The Marketing Profile: Dan Cobley of Google

Dan Cobley, Google
Dan Cobley, Google

It may be an effect of working for the world's most popular search engine, but Dan Cobley seems relaxed about taking his job home with him. Google's senior director of marketing for North and Central Europe says that his two young sons are already ambassadors for the brand.

'They love the fact that dad works at Google,' he says. 'It is cool. They fight over my Google caps and notepads and have personalised their iGoogle homepages.'

Their enthusiasm is perhaps not surprising, given the obvious love that their father has for the brand. Cobley lavishes praise on its senior management team and enthuses about the company's technological innovation, including groundbreaking products such as Google Earth and Street View.

Cobley, 42, was vice-president of brand and marketing at Capital One Europe when he was approached by headhunters in 2006. He told them he was not interested. 'Then they said the job was at Google, and I said: "OK, when can I start?"' he recalls.

His subsequent dedication was recently rewarded with an expanded role, covering Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Nordic countries, as well as the UK and Benelux. His boss, Lorraine Twohill, vice-president of marketing EMEA, was promoted to become head of global marketing.

Cobley says one of his priorities is to balance 'central scale with local entrepreneurialism in a way that meets the business needs and keeps people happy'. He insists Google has so far managed to avoid the 'pendulum swing' of centralising marketing to save money and then hurriedly creating local responsive marketing, something he says he has witnessed in other major organisations.

The image of a pendulum could also be used to describe public feeling about Google, which is viewed, by turns, as a brilliant, life-improving technology firm and a sinister, intrusive behemoth.

In 2001, just a few years after Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded the company, Google adopted the credo 'Don't be evil'.

 'Any business that is as successful as ours will have people trying to find the cracks and prise them open,' says Cobley. 'So we have to be extra careful to retain our consumer focus and humility. The company has a very strong moral compass which comes all the way down from Sergey, Larry and Eric [Schmidt, Google's chief executive].'

Media owners often reel off what they claim are Google's unfair advantages. The media has also criticised the brand, citing Street View and mobile location service Latitude as threats to privacy.

However, the 800m worldwide unique users who 'Google' each month see it as a vital part of their day-to-day communication, according to Cobley.

The search market has changed dramatic-ally in recent years. Google's growth is in stark contrast to the declining fortunes of Ask Jeeves, where Cobley worked between 2000 and 2002. At that time Google was just starting up, and was 'techy and geeky, one to watch, but not a serious competitor', he says.

He adds that Ask Jeeves had an 'accessible brand position', which made it attractive to people who were less technologically savvy. 'Taking "Jeeves" away meant [Ask] lost that and didn't really gain anything else,' claims Cobley. Earlier this year, Ask.com reinstated the butler icon and returned the site to its original name.

Cobley, a physics graduate, who published computer programmes in magazines from a young age, describes himself as a geek. 'To be able to marry that techy stuff with an exciting marketing challenge really appealed to me,' he says.

His first job, however, was in a very different field. Cobley spent a year as an oil-exploration engineer in Pakistan and hated the experience. He felt many of his colleagues had been 'damaged' by the ex-pat lifestyle and oil-industry machismo. 'I learnt that if you work in an organisation where there are no people above you that you want to be like, then go and work somewhere else,' he says.

Being compared to Google's Schmidt, however, would leave Cobley 'delighted'. 'He is inspirational in his combination of business acumen and the ability to be a power-ful leader without being an egotist,' he says.

Often asked what exactly he does, since Google has no retained ad agency and does not run any campaigns, Cobley insists his job is more interesting than the brand activity he led at Capital One, or his work for Walkers on the launch of cheese-and-onion-flavour Doritos.

He points to the greater variety offered by Google. 'At Walkers, the innovation cycle was new product shape, new pack size, new flavour, new promotion, and that was as broad as the level of change got,' he says. 'Here, you wake up one morning and we have launched Google Wave, an entire new communications tool.'

This summer, Google ran a global photography competition in collaboration with the Saatchi Gallery for students to create themes for iGoogle. It received more than 3500 entries from 82 countries. 'There was PR around the event and it drove take-up of iGoogle,' says Cobley. 'We like this sort of campaign as it is fun, engaging and doesn't involve a big media cost.'

Google also runs an annual Doodle for Google contest, which encourages school children to design a homepage. 'Imagine if you had thousands of kids trying to design a Coca-Cola bottle,' he adds. 'You can't imagine a deeper brand experience.'

Cobley will not rule out advertising activity for some Google products in the future, but argues that his most powerful marketing tool is having a better search product than his rivals. 'The campaigns for other search providers will drive a small blip of trial, but, as long as our experience is better, they will come back to Google,' he says.

However, not even Google is immune to the advertising downturn, and Cobley admits there is still work to do in convincing brands to spend more of their budgets online. He says, for example, that most UK businesses do not use Google AdWords, which offers targeted ads around keyword searches. His team is therefore wooing smaller regional agencies and advertisers. Co-marketing partner-ships with banks and insurance firms, together with direct mail and events, are 'significantly growing the pace of new advertiser sign-ups', he adds.

Cobley is clear about his contribution to Google to date. 'I've helped take the business from doing some clever, scrappy, entrepreneurial marketing activities, which didn't really deliver any coherent strategy, to a clear marketing strategy for the most important products in the most important markets,' he says. One gets the feeling, however, that his work will not end there.

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