Be like water — Reflections on creating for Google I/O
Google is a dynamic, smart, fast-moving, optimistic, and ambitious company that moves quickly to build technologies and products to improve lives and humanity on a global scale. At Instrument, we have partnered with groups across Google, broadly learning about the organization on a macro scale as we deeply dive into brand, product, and program details.
The magic of what we have made with Google Developers Marketing for I/O over the last decade has been born out of how we approach the partnership. How we have worked together has led to the interesting, engaging, useful, beautiful, and weird experiences we have created. As we take a moment to reflect on the tenets that have gone into creating this healthy and lasting relationship, we look to the years of I/O work, from 2010 to 2019, and what has given us creative space to make great work.
Trust is the mothership
As is easy to imagine, the lead-up to one of tech’s biggest conferences is demanding. After a few years working together, our Developers Marketing partners had a hard sprint to complete a vast amount of work leading up to the event—and the pieces of work we were making with them was the tip of their to-do-list iceberg. We were trying to get our lead client on a video chat to review work we had done in order to get approvals and move forward. She had absolutely zero time; something else had exploded and needed her dedicated attention for the final week leading up to the event. In that moment, she turned to me and said “I need to focus on fixing and delivering something else; I trust you to go forward on this without me and make it great.” And we did.
The bedrock of our work is made upon the golden road of trust. That may sound obvious or cliché but you don’t truly understand the importance of trust until you are in the tough moments and feel the steadfast confidence in what you can do when you have a client’s trust (or the sweaty tension if you don’t). The key for trust, especially when you are in the business of client services, is to start by giving trust away for free. Trust your team from day one. Trust your new client contact. Trust the client stakeholders who you’ve never met and who seem to give sideways feedback. Trust the universe. Don’t make anyone have to earn it, and don’t hide it away like Smaug on his mountain of gold. (And always trust that people will understand your nerdy Hobbit jokes.) Trust is a multiplying entity that breeds on abundance and optimism. When a team trusts each other, when a team trusts a client, when a client trusts a team, and so on, then creative technology work has the safe space it needs to flourish.
Know when they are having a baby
We have been through some tough stuff with our Developers Marketing partners over the last ten years: hard life moments, swirly project situations, and beautiful life things. Early on in the relationship with one of our key Devs Marketing partners, I went to his office to visit for a day to connect. He and I sat down for coffee, and he asked (basically) “okay, so what do you need from me?” And my genuine response was “Oh! Nothing. I just wanted to connect, talk, and see how you are doing.” I sought out a human moment, and nothing else. I wasn’t pitching or selling to him. I wasn’t asking for a favor. I was listening for no other goal than to be a human who hears another human and understands them.
If we start our foundation with trust, we build our house with love. We spend the time to create authentic human connections that are lasting. Over the last ten years, that client and I have continued to find each other for those human moments a few times throughout the year. Sometimes it’s light, sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes it’s brief, and sometimes it’s dancing for hours at a fun concert. This relationship in particular has developed to model the best kind of professional relationship; it’s respectful and it’s appropriate, it’s human, real, and lasting.
At Instrument, we always find our longtime partners to be genuinely incredible and unique humans we deeply care about. We know when our partners are in performance review time and are extra swamped/stressed. We know what is going on in their org and what they are up against. And we know when they are moving houses or having babies so we can celebrate the most important things with them: life outside of work.
Go bird by bird
After our first couple of I/Os, the Developers Marketing team asked us to pitch to do the project for the next year. I was a little shocked and hurt. We had done amazing work. They knew us well and believed that we knew the audience (developers) better than anyone else (being nerdy technologists ourselves). We had a strong partnership. I was a bit defensive and caught my thoughts spiraling unproductively. What happened?!? What did we do wrong? What other agency had been schmoozing to get in on “our territory”?
