Horse's Mouth: Tom Uglow, Google Creative Lab

  • Horse's Mouth
  • January 29, 2015
  • StopPress Team
Horse's Mouth: Tom Uglow, Google Creative Lab

Tom Uglow works on the periphery of the advertising industry, bringing ideas that exist only in the imagination into the real world. Based at the Google offices in Sydney, he has already lent his creative touch to innovative projects such as The Cube, and he says there’s much more to come.  

On not having the right words

The users of abacuses were called computers, and then the term was taken from that [and used in the phrases] ‘you compute that’ and ‘this is a computation’. And then it was used for the women, who connected the programmes that ran—that’s a simplification of it—on what we think of as the early computers, which were basically computing engines. These could only run one programme, and they’d run it back and forth. So in order to connect these different routines and sub-routines, the women were called computers. [Eventually,] the computers began to run the processes, replacing the ‘computers’. So at every stage the computer is replaced by a slightly more digital, mechanical, electrical or electromechanical process. And at each step it becomes a little less about the human ability to manipulate information as we automate it. It’s funny, you know, we use all these old words to describe things, because we have no new words.

On creating   

Now we’re coming full circle to the part where our ability to manipulate what the computers are capable of is becoming very interesting. We’re getting to that phase where the thing that the AIs seek is the ability to intuit, to create. And creation is a very, very complicated pattern recognition algorithm that it’s going to take them an awfully long time to [understand]. So, you have this creative advertising industry that can utilise these tools to create in new and fantastically exciting ways.  And at our best they choose to create in fantastic and innovative ways, but quite often we tend to rest on our laurels and repeat things that we know work.  

On working for Google

I’m very lucky and happen to be at a place and a time, working with an organisation that is very forward thinking and understands that it’s not simply about grinding through processes, that you need to enable and allow parts of your organisation to explore and experiment. We talk a lot about creativity and innovation. And any time anyone talks about these things, I always think of creativity in itself as an exercise in exploration; it’s about setting up experiments and exploring—just like any three-year-old explores and experiments with whether things will break if you throw them on the floor again and again and again. I have a three-year-old at the moment, and I’ve been using this metaphor for a while. There’s a wonderful book called the ‘Philosophical Baby’ by Alison Gopnik, and it’s very important in terms of how I see our practice. Her thesis is really that a three-year-old or two-year-old is more creative than at any other time in their life, because they know nothing, so, they have to challenge everything. And everything they do is an experiment; everything is an exploration. And because they have not been taught to focus—which you’ll know if you’ve ever tried to get a two-year-old to do anything—they have more of lantern mentality, which is that their mind is open to everything that’s around them and they see everything with equal weight and therefore they’re willing to explore what will happen to everything with equal weight. And one of the great challenges [in raising children] is to limit that so that they don’t do dangerous or stupid things. 

On the philosophy behind Google Creative Lab

I’m not sure what Andy Berndt meant to do when he founded Creative Lab in New York. But he comes from an advertising background—he was at Ogilvy—and I think he always understood that in order for an organisation to think creatively, it needs to have inspiration. For the longest time, when I was in Europe, we’d have these conversations about how I felt that everyone should be brought along at the same speed, and that it was about process and allowing everyone to have practical examples. But [Berndt’s] was much more a beachhead approach, where it was more like ‘No, what you do is make something unbelievably amazing’. And when you do that one thing, everyone else will raise their game to try and reach that level. So that’s been the kind of methodology of the group—which is why you see these slightly extraordinary things.

On cardboard cars

We’re caught in this awkward position where we do these projects that are effectively prototypes. I call them cardboard cars, because they look great but you really don’t want to drive them down the motorway ... They’re kind of like full, working models, and that’s as far as my group can really take something, because we’re not an advertising agency and we’re not even the marketing department. We’re just here to provoke and inspire, and explore where we can go to. So in that brief—which we sort of generated for ourselves—we’ve been very lucky. 

On the industry’s only problem

It’s hard to invent for yourself. It’s a bit like having a piece of paper and you’re like, ‘what am I going to draw?’ It’s actually a lot easier if someone comes along and says, ‘draw a kangaroo’. But it’s also very boring when someone tells you that you need to draw a kangaroo. And this is the difference between design practice and artistic practice. Design practice starts with a problem or a brief. And you know it starts with a problem, because if you watch a million awards videos they always start, ‘Our client had a problem…’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, did they? Really? Was the problem that they wanted to sell some more of their product? Oh, it was? Okay.’ And that’s always the problem. That is our industry’s problem. But, they start with a problem and then you need to understand how you resolve that in interesting and creative ways.  

