growing realisation among brands that they have to play a societal role, and it needs to be a positive one that’s relevant and actually makes people care. He sees a connection with a growing number of interlinked memes, such as Brand Generosity, the Sharing Economy and the likes of We Not Me themed books:

The common thread underneath all these is that it’s not sustainable to run a business on what’s increasingly perceived as exploitative practices, including I will sell you crap and treat you like crap.

This, he explains, is about respecting people and what they genuinely care about at a societal level. He sees this as increasingly mattering to people, and so brands are going to have to pay more attention to it. This bigger trend is one that he thinks is linked to the transparency that digital has brought about because of the way it puts the gap between the brand promise and its delivery under greater scrutiny than ever before. At the same time, Chris thinks it makes brands more accountable particularly when it comes to profit being put before people and planet.

He cites Unilever’s Kan Khajura station that was awarded the Grand Cristal award for the Brand Culture category, which provides a mixture of music, news and entertainment through a free ad-funded mobile radio station. It’s the only entertainment media network in the Hindustan region where a mobile phone is the most reliable form of communication technology for 65% of the 130 million inhabitants.

But what exactly is Branded Content?
Chris is less interested in theoretical conversations about how branded content and other related terms are defined. However, he thinks it is useful to have a handle on what we are talking about, and most specifically with regard to the distinction between ads that happen to be long and true branded content platforms. He was struck by how those that come to Cristal from the TV and Hollywood worlds were pointing out that there were a number of entries being submitted into the Branded Content category, which were really just long form ads regardless of how awesome, fantastic, or funny they are.

For Chris, the Jean Claude van Damme Epic Slit campaign for Volvo Trucks we featured in the last edition of BOCM is a great example of a longer form ad, whereas the The Beauty Inside social film project for Intel and Toshiba we also featured is true branded content because of the real storytelling with characterisation, conflict and resolution:

If we look at how storytellers write fiction or non-fiction, such as documentaries, there is a narrative arc, which The Beauty inside did marvelously. So they are actually using the skills and craft of story creators to connect people with some kind of story that’s linked back to the brand, its promise and even a product promise and back to a benefit.

From a strategy point of view, he also thinks both the idea behind the film project and social aspect that allows the audience to become active participants is one that can be rolled out in number of versions like the follow-up The Power Inside, and more recently launched What’s Really Inside.

Cross-over between Brand Culture and Branded Content
Chris and I discussed the inevitable cross-over between categories in general given their growing number, and also how this creates confusion about where lines get drawn as far as entries being judged for particular awards are concerned. This is a theme I also discussed with Scott Donaton who was the Jury President for the Branded Content & Entertainment award at Cannes in 2013.

The crossover between Brand Culture and Branded Content is one that Chris thinks is particularly inevitable because the content we consume and share are one of the main artefacts that tell us about culture. We’re likely to see more overlap between these categories as more brands leverage a social purpose to connect with their audiences, e.g. Chipotle’s Scarecrow campaign and Farmed & Dangerous that help communicate their anti-agribusiness point of view. At the same time, the Branded Content category is one that Mediacom Beyond Advertising’s James Morris think favours those big “Culture Moment” platform ideas that that can be extended across multiple channels, such as P&G’s #LikeAGirl that won the GrandCristal in their Branded Content category.

A view from The Zoo:
Our report into the Future of Branded Content Marketing looked at how the agency model is evolving, so speaking to Chris provided a great opportunity to find out where Google’s The Zoo fits in. It was interesting to discover that they don’t charge, which is different from those media-owners setting up agency-like divisions in order to provide contract-publishing services.

As Chris explained, The Zoo helps build brands digitally through a mix of inspiration, ideation and even implementation:

Our focus is helping Google’s biggest advertisers and their agency partners push the possibilities of what can be done in our increasingly digital world by providing expertise that cuts across strategy, creativity and technology.

One example he mentions was Mercedes in France, where they worked with Proximity BDDO to develop the existing creative platform based all around Sensations. The agency wanted to go further than their 90 second TVC and the 30 second version by using YouTube as real platform hub. They ended up producing 25 hours of video content housed on a custom YouTube channel, including 24 hours of a deer’s life via a GoPro camera attached to its antlers that required input from Google engineers to provide a more seamless user viewing experience. The Zoo team helped them conceive the extra content, produce it and deliver it online – helping contribute to the campaign’s multiple award wins.

But as Chris points out, the Zoo’s support covers the whole digital ecosystem not just YouTube Channels and their promotion through TrueView video pre-rolls. This covers a wide range of Google products and tools from using the Open API on maps to create treasure hunts in Street View, to the more creative use of real-time programmatic buying by likes of Nike during the World Cup to deliver immersive 3D display ads.

Seismic cultural shifts in the media landscape:
So part of Chris’s role is to help brands get their head round the fundamental shifts going on. That’s why he thought it was interesting to see the Hollywood crowd like Dana Brunetti at Trigger Street and Ben Silverman at Electus hang out with the advertising crowd at Cristal Festival last December. But there were two significant moments last year that really stood out for Chris. The first was release of The Interview film on YouTube, which despite being the result of historical accident is one that he thinks sets a precedent for the shape of things to come.

The other was President Obama’s interview by YouTubers after his State of Union Address in a bid to engage a younger audience in politics. Chris thinks that the acknowledgement of YouTubers as a media outlet by Obama represent a seismic cultural shift in the media landscape, and it was ironic to see him being criticised for doing so by those media networks that fail to reach a generation whose window to the world is no longer TV.

We hope to be hearing more from Chris soon, and coming up next is our interview with Anouk Pappers and Maarten Schäfer at CoolBrands.