An Interview with the Legendary Damian Burns, Google’s Director of Global Strategic Partnerships

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By: Hillel Fuld (@hilzfuld)

As you might have noticed, I like to interview people. Really important people. I literally made myself a list of individuals that I would one day, somehow, hope to have the privilege to interview. Some of them were a little out there. You know, people like the actress Alyssa Milano (remember Who’s the Boss? Good times.), Om Malik, the father of tech journalism, and even Steve Wozniak who founded this small company called Apple with his buddy Steve Jobs in their garage. I set myself some pretty high goals and so far, so good.

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Alyssa Milano

One of the people at the very top of the list was the great Damian Burns. The guy is sorta a big deal. I don’t really care that he heads up global strategic partnerships at Google. I mean, ok, if he offered me to be his desk cleaner for the rest of my life, I would be inclined to accept the offer, but still, that is not his biggest asset. Why does this interview excite me? Because the dude is a super mensch.

I mean, if he were to have an ego the size of North America, I would be like “Yea, I get that.” but he has not one egotistical cell in his body. I have been following Damian for years on Twitter and let me put it to you this way. As someone so senior at Google, he had to jump through hoops to get this interview approved and there is absolutely nothing in it for him. The only reason he did it is because I asked him if I could interview him and expressed how much it would mean to me. That is Damian, just a super nice guy, and one of the movers and shakers of the tech industry, in general.

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Damian Burns

So without further ado…  My questions and his answers:

1: Who is Damian Burns? Where did you come from both personally and professionally?

I was born and raised in London, England.

I started my career in advertising at a small independent agency and then joined Publicis towards the tail-end of the nineties. I worked in traditional media as a planner/buyer before becoming a founding member of Zenith Media’s very first digital operation in ‘99. I was doing very well in traditional media and many people thought I was crazy to switch paths and jump head-first into this new-fangled ‘internet thing’  – but it was the best move I could have made. The pace of change enthralled me and there was a constant learning curve that made a career in digital so much more rewarding than anything I’d done before.

I worked with some great brands who were making their first forays into digital media. BMW was a particular favourite  – an amazing client. They’re a company whose products are steeped in technological wizardry and it shone through in their marketing strategy.

In 2005, I was approached by a little-known technology company called Google to run their European agency business.I  just knew it was the right move for me the minute I started interviewing with Google’s amazing leadership team. I haven’t looked back since those days and nine years later, the company is just as innovative, inspiring and brave as it was back when I joined.

2: Let’s talk about digital advertising for a second. When we were kids, ads were engaging, they were fun! Comes along the web and mobile and makes these boring intrusive banners. Where are we headed and are impressions really the best metric we have to measure effectiveness?

By definition, the ads that we remember from the past tend to be those great ads which left an indelible mark on our memory.  There were many, many very average ads in the past which thankfully we don’t remember!

There is still a huge amount of great advertising being made today and I would argue that digital affords the opportunity for the industry to trump everything that has gone before. Just look at the incredible Dove Real Beauty campaign from Unilever (here) that became a global phenomenon via best-in-class creative work coupled with a media strategy that leveraged YouTube to reach tens of millions of people.

As for intrusive ads, this isn’t exclusive to the web. Because we’ve grown up with 30 second slots which slice and dice our TV entertainment or full-page ads that take up the majority of our favourite magazines, we’ve been desensitised to the interruptive nature of traditional advertising.

Nor is intrusiveness a universal experience across web properties. Take the Google homepage. It is a big white space with our logo in the middle but there are no ads in sight despite it being prime real estate. At Google, the user comes first, and you’ll also see this principle at play across our advertising products.  

In the same way that our organic search results are algorithmically ranked for relevance and quality, we also apply a quality score to our Search advertising. This ensures that these ads don’t feel like an interruption or an annoyance but are instead hugely relevant and valuable to our users. The same goes for TrueView ads on YouTube – if you don’t want to watch an ad and instead just want to get straight to the content, we give you the choice to skip it.

Personally, I’m very excited about the road ahead for digital advertising. I believe that the web is an incredible canvas and it has far more capacity than any other channel for creativity, personalisation and engagement.

Going forward, the three relatively new paths of data-driven automation, mobile and web video will intersect very strongly and revolutionise the web advertising experience.

As for the measurement of digital advertising effectiveness, impressions are a means to an end and, at best, mere proxies for effectiveness. I think we’ll see some great strides made in terms of attribution science  – particularly cross-device and online to offline conversion insight. In the Branding space,  the web is unbeatable for two-way interactions between consumers and Brands and I think there’ll be big leaps forward in terms of measuring engagement.

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Advertising: Old School

3: Tell me about Google. What does your day look like? Is it as awesome to work there as people say?

Nine years in and I’m loving it here more than ever. I’m proud of the hunger and restlessness of Googlers. There is an unceasing ambition and appetite for solving hard problems. Google is a very special company and, as you can imagine, this has a big impact on what my average day looks like.

My role entails overseeing a team that works with the world’s largest advertising agencies and brands.  Even though it’s exactly 20 years since the first internet ad, the web is still very young and a remarkably restless beast. Making the web work for your brand is a never-ending quest.  Its continuous evolution creates new frontiers for marketers every day of the week and we partner closely with them to help them tame the web and consequently avail themselves of these tremendous new opportunities.

