Space for Imagination: How Google’s Ben Jones Views Marketing

Ben Jones almost drowned when he was a toddler, not because of any sudden accident, but because he wanted to swim with his siblings.

May 6, 2014

He walked down the bank of a pond until the water engulfed his head, then he sat down. “I think that kind of willful curiosity at the expense of personal safety has worked for me,” says Jones.

After his father pulled him ashore, and after some years of schooling and working, Jones became a Creative Director at Google. He spoke with YCCI recently about the influence of technology on today’s marketing. He will also speak this week at the annual Customer Insights Conference, where he’s talking about “the future of human experience, and its implications for building your brand.”

The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

In 2003, Google was nowhere on Interbrand's list of the 100 "Best Global Brands." Ten years later, it ranked number two, right behind Apple. This was also the first year that Coca-Cola lost its top spot. What’s the narrative behind this?

I think of two main things. One has to do with the explosion of technology in our lives. Access to information and communication has risen drastically in importance. It’s taken a central place in how we’re connected, how we live, how we think about ourselves. I was shocked to read earlier this week that there are now more cellphones in the world than there are clean toilets. For me, that said something very fundamental about how we value being connected. That’s one huge piece.

The other is the rise of a deep focus on the user. Both Google and Apple are very focused on how to design for users—not just the usability of individual products, but also thinking how to create products that weave into their lives or knit information together in ways that feel both unexpected and vital.  I think the growth of our brand is a response to that user focus. It’s been amazing to see.

Technology is in a new space. For a long time, it was about utility: can I do the thing that I want to do better and faster? Technology is now doing things that we can’t imagine and don’t understand. New behaviors are emerging. And so, the way I think of it, technology is more about enabling imagination than “can I get stock quotes faster,” or “can I get my plane flight more quickly.” We’re beyond utility now. We’re into something else.

You've talked about the necessity, as marketers, of creating human experience. When did you first pick up on this?

I started out as a copywriter. Once I became a creative director and a manager, then I did much less of the basic work. My job was instead to create a space where the work could happen. After a while, I eventually started to see that the things that I was doing to make work happen were the same things taking place in the marketing space: the rise of social, the ability for anyone to create and distribute media. Marketing that was good was about making a space, not about putting a message in, or telling a story at you. The work that I was struck by was much more about a space where people have an experience. Yeah, it was beautifully constructed and elegant and seductive—all of those things. But it was a different kind of storytelling.

And now I see it somewhere in the middle: beautiful storytelling about experiences. But people want the stories to be real. They don’t want made up and manufactured storytelling. There is an expectation now that marketers provide a real experience. That’s part of the blurring between marketing and product.

How do you make space where this kind of experience can take place?

One of the simple ways is giving people missions, for lack of a better word. People don’t know what to do with technologies. They want to do something, and they want to do something amazing, but they don’t know what that is or how to get there. So a lot of the work that I think of as interesting is giving people a specific prompt, or a specific ambition. If you look at the rise of the visual web—the explosion of Instagram and Pinterest—this is a very small tactical way to participate in creating something. You are a part of creating, but this is not about asserting oneself as a tastemaker. It’s a creative act to take part in.

What are some interesting insights from the course of your work at Google?

We were working on a project for a financial services company that was trying to get people engaged in the idea of retirement at a younger age—obviously a big challenge. They were going to ask people what they wanted, and we essentially said, “If you ask them what they want they’ll tell you ‘a retirement calculator’ in some form or another, and then you’ll build one and nobody will want it.” So we ended up creating a tool about a surprising vision of your own future—a way to discover something unexpected about yourself through future forecasting. Then we checked back and mentioned that, oh, if you want to have this happen, to have the future you were expressing, then you have to do some planning right now. We exposed this idea that people don’t know what they want, and you can’t ask them what they want. You need to have them reveal what they want.

Another insight that keeps returning, in a similar vein, comes from work with a supermarket. They had tons of data and were attuned to it because the margins in that sector are razor thin. I asked the merchandising manager what his data had shown him and he said, “Diapers and beer.” I said, “What’s that mean?” and he said, “When you put the diapers near the beer, they both sell better, and nobody knows why.”

So, fundamentally, we don’t know why this might be, and you could never ask people about it, but we do know that when the diapers are near the beer they both sell better. For me, that’s about the need to rely on behavior much more than any process of rationalization.

So how do you define an insight?

A grounded articulation of reality that changes what you do. For me, as a creative, you have to ask: “Okay, is this thing important enough to change the design?” Is it going to change what you do? That’s the bar. If not, then it’s not an insight.

What's the greatest advice you've ever received?

The best professional advice I ever received was: when you don’t know what to do with your job and you’re trying to figure out the next step, don’t look for job description but find the most interesting people you know and ask them what you should do. They always think of something more interesting than you would have, and they very frequently know somebody who is doing it. All of the great professional shifts I’ve made have happened that way.

And then I would say, on the personal side, something I pulled from Annie Dillard. She said that your opinion about your own work is the least important part. You agonize over it, but your own opinion as your work is developing is completely irrelevant. I find that helpful. The emotional turmoil that I have about something while I’m producing it is not a useful measure of its value.

Where would your autobiography begin?

I think it would start with learning to swim. I’m the youngest of a passel of kids and we lived on a place called Shadow Lake, this pond near our house. My older siblings could all swim and when I was two or three, just mobile, I could see that they were swimming. I wanted to, too, so I would walk out into the water over my head and sit at the bottom. My dad would run out and grab me, throw me up, gasping, choking, and as soon as he turned his back I would trundle out again and sit at the bottom. I think that kind of willful curiosity at the expense of personal safety has worked for me.