Google’s CMO shares 5 enduring lessons the pandemic has taught her

Lorraine Twohill / April 2021

Lorraine Twohill is the chief marketing officer at Google. Here she reflects on the past year of leading Google’s marketing teams through the pandemic and the learnings she’ll hold close from this difficult year.

It is incredible to think back to where we were a year ago. Overnight we went from our normal, everyday lives to lockdowns and working from home. COVID-19 brought launches, campaigns, and events to a halt — meaning our marketing teams everywhere had to pivot quickly and rethink how to connect with their audiences in the toughest of times.

But more than the work itself, we have learned a lot through this deeply challenging experience: about ourselves, our teams, and what we can achieve when we all pull together. What has struck me most, and what I am deeply humbled by, is how our people rallied to help those in need this past year. That had a profound impact on not just the work, but also the way we will work as a marketing team in the future. Here are some of the lessons I will hold onto as we move forward.

We came up with lots of great ideas in those first few weeks, but we soon realized that simply launching a bunch of things wouldn’t help.

Stay true to who you are

Google has always been about helpfulness in the context of moments, big and small. This was one of those big moments. And we needed to show up. For us, that meant providing useful and authoritative information, fast. We came up with lots of great ideas in those first few weeks, but we soon realised that simply launching a bunch of things wouldn’t help. Instead, we had to focus on where we could add the greatest value for those in need. Agility and decisiveness led to a focus on where we could help the most.

Build from strong foundations

In uncertain times, it is often difficult to know where to begin. Thankfully, we had already built strong foundations as a team. We have experienced local teams and country leadership with close ties to local governments. And we have seasoned global teams who are used to scaling programs to over 100 countries. Thanks to this expertise and years of crisis response work, we were able to get thousands of SOS alerts and other helpful information up on our homepage and in Search results in record time. When schools closed, we moved quickly to help teachers, parents, and students adapt to remote learning overnight, from Italy kick-starting what eventually became the global Teach from Anywhere program to launching a Chromebook loaner program in Japan. When local states needed help to drive adoption for their contract-tracing apps, we knew the playbook to spread the word. And thanks to our muscle memory, we could ship programs at speed, like Do the Five in over 100 countries and #With Me in over 70 countries.

Strong foundations make all the difference when times get tough.

Empathy, always

Although everyone has experienced pandemic differently, we are all living through a unique shared experience, which gives us more inspiration for powerful storytelling that can resonate with people. In addition to that, COVID-19 has introduced so much chaos and new information into our lives, and people’s time is so valuable. This led to an increased focus on the messages that really matter. We needed to lead with empathy and connect with people on a more human level. Over the past year, we reassessed our work for language, visual imagery, and more, pausing things that didn’t feel right. But we also shared a lot of new work that captured the moments and the stories we were all experiencing together. Great creative has always leaned on truth and shared experience. Right now, there is more of that than ever.

Sometimes the best answer is to just show up and be helpful. Small businesses have been hit hard this year so we needed to help them navigate new challenges. Our teams moved fast to build out new features, like letting customers know if restaurants offered takeout or delivery, and we worked hard to encourage folks to support their favorite local spots. Because of the economic toll COVID-19 has taken, people are searching for new job opportunities more than ever before. So we’ve launched new Google Career Certificates and have partnered with over 130 employers ready to hire people. And with vaccine rollouts underway, we want to help people get the facts, partnering with authoritative experts to provide the latest trusted information.

Great creative has always leaned on truth and shared experience. Right now, there is more of that than ever.

How you show up when it matters most matters.

Walk the talk

The world witnessed an extraordinary call for racial equity last summer that cannot be forgotten. And we realised that, even in our own team, good intentions are not enough. We have been working toward creating a more inclusive workplace at Google and more inclusive marketing for some time. But the events of the past year made it clear we needed to put a more concrete plan in place to affect real, sustainable change. That is why we launched a clearer set of company and team commitments to address systemic inequity at scale.

We have a shared responsibility to represent people across all dimensions, like gender, age, and disability. This is forever work.

There are three areas we care deeply about: a group of leaders accountable for change, a team that looks like its users, and a body of work that challenges the status quo. To help our leaders, we created a required 12-episode training called “[Digital] Human,” in partnership with Reggie Butler. Through podcasts, interviews, built-in reflection periods, and action plans, this training helps managers strengthen their capability to foster a culture of belonging for everyone on their team. We have also committed to doing more to address representation of underrepresented groups at all levels, from hiring to promotion to retention. And in our work, we are taking concrete steps like launching new features to support Black-owned businesses, using our voices to take a stand, and hosting events like Bear Witness, Take Action on YouTube.

We have a shared responsibility to represent people across all dimensions, like gender, age, and disability. This is forever work.

Be human

It has long been part of our culture to rally together and sprint to get things out the door quickly. But this time, things were different. Everyone was at home, making it harder to get things done. And everyone was scared and worried. A year into the pandemic, some of us have not been able to hug or visit loved ones. Some of us are living alone or with a full house. Some of us have found it hard to keep a routine, to feel active, or to be inspired. But being vulnerable with each other and showing our humanness has brought us closer together. Our screens have been filled with kids, parents, pets, and partners. These are the moments that have made us laugh and brought us together as a family.

We rarely talked about well-being in the past, but that had to change. It was a new muscle for us. For example, we stopped talking about our work in two of our marketing-wide meetings. Instead, we just talked about how we were doing. And it gave people permission to be vulnerable, to share, to talk, and to feel supported. We realised that making well-being a priority starts at the top. Leaders and managers can make it easier for others to prioritise self-care, and they have to model it themselves, for example, by using features like schedule send.

An example of a well-being manifesto that some of our teams used

And we realised it wasn’t just us. From Search and YouTube trends, we could see many people were struggling, so we did something about it, from raising awareness and sharing tips on our homepage to creating YouTube playlists on well-being, and more.

These are just a few of the things I’ve learned after a year of working from home and seeing what we were able to accomplish despite the circumstances. Thankfully, there are signs of hope around the world, and I am proud to partner with the Ad Council on an industry campaign to promote authoritative information and encourage vaccinations globally.

In many ways, COVID-19 brought out the best in all of us — more humanity, more empathy, taking care of each other, focusing on how best we could help, and making quick decisions. As we look ahead, past the COVID-induced lockdowns and towards a reopened world, I truly hope that we don’t forget the good this year taught us.

What the pandemic taught us at Google about our own marketing organisation