Google’s UK MD: Small businesses will be a growth engine for Britain post-Brexit

Following his recent appointment as UK and Ireland managing director, Ronan Harris shares his views on marketing and its role within the internet giant as part of Marketing Week’s ‘View From The Outside’ series.

Ronan Harris, Google.
Picture by Shane O’Neill / Copyright Fennell Photography 2015.

Ronan Harris began his career in engineering before joining Google as a sales director in 2005. He recently took over as UK and Ireland managing director.

While he views marketing as an important function within the business, he has never been a marketer. Here he shares his views of the discipline.

The value of data and insight

Marketing is a very important tool for us as a business. It enables us to go out and engage with our consumers and to tell our story. We need to adopt the best practices that we can find in the [marketing] trade in order to get our message out there and have conversations with our users so that we understand what they need. From that point of view, marketing plays a massive role within Google.

The flip-side of that is the marketing services that we provide to businesses and advertisers. I see us as a growth engine for British business – particularly as we go through this period of uncertainty with Brexit. One thing that you can bet on is data and insight, and the underlying trends that we see in real time in the market. Helping businesses to understand and take advantage of that is very important to me.

It is important for large businesses, but it’s also incredibly important for small businesses. We have put a massive amount of work into educating those businesses about digital. That includes putting our people into the field in towns and cities around the UK, talking to small businesses so that they can take advantage of the opportunity that digital affords.

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The role that we play in helping small businesses to connect with consumers, in the UK and abroad, is something I’m excited about and will be a big growth engine for Britain post-Brexit.

Google’s changing marketing message

If you go back to when I started at Google in 2005, our product was search marketing. Today, even search marketing has become very complex because it’s not just search on desktop but across screens of all sizes. We’re having to constantly change the narrative that we have got with our clients and help them understand the opportunities and how to take advantage of them – whether that’s mobile, video, programmatic or whatever the next thing is.

We have moved from explaining what digital marketing is back in the very early days to how you get the most out of digital marketing today. The conversations I’m having with businesses now are around the types of skills that they need and about understanding data and insight.

We have moved from explaining what digital marketing is back in the very early days to how you get the most out of digital marketing today.

It’s very important for us to tell our story. One of our most recent hardware launches was the Pixel phone, which involved us going out and doing a lot of storytelling in lots of different media. As it was a new product, we needed to make sure people were educated about it. That applied across traditional, as well as digital, media formats. We will continue to do that type of thing well into the future.

Moving from engineering to the boardroom

I decided I was never going to be a good enough engineer to be brilliant, so I moved into the business side of things where I could apply my problem solving and organisational abilities in a better way.

I have always been really passionate about technology and the application of technology to solve real-world problems. The role that I have now is exactly that. I get to go out and sit in boardrooms with our clients and talk about the challenges they have in their businesses and how I can bring the various parts of Google’s technology to help them solve those challenges.

I’ve always been a huge proponent of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) skills as a collective – it’s something we should all be pushing even more aggressively in our businesses and with our children. I’m not the most creative person in the world so I’m biased to the scientific side.

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I would never pretend to have enough formal training in the discipline of marketing. My learning has really been through my experience on the job, my problem-solving abilities and my understanding of how consumers develop and live their lives in an online space.

Current marketing challenges

On the business side, we have clearly got uncertainty off the back of Brexit, but there are bigger underlying trends that are going to affect this industry in the longer term. One trend in particular is the continued evolution of mobile and the fact that user expectations are developing at a rate faster than businesses are often responding to, so mobile is one area we are continuing to put a big focus on.

A lot of the conversations I’m having with clients at the moment are about how they can do a better job of harnessing data.

Another is around use of data. A lot of the conversations I’m having with clients at the moment are about how they can do a better job of harnessing data. They are hearing how businesses are starting to use machine learning algorithms to generate insights and they want to know how they can get ready for that as well.

The other thing that we’re really focused on in the UK market is around skills. Digital marketing is a rapidly evolving industry. If you look at digital skills more broadly, they increasingly touch many different jobs and aspects of those jobs. Our latest survey of businesses shows that 80% of businesses believe they could move faster and grow quicker if they had access to those skills.

I worry that the skills gap could widen if we don’t take collective action. It was good to see the secretary of state for culture, media and sport Karen Bradley’s recent announcement about the digital skills strategy. We’re certainly going to play our role in that.