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“Inspiration Is The Common Thing”: Robert Wong

How helping to lead Google Creative Labs is sort of like preaching.

“Inspiration Is The Common Thing”: Robert Wong
Robert Wong, 48 Executive creative director, Google Creative Lab

The offices of Google Creative Lab are not located at the search company’s Mountain View, California, HQ known as the Googleplex. Rather, they are situated in a squat and unimposing office building on Manhattan’s Ninth Avenue, opposite the Chelsea Market.

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To get to the lab, you take the elevator up to the 15th floor, and then you have to walk another flight up. The space is airy and open, with tables as work stations and few walls. I meet with Robert Wong, executive creative director of the lab, in one of the few private meeting rooms. Whiteboards on the walls are covered with sketches of flow charts and questions about deadlines. Despite the experimental sound of the labs, it looks like work actually gets done there.

Wong is calm and friendly, with a bubbling energy just below the surface. At one point during our chat, he can’t contain himself, and pops up to scrawl some diagrams on the whiteboard to punctuate his point. The Creative Lab helps Google to market its products to users and to inspire its engineers. Its forte is storytelling–about Google Glass and YouTube and everything in between–and I’ve come to get Wong’s story about himself.

“In high school, every year they gave us a test that was supposed to give guidance about what we should do when we grow up,” Wong tells me. “And every year, the results would come back for me and ‘preacher’ would be in the top three. I’m not religious, and I always discounted it. But when I look at what I do now, it makes sense,” he says. “How I work with my team and with others, in some ways it’s all preaching. Inspiration is the common thing. It was always there, and you discover it.”

Wong, who reports to Google Creative Lab head Andy Berndt, is guided by what he calls “the four Ps: purpose, people, projects, process.” The way he sees it, those four are in descending order of importance, and if you get each stage right, the ones that follow become clearer–and decision-making is easier.

“If you choose the right purpose, then certain people will be attracted by that. They will be motivated and unified. You need less management oversight. Those people will then conceive and execute products, products that fit the purpose. The process fills in the open spaces. But strong purpose ties it together. You have to excavate the purpose first.”

“As the world gets more complicated, with change happening in more and more places, it’s easy to lose the big picture.” This is when he gets up and goes to the whiteboard. He draws a pyramid, and points to the very tip of it: “This is what the world sees, hears, smells, feels about your brand.” Then he starts scribbling over the lower parts: “And this is where the bulk of your company is, manufacturing, distribution, finance, legal, right?” To get all those people aligned on the right projects, he notes, that very top tip needs to be something everyone embraces–more than what the company currently produces, he argues, it needs to be a goal, or as he puts it, a story. “You need to make a trip to the future and bring a souvenir back,” he says. “Is it pretend? Everything is pretend. Even the borders of countries: At one point, that was all pretend, just lines picked almost randomly.” But by creating that vision of the future, Wong argues, we can all rally around it, and that’s the only way you can actually build it.

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Wong does a terrific presentation about the power of pretend and storytelling. He notes that movies like Minority Report foreshadowed the touch-screen technologies of today–and actually inspired engineers to begin building them. “You sell people on the religion,” Wong says, evoking his preacher instincts. “People sometimes need it.”

Within his organization, Wong says, the tip of the pyramid–that purpose–enables a different operating system. “Talent is the most important thing,” Wong says. “The manager era is gone. You now have lots of senior people who are constantly selling to their reports. Your staff can leave. They have the option to go. That’s why purpose is so important. It’s the best way to keep talent.”

Wong’s own mission, he says, aligns with Google’s: “to do good things that matter and add joy, beauty, and meaning to the world. I ended up at Google because of the scale, that word ‘matters’ can impact a lot of people.”

“No matter where they work, people find meaning in what they do,” he observes. But he adds, “There’s a huge gap between the potential of people on the planet and what’s really happening.” If we align with purpose, he says, so much more can be unlocked.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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