The Way I See It: Steve Vranakis
Google Creative Lab's executive creative director, Steve Vranakis, discusses goodvertising and motorcycle maxims for life.
Back when digital was but a gleam in analogue’s eye, Steve Vranakis got in on the act early, and subsequently was known wherever he worked as “the web guy”. On joining Google in 2011, however, he was surrounded by such top-flight tech talent he became the “least digital guy”, a lesson in humility he now values.
Despite his relegation, though, as ECD of Google’s Creative Lab, he’s proudly leading a “ragtag group of idealists and vagabonds” to create visionary digital work that not only creates positive change but wins awards. He talks to Tim Cumming about “goodvertising” and his motorcycle maintenance maxims for life
I was born and grew up in Vancouver. My parents emigrated from Greece after the war, seeking a better life. I grew up in an incredibly mixed neighbourhood, very multicultural. There was a lot of energy, a lot of positive vibes.
I’m self-taught. I was one of those people who didn’t even know what “creative” was. When you grow up with immigrant parents, it’s all about doing something that will give you a decent living.
My dad was an artist, but he was also a labourer. That’s how he supported us, he had two jobs. In September I’m going to be president of D&AD so a big thing about my narrative is trying to get all types of different kids involved – people from families who don’t know anything about these industries, who don’t have the means to teach their kids these sorts of things.
“I was one of those people who didn’t even know what ‘creative’ was. When you grow up with immigrant parents, it’s all about doing something that will give you a decent living.”
I had set up a little graphic design studio in Vancouver, in a cool area called Gastown, and these guys came in, and said, “Could you help us put an identity together? We’re launching Canada’s first ISP.” I pretended to know what ISP [internet service provider] was. Then I pretended to know what the internet was. And I helped them launch it. That was my first foray into tech.
I hired a couple of people, and we switched exclusively to web. Nobody cared about the internet at the time, but people saw that we were starting to become a viable, credible business for digital marketing. We merged with Palmer Jarvis DDB [now DDB Canada], and I stayed there for a couple of years, then came to the UK and joined a start-up called Modem Media Poppe Tyson, and became part of a group of really interesting people from all over the world who helped to launch this digital thing. We did great stuff for brands like PlayStation, and the original positioning for Amazon, which was ‘Books for Everyone’.
What I had learnt at DBB, around formulating a really strong creative thought to help drive the narrative, came into play. You still had a lot of people who were pure techies or IT people going into the digital space, so even going out there with a creative idea was a stronger proposition in itself. It wasn’t just this advertising layer that sold people stuff. DDB had that same methodology of entertaining people. They would turn it into something quite magical.
“I try to understand how people feel about things. What are the implications of the stuff I put out for a kid who is sat in front of the TV for hours every day while his parents are at work?”
There’s a big difference between “creatives are king” and “creativity is king”. I think agencies these days are a lot more flat, a lot more democratic, there are a lot more ideas coming out from across different groups. And even groups don’t exist anymore – it’s a bunch of people with a different centre of gravity. Some people think more strategically; some people are more inclined to design; some people write better. That whole departmental thing doesn’t seem so prevalent anymore.
I remember one agency I worked at, the third floor was only for creatives, and if you were caught on the third floor and you were what they called a suit, then you’d be in a lot of trouble. Can you imagine that? You want to do the opposite. This whole place at Google Labs is designed to allow people to collide and to run in to each other. It’s always about these exchanges and that’s a really powerful thing.
When people were still trying to figure out the web, I was very much the back-of-the-deck guy. Whether it was for pitch or a presentation, once they had gone through the lead TV, the print, outdoor and radio, then you could present digital. And often we didn’t get to pitch because we ran out of time. If you did manage to do it there was never a budget to generate anything, so we would have to make sure they shot additional assets and were always cobbling together stuff in a very scrappy way.
At the time I hated it, it was just really insulting, but now it’s taught me that when you have these constraints you get to some of the best outcomes. And we’re still incredibly scrappy in my team at Google Labs – we use a week or two and a very small pot of money to make stuff. If it doesn’t stick we’ll go on to the next. And we haven’t spent a lot of time and money doing it. That is how we work.