Mobile is a great example of how the web’s continuous state of restless innovation rewrites the marketing rulebook. Almost overnight, we went from a desktop-centric web to a multi-device, mobile web. This has had huge implications for consumer behaviour and in turn, our expectations of Brands. The march of Mobile has required the marketing industry to reset  – not just in one or two areas – but across the spectrum of infrastructure and strategy.

4: What phone do you use and why? Google aside, what do you think about the ongoing iOS Android battle?

I have a Nexus 5! Why? Well it’s pure Android and super-fast with a great screen. I think that Android and Chrome is heading in a really interesting direction. Sundar Pichai and his team are very focused on delivering a very cohesive experience across multiple screens. You saw that at I/O with the announcements that went beyond smartphones –  TV, wearables and in-car. These are very exciting times and there will be many winners in this space – not just one.

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5: What is Google? I mean the money comes from advertising but is it a search company? A mobile company? Cars? Glasses? What is google to you?

I think Google means a lot of different things to a lot of people. Google’s Search heritage coupled with the constant flow of innovation in that area  – such as Google Now – means that the perception of Google as a Search company will be a mainstay anchor point in many people’s minds. And that’s fine – Search as a utility permeates pretty much everything in Digital.

But with YouTube, Android, Chrome, Google Glass,  Driverless Cars, Project Loon – Google is obviously so much more than Search.

To me, Google is a company focused on using technology to relentlessly innovate around some of the biggest problems we face as human beings. In my mind, everything you see the Google teams working on is an answer to the question ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…’

6: What are three of the most exciting tech trends you think we will see in 2015?

I’m really excited about the leaps computing will make in terms of how our devices will know and understand us better. At the moment, it’s still a relatively ‘push-button’ relationship whereby we have to enact something to get something. Anyone who uses Google Now will understand the almost magical qualities of a mobile device that provides you with useful information before you’ve even asked  for it – or known you needed it. For example, last week, I was due to leave my house early to catch my flight to San Francisco, but before i grabbed my coat, Google Now informed me that my flight was delayed by an hour. That gave me an extra hour at home with my family. This evolution from algorithmic science to algorithmic prescience will have a big impact on our lives. It will be fascinating to see how this cross-threads with the Internet of Things too.

Secondly, I think the cross-screen cohesion of  operating systems like Android will make the web simpler, faster, more intuitive and more personalised. The web will just work way better for all of us and that’s a good thing.

Finally, I think the couch web – the connected TV space –  will get very interesting over the next twelve months. There are already over a 100 million streaming media players and smart TVs in play and projections point to this figure growing rapidly. This will have all sorts of implications for not only consumer behaviour but the App ecosystem, entertainment, ecommerce and marketing.

7: Is privacy dead? Explain.

The digitization of the world we live in means that there’s more data than ever. People need to be able to trust that data will be used in the right way and not abused.  Google is very focused on making our users aware of the data we have and is giving them the choice as to how that data is used.

It’s really important that in parallel to ensuring people can trust organisations to use their data responsibly, we also focus on the tremendous benefits that data and data-driven experiences  can bring to our lives.

8: Let’s talk social! Why can’t Google get it right? I mean I love G+ and I get great engagement there but the general consensus is that… You know.

I think you have answered your own question – you are a smart guy and you get digital. You have admitted that you love G+ and you get great engagement there. There are 300M monthly active users in the Google+ stream who also agree with you. That is a pretty strong endorsement.

9: What is your take on wearable tech? Will It last or is it a passing trend? Do you use any? Will you?

Wearable tech is a very interesting arena and one in its infancy. There will always be the naysayers who question the use cases  – and they may be right in the sense that some devices are filling a gap that doesn’t exist and will drop away. But I’m equally certain that by getting these devices into the hands of developers and the population at large that we’ll see valuable use cases emerge. That is the beauty of open systems like Android. We provide the platform and developers will innovate in ways that no-one imagined.

I also think it’s great that people are looking to innovate beyond the current spectrum of screens and devices. It would be a rather dull world if we settled for the status quo.

In terms of my personal collection of wearables, I’m limited to just one  – Google Glass. And I’m loving it.

I’m sure I’ll add to my collection over the coming months but to steal a line from Benedict Evans – why do I need a device to tell me to run more when I have a wife that does that? 🙂

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10: Where do you see yourself in five years? How do you think Google will change over that time period?

That’s really difficult to answer as five years is a really long time in this industry. Five year’s ago there was no Chrome, no Trueview, no Googe Glass. I do hope that I’m still at Google because that will mean that I’m still doing something I love – and by definition it’s guaranteed to be totally different to what I’m doing now.

As for where Google is heading, I think Larry Page’s recent TED quote is a great pointer:

‘What is the future really going to be? And how do we create it?’

 Thanks a lot for this, Damian. I know I learned a lot from your answers and I am sure my readers did as well. I am privileged to call you a friend and hope to meet you face to face sometime soon. Meanwhile, just keep doing what you’re doing.

 


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hilzfuld

Hillel is Co Founder and Chief Marketing Officer at ZCast, a company taking on the pain of modern audio broadcasting. Hillel also blogs for many influential sites including TechCrunch, Mashable, The Next Web, Business Insider, The Huffington Post, Venturebeat, and others. Additionally, Hillel mentors startups across Israel in different accelerators including The Google Launchpad, the Microsoft Ventures accelerator, Techstars, The Junction, and more. Hillel has been named Israel's top marketer, has been featured on CNBC, Forbes, and many others and was recently added by Google to its marketing experts program. You can find and talk to Hillel on Twitter. He is @Hilzfuld.