We work with the majority of our partners on a project basis. We have had numerous long partnerships and engagements, but have not relied on the typical agency model of “retainers” to keep clients working with us. We have always wanted to work with clients because we want to, and for them to work with us because we are the best for their work, not because it is mandated by a contract that some random person not connected to the work “sold in.” Everyone shows up to do the work with a chosen dedication and passion for that effort and with a hustle to get it done to be the best; there are no laurels to rest on, no 2-year contracts to hide behind. This model makes the business leader’s job harder. There are more scopes to write, more details to align on, more business development hustle, more planning and team management strategy. But the relationships stay fresh, the work gets stronger, and humans remain motivated. It’s worth it.
It’s worth it even in the moments when a longtime client makes you pitch for something you’ve been doing for years. I caught myself quickly, with my other project/team leads, to see that I/O pitch situation the right way: as an opportunity. It was an awesome moment for our team (and for the clients). We still really wanted the partnership, so we worked even harder to keep it. We went into that pitch like it was our first and last. The work was smart. It was beautiful (and just a little weird). It was functional. It elevated what we had done before. And it was just the right amount of surprise and delight to light up everyone’s imagination to want more. Every year since then, we don’t assume we are a shoo-in for the I/O digital and brand work. We are awake at the wheel at every turn and know that we are earning the next project, whether I/O or another, with every smart, active move we make along the road.
Be like water
While we may “know” I/O well, we allow ourselves to be surprised every year and to have ease with what may come. Our Executive Creative Director, Dan Schechter, has a number of choice nuggets of wisdom for our team, one of which is “be like water” (from the Bruce Lee school of thought). I pull my similar mantra from Serenity (bring back Firefly, already!): “I am a leaf on the wind.” It’s one of the many reasons he and I (and our other team leaders) work so well together; no matter how sweaty the situation, we roll through it. We don’t complain about change or imperfect circumstances; we work from the current reality.
After the first two years, we understood the dynamic nature of the I/O event and we solidified the “non-plan plan” approach for I/O. While we have a project scope and initial plan, we put a project team in place that can start with the mindset that “everything [within reason] is in scope and everything [within reason] is our problem to help solve.” We set the project team up to be able to adapt and pivot as the project goes along, to say “Yes, and…” with confidence. This helps us continue to create functional, user-centric experiences that will get approved and launch.
As much as we root our work in an understanding of the user, we also understand our partners’ realities and make work that will better ease those realities. Allowing a team (and clients) to not live-and-die by arbitrary parameters or early project plans breathes life into a project. We support each other to bring an optimistic attitude, anticipate what is to come ten miles down the road, and do something positive about it.
“They are never going to go for this, but #@$% it.”
If I had a dollar for every time we have said that, I’d have a pony (and anyone who knows me knows how often I say I want a pony). One thing the years of work on I/O has taught us is the value of the “4th idea,” the just-out-there idea that rides the line between the expected and Banana Town, USA. The 2019 teaser puzzle-in-a-video is a fabulous example of a team so deeply understanding the audience/ourselves (this work is for creative technologists by creative technologists) that they can dream up a perfectly weird concept. It was incredibly inspiring to watch our multidisciplinary project team get excited about this delightfully strange experience and then make what was needed to show the vision to our Developers Marketing partners so they were quickly able to say “UM, YES PLEASE.”
For a team to do this, it takes a strong creative environment that allows folks to take chances, to not be ruled by fear, and to let their personalities shine through into the work. Since you can’t manufacture/force the perfect creative result, you have to focus on fostering the right environment and shared philosophies for making good work. That goes directly back to trust and human care—the values that not only inform how we work with our clients but also are the lifeblood of our own organization.
The company we have built and continue to innovate is intentionally crafted to be a place where people can make the best (and maybe weirdest) work of their careers, foster decade-long partnerships, and contribute to a thriving business. The Google Developers Marketing relationship, and the work made out of it, is not only a proud accomplishment but a model for how to foster thriving human-centric and value-driven business. Here’s looking to you, I/O 2029.