Justin De Graaf, Head of research and insights, ads marketing of Google
Justin De Graaf
Head of Research & Insights, Ads Marketing Google logo

Google’s Justin De Graaf Shares Insights on The New Customer Journey and His Data-led Career

Innate curiosity and the desire to solve needs (of both your brand and the consumer) are paramount to successful marketing, says Justin De Graaf who leads the Research and Insights team at Google. From developing global KPIs for Unilever to defining the role of first-party data for The Coca-Cola Company, Justin's career is rich with insights. Now at Google, Justin's team may not lead innovation, but their new views on traditional marketing topics are shaping the future of marketing, one insight at a time.

Why did you choose to join Google? 

Those who know me best know I’ve loved Google since it was a thing. I was the first person I knew to have Gmail back in August of 2004. I bought the first ever Android device at launch in 2008. And I always tell people “if you want a good photo, I’m happy to let you use my Pixel!” I think that makes me a fanboy.

On a personal level, when I’m at work, I love the feeling where in one meeting I’m the dumbest guy in the room and in the next meeting, I might know more than anyone at the table. The first feeling unlocks growth by appreciating all that I don’t know and builds respect for my colleagues’ skills. The second feeling is great in a different way. At a place with as much talent as Google, it feels amazing to be able to contribute something to the conversation.

Professionally, I’ve been leading insights-driven marketing for my whole career. At Google, we have a little white box where billions of times a day people turn to solve their needs. As a marketer who firmly believes that marketers’ role in business is to solve more needs so we can drive more growth, there is no better place to be.

You spent more than a decade of your career between Unilever and Coke, before joining Google. What are you most proud of from those roles?

From my early career years, I’m most proud of learning Unilever’s best practices for discovering insights - it’s powerful being trained to truly hear what people want and need. And at Coke, we pioneered new approaches for social media analytics that influenced the industry and helped brands have more impact through the social channel.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in marketing right now?

"...marketers are responsible for demand-led growth."

How many words do I get? Seriously though, I think it’s important to level set with some context. What is marketing’s role as a business function? I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, and I think it can be summarized like this: marketers are responsible for demand-led growth. There are a lot of different approaches to drive demand – packaging, positioning, purpose, price – but all of those inputs must lead to the business outcome measured by growth.

In that context, the changing role of the CMO is exciting – in that nervous excitement kind of way. If you think back to 2007, the CMO role began expanding beyond the traditional creative and communications requirements. Social and mobile were transformational shifts. But then came big data, programmatic media buying, first-party data strategies, now machine learning, and soon something else. Each of these has piled on to the CMO’s responsibilities and affected priorities. My team is leading new research that seeks to understand what Board Directors and CEOs expect of the CMO, and marketing as a function so that marketers can reset expectations for the future.

What are you working on now that is innovative?

My team has recently completed new analyses on the evolving consumer journey through a third-party opt-in panel of over 12,000 people. The idea is that the traditional marketing funnel just doesn’t really apply anymore. Our new look shows that the funnel has definitely changed the shape of the consumer journey, which is now as unique as the person doing it.

New Google data reveals that people shop in unique and varied ways, even within the same categories and products.
New Google data reveals that people shop in unique and varied ways, even within the same categories and products.

All sorts of things can get someone to start their journey – you see some candy in the checkout line, you see a really great ad, a friend tells you about their great new shoes – but the thing that’s most consistent is a person’s needs. I’ve just shared new research from my team that shows how people’s journeys are driven by their needs more than anything. And when it comes to the needs people turn to Google to solve, they are looking to be thrilled, impressed, educated, reassured, helped, and surprised.

What's one piece of advice you have for marketers looking to better connect their efforts to business results?

"Solve more needs, drive more growth."

Embrace testing. Sometimes marketing is done by gut feel, which can be OK. But more often than not, it’s possible to do pre-work that can help you understand if the campaign or product will be successful. A lot of marketers think testing before launch is meant to be a judgmental thing - yay or nay - but I’d argue it’s just a way to listen to what people want and need. Solve more needs, drive more growth.

What big learning moments have you experienced during your career?

I’ve had many huge career learning moments, but two really stick out. The first was when I switched from a local team to a global team and I expected my positive reputation to come with me. I learned the hard way that it’s important to build trust from scratch with every new stakeholder. I only made that mistake once.

The second, I was tasked to lead a tiger team expected to push boundaries and deliver recommended ways to win with an important audience. My team shared our recommendations to the executive leadership team who swiftly rejected them. It was a formative moment. I realized that I wanted to foster team environments where good ideas can come from anywhere.

Do you have any notable mentors?

The most important one is my wife, Sumona. She’s brilliant on her own and, fortunately for me, also happens to be a Ph.D. organizational psychologist, leadership advisor, and executive coach. Our dinner conversations are sometimes more like a coaching session! She helps me be more empathetic, teaches me what the C-suite and board face day-to-day, and pushes me to develop my leadership approach.

I’ll also never forget when Maria Gomez-Soler, after hiring me to her team, said to me: if you’re half as good as you think you are, you’ll do fine here. She always tells it to me straight and her coaching helps me to check my ego and turn more to the team.

How do you pick and develop the talent on your team?

Hiring is the most important decision I’ll make as a leader and I try to keep it simple. Follow the best available process (Who, by Geoff Smart & Randy Street) and seek diverse and inclusive candidates so the team has a better perspective and performance.

Bonus Questions

What’s something that most people don't know about you? I DJ’ed in college. Wicky-wicky!

If you weren’t in marketing, what would you be doing? Rock & roll frontman, race car driver, or toy inventor.

What book would you most recommend to fellow marketers? Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini. A marketer can possess a ton of skills, lead a great team, and build the flashiest decks – but if they can’t influence people they’ll have nothing to show for it.