Happy to be a bit more 'un-Googley'

21 May, 2012

There's something rather un-Googley about Nikesh Arora.

It is not that he lacks the expansive rhetoric that characterises Google's top executives. He is as likely as anyone else there, for instance, to launch into the sort of sweeping predictions that can make other businesspeople nervous. For example: "The internet industry is going to be way bigger than any industry out there in the next decade. It's going to dwarf multiple industry segments."

His list of things that will be eaten by the internet contains the entire media business in its current form (including $200bn of television advertising that is destined to move onto interactive networks) and, over the next decade, up to a quarter of all the world's commerce.

Rather, it's Mr Arora's manner that raises the question about his Googley-ness (the term that people inside the company have long used to describe the mixture of ambition, intellectual curiosity and moral idealism that defines the company's culture).

Maybe it's because he is, by background, a marketing manager. That sounds like the last thing in the world that Google would once have needed – after all, services such as search and YouTube were built through "viral" word-of-mouth and the company is organised round a belief that the best idea will always win out.

Yet these days Google has a lot of persuading to do, and Mr Arora is Persuader-in-Chief.

As chief business officer, he is often talked about as the fourth most important executive at Google, after founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt. His remit extends to overseeing advertising (the source of 96 per cent of the company's revenues) and the marketing that is becoming an increasingly visible accompaniment to Google's services, as well as the company's attempts to replace its historically fractious relations with media companies with productive business partnerships.

Given the young founders' tight grip on the company, Mr Arora's "number four" status makes him a candidate for the "tallest pygmy" award: the distinction doesn't amount to much when there are giants in the room. But it does put him in charge of an advertising salesforce that numbers more than 8,000 – one of the largest of any company in the world, he says – and gives him a role in important strategic initiatives.

Mr Arora displays all the polish and diplomacy you would expect. In contrast to the usual Silicon Valley encounter, where the exchange of ideas can become abrasive, he has a way of absorbing and deflecting contrary views. Phrases like "to be fair" and "it's a bit of both" litter his conversation, as he deftly acknowledges and neutralises disagreements and massages criticism into something more palatable.

These are useful traits given the job at hand: winning over media companies and advertisers that often thought of Google as arrogant and aloof. With Facebook now pushing into the media and advertising worlds as it looks to cash in on its own massive audience, this battle for hearts and minds has assumed an extra urgency.

Asked about clashes with the media industry over copyright issues, for instance, Mr Arora says: "I think we're in a much better place than we were in the early days, to be fair." The problem, he suggests, was not that Google pushed the envelope recklessly (it still faces landmark lawsuits from Viacom and the book industry), but that it came to be blamed, unfairly, for all the evils of the web.

"The point is, there's a fundamental shift in consumer behaviour going on," he says. "We're not causing that shift, we're just participating in it."

Criticisms from advertisers about poor levels of service are also taken in stride and explained away as a symptom of rapid growth: "It's a fair observation. Seven years ago there was more demand for Google people than we had people."

The problem, he says, lay in the difficulty of hiring enough people to answer phone calls from advertisers, rather than in any cultural or philosophical rejection of accepted norms of customer service – even though Google executives once reveled in the "scalability" of their self-service system precisely because it didn't require expensive humans.

"It was part of the evolution of us going from a start-up in Silicon Valley that was trying to do so many things at the same time to a company that says: Now we're in this for the long term."

He says that making people available on the phone has lifted customer satisfaction levels, as measured by internal surveys, from "in the 60 per cents" when he took on his current job to "close to the 90 per cents" now.

Mr Arora has a tendency to date important steps like this on Google's path to becoming a more mature company to his own career trajectory.

A former head of marketing at T-Mobile Europe, he joined Google in London in 2004 to develop and run business operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. He came to the company after being interviewed by co-founder Sergey Brin at the British Museum – part of the famously lengthy Google screening process. He had already assembled an eclectic career, from working as a financial analyst at Boston-based investment firm Putnam to setting up a data service for T-Mobile.

What he calls "the first 'aha', or insight" dates from that time: to accept business from as many new countries possible, long before Google had operations on the ground. That has been followed by "a relentless tear trying to open offices and hire people all over the world". With internet trends going global rapidly, the key was to get ahead of the trend.

The "second insight", on his move to Google's California headquarterse in 2009, was to push harder into the new areas of mobile, display and video advertising. That has resulted over the past year in the disbanding of the company's specialist salesforces, with all advertising now sold through a single organisation.

"I'm a student of business – that's the difference [with] everyone else at Google," he says. He calls his peers "very smart product guys trying to understand business" – and while he credits them with sharp insights, he says that's different from "going out and executing it."

Among the main prizes in Mr Arora's sights now is that $200bn of TV advertising. He talks of YouTube's continued rise as an inevitability and brushes off the suggestion that its latest attempt at more professional programming still falls well short of the quality most advertisers require. The changes coming to TV sets in the next three to five years, as they connect to the internet, will be as big as those that have changed the mobile phone world, he predicts.

"All of us are a bit resistant to change," he says, softening the direct challenge a little. "We know what we know, we don't know what we don't know. Over time, trends overtake us."

But hasn't Google itself been on the wrong end of one of the biggest trends online: the rise of social networking? And don't the new forms of social advertising that Facebook is experimenting with represent the next frontier?

Mr Arora refuses to talk about Facebook by name, but indirectly questions its success with advertisers so far. "Social information to enhance the advertising industry is going to be way bigger than social advertising – because I don't know what social advertising is," he says. "Is it is just another display ad on a social page? That's not as interesting."

Google is behind in the race to amass the social information it will need to drive this next wave of online advertising. But given the strong positions its has built in mobile, display and video to complement to its dominance of search, Mr Arora's self-confidence feels more than skin-deep.

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