Head of Social Lab

Google’s Head of Social Lab Urges Brands to Listen More Actively

In a time of a pandemic and protests, social conversations are changing at a fast-paced speed. Marketers trying to keep up are taking action to carefully navigate these social conversations—for example, avoiding scheduling posts in case these coincide with ill-timed news. Santiago Pochat, Head of Social Lab at Google, delves into how his team is leaning into emerging social trends to promote well-being and shares advice on how brands can avoid potential pitfalls.

How did you get to where you are today? Any noteworthy learning moments along the way?

I was born and raised in Argentina, where I started my career agency side. Through an early job at Edelman, I first moved to San Francisco (where I'm back again now) and later New York, where I landed in what was both a pivotal client for the agency and my career (Samsung Mobile). I got to be an active part of the brand's meteoric rise into the powerhouse that it is today, leading me down to the clear belief that if hard work is the fuel, luck is the spark that lets those things come together to work in your favor. That role gave me the experience that led me to Verizon and, ultimately, my role at Google today.

What’s currently happening in marketing that most excites you, and how is it changing the future of the industry?

There's been a deep sense of brand self-examination that has been building for some time—from the early days of brands on social media that made an earnest effort to showcase a personality, to brands now that are born out of a set of values they share with their customers. It's an exciting time to witness how different brands have responded to the pandemic, sometimes compromising their business models to help. Marketing that follows values has existed for a while, but seeing companies put values over the brand, in places like racial equity or towards their customers' health, speaks to a more earnest pivot.

"I look forward to a little bit more uncompromising honesty for brands with fewer shortcuts into snark."

One of Google’s latest videos shows “the unprecedented degree” to which conversations are evolving in America. How have these conversations changed since you first took this role?

2020 has been a strange year, to say the least, which has seen focus evolve faster than anything I've ever seen before. By looking at either Search Trends or Social Conversation, it has been interesting to see what people care about evolve either thematically or tonally, and sometimes drastically, day to day. From the early onset of quarantine anxiety to the following signs of coping before reopening started in certain states into the latest racial equity conversations, they are marked mainly by immense volume, attention, and particularly speed. The swell of most of these themes was large, fast, and sustained over time, which is particularly unlike other spikes we've seen before.

A big highlight of Social Lab is how you incorporate social thinking into your marketing work. What’s the biggest challenge when you’re advertising the flow of current conversations?

I mentioned the speed has been a challenge in capturing and evolving how we respond to conversations throughout this time; one practical way we've found to connect with our users has been to focus not just on what they care about but make it digestible and giving them credit where credit is due. Our users are at the core of our products, and their ingenuity teaches us new things every day. To keep up, we leverage Search Trends in Social to capture the full scope of the conversation instead of a single emerging trend—for example, we tackled 'self-care' by helping our users find resources within our products like relaxing playlists on YouTube or directing them to Search for breathing exercises.

What does brand storytelling look like in the COVID-19 era? What are some wrong turns companies could avoid?

With attention fundamentally fractured, brands that focus seem to be performing better. Making fewer announcements and deploying more measured advertising that is aware of the context in which it's being released has always been smart. Still, in the current environment, it's critical. Mistakes, missteps, and otherwise ill-timed small objects like a poorly placed social post will wreak havoc on best-laid plans. An active stance towards listening, particularly in social, and understanding what is happening out there in the world, not just in planning but in execution, will help avoid potential pitfalls. Tone deafness is not acceptable for brands, and context can sometimes be hard to discern. That’s why asking questions, getting external perspectives, and listening to a diverse group of voices in the work will make it the best it can be.

What advice can you offer for effectively leading and inspiring a team remotely?

"Leading with empathy begins by listening and making the time to speak to your teammates."

Pay particular attention to situations most unlike yours. Teams are composed of complete people with experiences, sets of problems, and daily realities that may be hard to understand. Leading with empathy begins by listening and making the time to speak to your teammates. Giving them your undivided attention, seeking not just to accommodate but understand and actively help can make a world of difference. Make room for your vulnerability in that process; defeating the idea you are operating at full capacity is not only unrealistic but unfair without context. Start by reflecting on what you're struggling with and collaborating to make everyone's circumstances better.

What do you see as the most valuable marketing skill(s) needed today and moving forward?

Curiosity remains undefeated. Hard skills are something you can learn but being curious will perpetually give you an advantage over someone else. I've always been more partial in people who are interested in things that they can't immediately translate to work but find a way to do it. Finding adjacent skills to your day to day marketing work helps not just differentiate yourself in the marketplace but also makes your work so much better—a base level understanding of Python, for example, can help make your Twitter bot idea a reality without asking anyone for help, even if it's just to prove it works.

You’re currently an advisory board member for 600 & Rising. What’s the best advice you have for underrepresented minorities to get their foot in the door?

The time is now—brands and agencies are paying attention and listening. They don't have a choice to ignore the issue anymore. It's never been easier to get someone's ear for advice, ask about opportunities, or call them out for not working hard enough to get more people like you through the door. Find the people in the industry trying to make a difference and start with them—we'd love nothing more than to help you succeed!

What one question would you ask the marketing community?

How are YOU as an individual leaving the marketing world a better place than you found it?

I think it's important that we ask ourselves these sorts of questions devoid of KPIs, brand strategies or tweets to engage. It could be internal things like re-examining your hiring pipeline, to using your client's time, money, and brand power to build campaigns for those who don't get the benefit of seeing themselves reflected in it.