“21 years ago, when I was teaching at Stanford, these two bright students were working on search algorithms. I would talk to them and one day they said they were starting a company and wanted me to come to join. I said no, you'll never make any money,” says Prabhakar Raghavan.
Those two students were Larry Page and Sergey Brin. That company was Google. And today, Raghavan oversees the tech giant’s $100bn a year advertising business.
He’s only been in the job six months. Prior to taking over from Sridhar Ramaswamy in what was one of the biggest changes at the company in half-a-decade, Raghavan had been (finally) coaxed into joining Google, firstly in a research role and then to run its apps business where he developed its suite of products including Drive, Docs and Hangouts.
Raghavan is speaking to The Drum ahead of addressing advertisers in Europe, at Advertising Week, for the first time since he took the helm. The latter years of his predecessor’s reign were spent mitigating concerns over the how safe its products were for brands following several high-profile exposés into how they were inadvertently funding terrorism, and other nefarious organisations, by advertising next to their content on websites and YouTube.
Though strides have been taken to ensure this content doesn’t appear on Google’s platforms, let alone allow advertisers to sit next to it, Raghavan has already faced criticism in his short tenure over reports which found paedophiles were leaving “predatory” comments on videos featuring children. Advertisers once again froze spend as Raghavan and his team jumped into action.
Raghavan would say that marketers have been satisfied with its efforts, even if cases of brands appearing in ‘unsafe’ environments continue to make front pages.
“I've spent time with many customers and agencies [since I arrived] in London and I was surprised when several said that they were pleased with how quickly Google has responded,” he says.
And he would also stress that there are many instances where Google intervenes before it becomes a headline-maker. "Since 2017 [when The Times report was published] we've drastically increased the amount of pre-filtering [we do] of bad content. Now, 83% of harmful content is pre-emptively removed by us before a single human flags it," he says.
“It's not completely solved the problem, but we've learned from previous episodes. When we talk about how tight we can be we're talking 99.999999, as many nines as we can get, percent. And the race is on to keep on increasing the number of nines even as the bad actors get more sophisticated.”
Which is why he’s less concerned when he hears of advertisers pausing or pulling spend, because “at the end of the day, it's about us doing the right thing."
"I don't measure that by how much spend is pulled but in terms of whether we are doing the right thing to protect our users and our advertisers," he says.
It’s for this reason that he won’t be using his keynote address at the Advertising Week Europe festival to convince advertisers of Google’s merits and sway them with assurances of their brands' safety.
Advertising in a privacy-first world
Instead, Raghavan intends to discuss his vision for how Google’s advertising business will evolve in line with what users’ privacy concerns - heightened by scandals like Cambridge Analytica - and expectations are. The parting words from the man formerly in his shoes at Google were to take heed of the “significant problem” that is mounting distrust among people of tech companies.
“Trust has become a slippery point, a big issue. When it comes to data, people are unsure about how their browsing data is being used. They have become annoyed by experiences of ads that follow them around the internet . . . It is a big problem and something that the advertising industry needs to think about,” said Ramaswamy in an interview not long after his departure was announced.
It’s a warning Raghavan has not taken lightly. He said in his time at Google he has witnessed the “sea change” in what users have come to expect from online privacy. And so, since taking control of the advertising division he has issued one simple mandate to the team – do more with less.
“The last six months have been a realisation, an education, in the outcome that I want. Users across the world entrust us with tremendous amounts of data. Email, photos, drive files – these are all services with more than a billion daily active users. Think of the humongous amount of data [we have]. And this is data that we hold sacrosanct; none of it is used for monetisation,” he says.
“We’re also privy to user activity and that data, in the grand scheme of things, is an absolute minority in terms of the data we have [and monetise].”
Raghavan tells them to imagine a room filled with all the data it holds on users. In the very corner of that room is the activity data that it uses for its advertising processes. Take that “tiny smidgeon of data” and blow it up to the size of the room, and there in the corner is the “tiny bit of data matters and the rest should be thrown away.”
“The sophistication of machine learning should allow us to focus on that tiny bit,” he says.
How to implement more AI processes into its advertising business is a priority and it's an area he's spent much of his career researching. As one prominent Google exec describes him, Raghavan is the foremost authority in the field of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He's authored two textbooks on the subject in addition to publishing over 100 papers, has served as editor in chief for the Journal of the ACM, computer science’s most prestigious journal, and holds 20 issued patents, including several on link analysis for web search.
But how much his assurances of a “user-first” approach to evolving its advertising business and using AI to "do more with less" comforts regulators, policy-makers and politicians is yet to be seen.
With a reportedly burgeoning Lobbying team in the US ( where it ploughed $21.2m dollars into its relations with the US government last year) and facing ever greater scrutiny from European regulators, Google is fighting a battle in all corners of the globe to ensure that bold threats of “breaking up” tech companies are not made reality.
In the past week alone, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren proposed that the likes of Google be classified as “platform utilities,” meaning that companies could not both own the platform and be a participant on it.
Google’s ad exchange and businesses on the exchange would be split apart, she wrote, and Google search would have to be spun off.
And across the pond, chancellor Phillip Hammond has called on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to launch an investigation into the £13bn UK digital advertising market dominated by Google and Facebook.
Hammond’s probe was announced in wake of a report conducted for the Treasury by Jason Furman, Barack Obama’s chief economic adviser, which said the market is “dominated by two players and suffers from a lack of transparency”.
Raghavan declined to respond on what Warren's plans, or the outcome of Hammond’s investigation, would mean for Google’s global ad business. “We're concerned about doing what's best for users and not responding to what's said on this or that,” he says.
Yet, he concedes there are “ways in which the ads industry can do better to give users more privacy, transparency and control in how their data is used.”
“That isn't necessarily enshrined in law, and yet we think of them as principles [at Google]. So, when you speak of regulation, the right outcomes [of putting users first] will follow. Regulation wants to support these principles and do the right thing by users and we will work with data protection authorities and policy members.”
In the meantime the Google exec is trying to look on the bright side, saying it's a positive sign that governments are trying to learn about how the big business of tech works.
“Policymakers investing in learning more about the industry is good, it leads to more informed policy. To me, this is less about public statements and headlines and more about getting the facts. And the extent to which they want to get to the facts....we welcome it.”
So, a year from now, should he return to Advertising Week Europe, where does he think Google will be? Still battling brand-safety headlines and politicians?
Raghavan simply says that he hopes to be emerging from his “tremendous period of education” with better relationships with its agency and brand partners
“There's absolutely room for us to do better and the best way to do that is to take the feedback.”