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Google’s Nishma Robb: marketers need to stop seeing movements as ‘causes’

Nishma Robb, director of brand and reputation marketing at Google UK, chairs this year’s judging panel for The Drum Awards for Marketing. Here she explains her optimistic predictions for marketers in 2021, the importance of equality, and shares advice for effective, relatable storytelling. You can watch the full interview above.

The Drum: We have heard so much this has been a year like no other for marketers. What's your assessment of the industry's response?

Nishma Robb: The marketing industry has demonstrated incredible resilience. The pandemic amplified challenges we were already facing, but we didn’t become hyper-critical or defeatist. Rather we found optimism and growth through solidarity. I’ve seen real progress, which is remarkable when we’re all feeling stuck.

I think it brought out the best in our industry, and forced issues to the front that were previously easy to sidestep and ignore. The ways that we have engaged, entertained, communicated, adapted – marketing has been pivotal to the crisis and many will be able to look back on their contributions with pride.

TD: Our audience has heard a lot about ’the new normal’, but remote working was a big change for everyone. How do you ensure your teams continue to deliver good work?

NR: The biggest change has been losing that sense of belonging and connection. When everything is about diving into a meeting, straight into the agenda, you lose the important conversations. It’s challenging to go from being a real person to a tiny square on a screen.

You can’t spend all your time rushing to get stuff done. Because then you’re not spending enough on the thinking that happens behind that scenes, which you might pick up in a physical environment but you can’t on a call. That has been critical to the creative process, and keeping a sense of humour – absolutely essential to getting through hard times.

TD: As we’ve seen a shift in consumer behaviour, how has that affected your mindset at Google? Have you changed how or why you reach people?

NR: So much media planning is siloed and simplistic. This year it has been particularly important to think about the texture and the intricacies of the ways we receive content. It has been a challenge, not being able to use the normal channels. But our usual behaviours didn’t just disappear, they were replaced. Crafting a message that can cut through in that environment has been critical.

Tone is also a huge challenge for marketers. Should your work be reflective in tone, reflecting the sombre nature of world news, or should you embrace escapism? It’s not easy to get right at the critical moment. Finding sources that allow you to connect to the reality of people’s current existence – when you see that really clear insight in people's work, those have been the most magical pieces of work.

TD: Given that we expect ad spend to return to pre-pandemic levels by 2022, how are you preparing for the months ahead?

NR: Agility, being able to adapt your focus and style of storytelling, is the most important lesson. We have long lead times in this industry, and you can be out of date very quickly. Clear insight and thought, checking in regularly on the relatability and suitability of the work, have to be core to your process.

I’m an optimistic, a fantasist even. I believe we’re sitting at the edge of something very exciting. We’re faced with huge economic, political and societal challenges which aren’t going anywhere, so we do need some deep discussions around what’s next.

But within that, there is pent-up frustration and also the opportunity for a joyous moment of release. A release of creativity, and thought, and expression – we don’t know what that future will bring yet. It’s undefined and that gives me absolute tingles!

In that moment, all you can do is rely on your skills and your sense. I’m well aware it’s going to be a tough time, but If I’m being honest, we’ve been in a bit of a creative fog in the last few years. With data and technology on the rise, I think we’ve lost the true art of connecting to people and culture in the over-complication.

TD: One big cultural change we saw last year was brands embracing the BLM movement. What other trends in that sphere do you think brands and marketers will focus on this year?

NR: There has been a general awakening of consciousness, the only good thing to come out of this pandemic. As a brand, it’s not enough to respectfully pay attention, that’s the basic requirement. In my opinion, you shouldn’t have the right to operate if you cannot put equality at the heart of your work. Consider what equality actually means, and how can we make it possible for everyone.

People have criticised communication with minority groups during the pandemic – minorities have felt left out of the conversation. That’s a real failing of marketing. I hope that going forward people stop seeing these movements as ‘causes’, but as a way to create brilliant marketing by connecting with real people. We still have a very enforced approach to what should be celebrated, considered and communicated. That’s not reflective of the marvellous melting pot we live in.

TD: As the chair of the judges, what are you looking for in a winner?

NR: Standout work needs clear insight. What’s the problem you’re trying to solve? There’s nothing more frustrating than beautifully crafted work that doesn’t have a clear purpose.

I want no bullshit. We marketers can be so verbose. Get to the heart of what you’re trying to achieve. Metrics are important, but I want to understand the real creative impact of what you did. I want to see what you’re committed to carrying on.

The deadline for The Drum Awards for Marketing is Wednesday 31 March. Enter now at the awards website.

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