Girl Guides: Google's VP of marketing, EMEA, Yonca Brunini on why brands must adopt revolutionary thinking

Continuing our Girl Guides series profiling some of the women who are trailblazing a path to the top of our industry while proving role models for young girls along the way, The Drum drops in on Yonca Brunini, Google’s vice-president of marketing for pan-EMEA, who shares some of her experiences to date, from the extraordinary – a colleague being kidnapped – to the everyday challenges of balancing children with a career.

The last thing Yonca Brunini wanted to do while on maternity leave from her role at Yahoo was change jobs, and certainly not to go work at Google, which was at the time, she says, viewed as something of a “one trick pony”. But move she did, hitting on that old idiom ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’.

The Turkish-born former Unilever marketer had joined Yahoo in 2002 after realising her calling was the internet. And then, encouraged to explore new opportunities by Fru Hazlitt (now head of commercial at ITV), Brunini left the “familiar” world of the FMCG giant to carve a career out of the internet in the post dotcom crash era.

Hazlitt isn’t the only inspirational female to shape the course of Brunini’s career, with another “bold” woman helping make up Brunini’s mind to join Google.

“When Lorraine [Twohill, head of marketing at Google] said to me that she was looking for leadership skills, I said ‘but there is no team to lead in this role you are describing,’ and she said she wanted me to open up offices and build teams in 18 countries over the next two years. I thought ‘she must be mad, but even if half of that is true, I’m in’. It was all true.”

Now vice-president of marketing for pan-EMEA at the company, Brunini’s team is spread across 30 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. She is also a founding board member of the Google Cultural Institute, sits on the board of the Marketing Society, is a member of the Natural History Museum’s digital advisory board and is on the committee of the Prince’s Trust Women’s Leadership Group, which was founded by the Prince of Wales and is dedicated to helping underprivileged young women get their lives on track.

Google’s own commitment to diversity was highlighted in a report published in May this year, which found that only 30 per cent of the company’s employees are female. Does this statistic jar with Brunini? “We know there aren’t enough women in the tech industry, but I am proud Google is being open about our aspirations to be better,” she says.

The company’s commitment to tackling this issue is something she feels “personally very passionate about”. She points to the company’s annual developer event, Google I/O, where for the most recent gathering 20 per cent of attendees were female – up from eight per cent last year. “We’ve got much further to go but it’s a good step towards making I/O more reflective of the diversity of our users.”

She’s had her own less than rosy experiences of being a woman in the industry on occasion; at one conference in Switzerland she was mistaken for a coffee waitress. “The gentleman wanted an espresso – I told him ‘can you please get me one too?’” Yet she believes that the bigger issue is women holding themselves back, or “unconscious bias” – the concept of women being treated differently even by those purporting to be committed to equality.

Nothing quite prepared Brunini for one of the most extraordinary stories of her career – the kidnapping of a colleague in 2011. For two weeks Google tried to trace Wael Ghonim, who ran the company’s marketing team in Middle East North Africa and who went missing while on holiday in Egypt. It emerged he was involved in the revolution.

“As Wael was a member of my team, I felt personally responsible for his safety,” says Brunini. “It turned out that he was one of the people leading the revolution that eventually led to the Arab Spring and the government being overthrown.”

Google’s efforts to find Ghonim, which included inventing Speak to Tweet which enabled people in Egypt to communicate even while the internet was shut down, speaks to the company’s values, according to Brunini.

“We stood by Wael through thick and thin,” she says. “And we stood for freedom of expression. It made me immensely proud that I work for a company that sticks to its values and cares so much for its people, wherever they are, at whatever level they are, even in the most extraordinary and challenging times.

“When we found Wael, his wife asked me, referring to the efforts to find him, ‘Is he the CEO of Google or something else that he is not telling me?’ That was a very, very happy day.”

When it comes to digital, brands also need to adopt revolutionary ways of thinking, according to Brunini, who argues many brands are simply comfortable doing what they’ve always done and aren’t quick enough to respond to evolving applications of technology and people’s changing behaviours.

“We know technology will keep changing the world and people’s behaviour will continue to evolve, but most brands and businesses are being left behind by these changes. It is agile businesses who will win by adapting fast and winning the moments that matter.

“To make a big impact, you have to start with revolutionary, not evolutionary, thinking. To create a culture that supports this type of thinking in marketing and beyond, it’s critical that businesses reward the right things, support and celebrate failure because this is how we learn, and take risks.”

When reflecting on her experiences as a working mother, Brunini remembers a piece of advice given to her by Fru Hazlitt. “As Fru told me, ‘Know who you are and don’t feel guilty’. She didn’t tell me how impossible that was to achieve, but I’m working on it.”

“It’s very hard to do both but I would not have it any other way. I know that I have a calling, a passion for my job, and it makes me very happy when I can fulfil my potential.”

To those young women starting out on a digital career, Brunini urges: “Be vocal. Use your strengths as a woman; don’t go against them.”

This feature was first published in The Drum's 12 November issue.

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