I try to understand how people feel about things. What are the implications of the stuff I put out for a kid who is sat in front of the TV for hours every day while his parents are at work? I think about all of these people who are seeing these things, and are we making their lives better? Or are we just adding to all the other stuff out there?
I have been at Google since 2011. Having started on the web so early in my career, I was the web guy at almost every single agency. And when I got here, I am probably the least digital guy because it is an organisation run by engineers who are doing incredible things with all sorts of applications, and you need a sort of humility to go from the most to the least digital guy. It was an incredible experience, very humbling. I think a lot of people could use that.
This company has a belief system about technology, that it’s for everyone, no matter who you are or where you’re from. We make things that remove the barriers and give you access to the things you need in your life.
Last year we continued work on a programme Google India launched in 2013 called HWGO (helping women get online). It uses technology and low-cost Android One phones to help get millions of women from rural Indian villages online. We have these women who ride bicycles with a food delivery box on the back but there’s no food inside, instead there are phones. They go from village to village, handing out phones, teaching women how to use the internet. One woman had just one pattern for the blouses she made. She was then able to download different patterns and suddenly was using designs nobody else had and selling three times as many blouses.
You sit there and you think about these things. It may not be a huge amount of money but it’s triple the amount of money the blouse maker had before, because she could access information. It’s enabling. People have it in them to do amazing things that circumstances may have prevented them from doing. If our technology can help remove barriers and we can enable people to do incredible things, then we should.
How do you make things that have an impact on everyone’s lives? That is what our chief executive talks about. Interactivity is about access. Look at a small business that uses Ad Words; they have a limited amount of money and to be able to help a bunch of people build businesses and livelihoods, that is a powerful thing. That’s what the internet and our company helps them to do. And it’s right across the board.
To this day, the single most important thing I feel that I have done is a little tiny mobile website built in 36 hours, two years ago, to help refugees. We went to the Greek island of Lesbos for a week and helped 150,000 people who landed there find their way to a refugee house. It didn’t cost any more than a flight to Lesbos. That’s what I’m trying to get more people to think about.
Somebody once said: “We should not be embarrassed about what we do,” and I wholeheartedly agree. I built a career on the back of it. Some people say that advertising is turning into goodvertising and that’s not right because not every brand can be a goodvertising brand, but I think all brands can do better and have a more positive impact on society. I believe as creative people we are more powerful than we think – or acknowledge – that we are.
At Google Labs we do a lot of different types of work across the whole organisation. I’d say we are a ragtag group of idealists and vagabonds. We’re from all over the place and from all different backgrounds and cultures, but there is a level of idealism in what we believe we can do.
Our whole thing is to try and rethink some of our products, come up with more future-facing aspects alongside our engineers, with technology at the core of it. There’s no real thread that connects it all, other than the desire to do good and to show people how technology might enable them to do things better.
"I’ve won more awards with the team here in six years than I had done in my entire 20 year career prior to this."
One of the practices that we follow at Google Labs is that we put everything we do in one line. There’s one line to explain the idea, and if you can’t really understand what the single line is articulating, then it’s probably too complicated.
Inside Google Labs we have The Google Five. They’re a group of people we pull from all over the world, who are at the beginning of their careers, and who haven’t had too much of their thinking affected. We want them to come to us with really interesting raw perspectives, and we want them to find out first-hand what creativity and technology can allow them to do.
The Google Five are drawn from different disciplines. We don’t use the word “creative”, because I’d like to think that every single person in my group is creative, from my strategists to my team leaders to my producers and project managers. I want them to approach everything creatively.
The Google Five are a cohort, but sometimes we encourage them to split up. At other times they’ll do projects together, and at the end of that year, the point isn’t that they stay on – though some of them do – but that they go out and share their practices and experience with other organisations. That’s alright with us; there’s nothing secretive going on. It’s the way we put the group together that makes it special.
I’ve won more awards with the team here in six years than I had done in my entire 20 year career prior to this – I’m really proud of the team. I learnt very late in my career that it is not about competition, it’s more that if you can create the conditions and the environment for people to succeed, they will thrive.
I remember taking my motorcycle training and they have this acronym called SIPDE, which means Scan, Identify, Predict, Determine, Execute, and I apply that to my day-to-day life. I am constantly looking at anything that will prevent my team delivering. We have been very successful because of that approach.