On brands doing good

It’s very interesting in the industry that you’re seeing a huge rise in ‘for good’ projects, because ‘for good’ is effectively branded content. It’s content that people feel comfortable engaging in. And it makes everyone in the process feel good about it … and that’s where it’s about value for these brands. It’s not about finding the next Miley Cyrus; it’s about finding the next Malala Yousafzai. Those stories are much more powerful and potent, and you see that coming through the awards shows all the time.

On the physical and digital divide

There are a load of things about a physical object that we want to be digital: we’d really like it to be backed up; we’d really like it to be accessible wherever we are; we’d really like to weigh nothing; and we’d really like to be sharable. In fact, there are a million things about digital that we would like to imbue into physical objects. But then there are an awful lot of things about digital—and this is the interesting bit—that we would also like to be physical: we’d like this sense of uniqueness; and we’d like it to have physical sensations. We are physical things, we have senses, and we want to use them. We want to touch, hear, feel and hold things. It’s very important for things to have weight in the world. [But the reality is] that you could take a Gchat conversation and carve it in wood, it would be very profound, but it wouldn’t have changed anything; you would just have given it a corporeal form. And this is really where the challenge lies.

On the Cube

There’s an official history of it, but the truth is that they had been mucking around with web cubes for around four years since web geo was invented. And then I happened to be talking to a cabaret artist about a project she wanted to do, in which you walked all around her cabaret and it was segmented into six sides. The score would be the same but people would be singing a different libretto for each bit of the cabaret, which would be cool. You could sort of hear what was happening if you were on the side, and if you stood at the door you’d see two sides of the story. And all the stories would intertwine. And I was like, ‘You could definitely do that digitally’. It would be easier to do that digitally than physically on a cube. And then I walked into the office the following day and asked my developer how easy it would be to put videos on the side of a cube so that they were synchronised. And then that turned into a very, very long exploration ... We’re still looking for the best places to use it and we’re still working out how [we can put it into practice]. It was so revolutionary that when we launched it, Chrome for mobile, which normally launches on a six-week cycle, immediately updated itself. So you’re in this conversation where the stuff that you’re doing on your browsers on the phone is right at the edge of what the browsers are capable of—so much so that you don’t realise that they’re using experimental features until you turn them off.

On leaving the devices

The work that we’re doing at the moment is moving very much away from the devices. We want to kind of unpack people from their devices. No one really likes the fact that we all stand at the bus stop looking at our phones. We all feel a little embarrassed and look at our phones slightly furtively. But we are also in love with the amount of information we are able to access. So what we’re finding very interesting is that when you remove the phone you can create more physical and magical experiences. And long term for the technology industry it’s going to be about how you get that. It’s the information that you love, not your phone. Maybe you love your iPhone 6, but you probably also loved your iPhone 5 and your iPhone 4. It’s what it allows you access to that is brilliant and exciting. 

On exploring

You have to have a team that’s exploring. You have to have people who are not focused on delivering. And for these bigger campaigns, if you have this team that’s exploring what is possible and what the technology is capable of, and then you apply this to your briefs … Then, out the back of all of this comes a TVC. There’s always a TV ad. It’s a brilliant form of communication. It’s very passive and people enjoy it, and I’m a big fan of it. It’s a great art. But it is not an innovative space. And no amount of going that way through this process will ever make it an innovative space. Whereas going the other way, where you start with infinite possibilities and some crazy people who are banging ideas together at the edge about what might be possible and then marrying that into creative possibilities is the skillset that the advertising industry will learn over the next ten years.  

On agencies

You can’t actually do everything yourself these days. I, for one can’t do anything. I have my little team of developers, writers, designers and filmmakers, and that’s really what you need. In fact, we’re hiring a bunch of juniors right now, and that’s really my version of the ECD of the future. There will be five of them, and they are an agency. They are a unit and everyone is equal, until they are doing the one thing that they are expert at ... When I moved from Europe, I kept my team very small. I have one person, and I have a fantastic creative group called Grumpy Sailor, which I’ve almost built into a very responsive unit based on how I want to work.

I like to talk to my developers and I like to talk to my filmmakers and I don’t want to bog it down into a situation where we have to go sit in half-hour meetings with PowerPoint. We move and iterate very fast, and that way we don’t end up with campaigns, we end up with platforms.

  • This interview originally appeared in the January/February edition of NZ Marketing.

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