Google Europe boss says innovation will guide firms through downturn

9 Oct 2008

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While high-street traders are showing signs of downturn blues and shoppers surge to the internet, it will be the businesses that invest and innovate in the tough times that will profit when the skies are clear, Google’s European director of online sales told siliconrepublic.com.

“Companies that outperform the market are the companies that invest and capitalise in a downturn,” Ronan Harris, director of online sales for Google’s European operations said this week.

Harris, who hosted a European online advertising summit at Google’s European headquarters in Dublin attended by 200 top advertising agencies, said that high-street retailers are being hit harder in the current slowdown, while online purchases continue to grow.

He said businesses that take advantage of their online presence will benefit from the migration of consumer buying power online.

Harris contrasted the last major downturn of 2001/2002 when there were fewer consumers online. However, today the internet is ubiquitous and smart businesses are continuing to invest where the growth is by creating web experiences for their customers that are as well thought out as their high-street offerings.

This strategy is being bolstered by a range of channels like TV, radio, print and online to communicate a single message, but most of the analysis of buying patterns takes place online.

As a result of exploiting the migration online, businesses that have a strong web presence will be stronger when the upturn hits the high street.

Speaking with siliconrepublic.com, Harris said that with the presence of Google’s EMEA headquarters in the city, as well as operations such as Yahoo!, Microsoft, Amazon.com, eBay and lately Facebook, Dublin is becoming the epicentre for excellence in online business development and advertising.

Harris, who heads a team of over 300 at Google’s Dublin office where over 1,500 people are based, said he views Google’s business ecosystem in Europe as predominantly about SMEs. “As far as we’re concerned, over 90pc of businesses in the region are SMEs.

“That’s where we focus and that’s what my team does, manage accounts for those businesses and advertisers, and translate consumer behaviour and trends in the online world into advertising and marketing opportunities.

“We’ve managed to build an ecosystem where in the beginning it was about search and the effectiveness of its underlying technology. Very quickly around that technology we built ourselves into having a ruthless focus on the users … the users who kept on coming back, and we kept that principle of self-selection.”

Harris describes the ethos that Google’s online search, marketing and advertising businesses are centred on as “managed chaos over what comes out of the bubbling cauldron that is the internet.”

In the Dublin office, a workforce with a combined strength of 40 languages handle Google’s EMEA business.

“We try to innovate in the ways we can work with those customers by understanding their business models and targeting the customers they are trying to connect with in the market. My focus is pan-European, it’s a phenomenal opportunity and only something that Google can put together.”

Harris expects online business to remain buoyant in the year ahead. “There’s a lot of doom and gloom in the financial markets. At the same time, the cost of living is very high. As a result, people are going to become much more cost-conscious and focused on value. Consumers will, in increasing numbers, go online to find value, but will also be spending more time at home.

“Like I said, the companies that invest and capitalise during a downturn will emerge on the other side outperforming the market. It’s our aim and it’s the aim of the companies we talk to that we will take advantage of opportunities in a downturn.”

He cited the example of Ryanair buying a fleet of jets in the midst of an airline downturn.

Another pertinent example, Harris said, is that of Apple. “Apple launched its iPod in 2002 at the end of the last downturn. It demonstrated it was able to innovate at a time when the world was in recession, and it is now in an enviable position in terms of products and relevance.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured from left: John Herlihy, vice-president, online sales, Google; Sabastien Missoffe, head of online sales Europe; and Ronan Harris, director online sales and operations at Google, at a two-day summit in Google’s European headquarters, Dublin this week (8 and 9 October). The summit will be attended by 200 advertising agencies and companies from 19 countries across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com