Various toys around Google's massive New York headquarters encourage employees to unwind and think freely. There's a game room featuring a pool table, ball pit and the video game system Wii. There's a big batch of Legos that staffers can use to construct whatever they like; on this particular spring day, one has created a replica of the Empire State Building, while another has made a large green robot that appears poised to trample everything in its path.
It's not much of a stretch to see the robot as a metaphor. If Google's robust first-quarter earnings were any indication, the company appears to have conquered Internet search, and the Web monolith is now seeking to reshape the way television ads are bought, sold and consumed through Google TV Ads, its auction-based advertising platform. TV Ads was initially tested on a local California cable system in 2006, then on the satellite TV service Dish Network in May 2007. Next up is broadcast television for director Michael Steib, who faced a curious—and largely skeptical—crowd when describing the program at the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) annual marketing conference in March.
“Ultimately we think this is a product that makes sense for lots of the inventory out there,” says Steib, formerly the general manager of strategic ventures at NBC Universal. “We believe technology can be applied to make ads on TV better and make more money for the people who own the inventory.”
Steib wears a reminder of the task before him on his sleeve over lunch at his new Google digs: Silver cuff links in the form of turtles grace his wrists, a gift from his wife, Kemp. If he's to be successful in winning over the broadcast community, he'll likely have to go at a tortoise's pace—signing up one station at a time until the local-TV community is convinced that applying Google's smart-ads technology to TV ad sales is beneficial.
“We have to be very good listeners,” says Steib, who studied economics and international relations at the University of Pennsylvania. “We've spent a lot of time listening to what needs to be in the product, and shaping it accordingly.”
Steib, who turns 32 this month, was instrumental in launching NBC's Weather Plus network, which airs on almost 100 NBC affiliates' digital channels. He also co-chaired the NBC Affiliates Committee, and worked on the team that acquired the likes of Universal, Telemundo and various TV stations. Less successful was the syndicated Web video venture NBBC, which launched late in 2006 but was shelved in favor of the Hulu project.
Ion Media Networks president/CEO Brandon Burgess, who hired Steib at NBC in 2001, says his former charge's mix of determination and entrepreneurial spirit suits him well in spearheading the TV Ads initiative. “Mike's more driven than anybody I've ever met,” Burgess says. “If anyone can sell it through, Mike is the right guy.”
Toward that end, Steib isn't logging much time in the Google playroom. He describes his typical day as waking up, working, going to the gym, working some more, going home, working a little more and going to bed. When he can carve out some leisure time, he enjoys a little R&R with Kemp, snowboarding, watching The Office and 30 Rock and re-reading the Kurt Vonnegut oeuvre. “Since The Sopranos went off the air, I have an extra hour to read each week,” he says.
The arrival of their first child in July will surely shake up his routine, but Steib—who joined Google last year—is now focused on prepping TV Ads before its broadcast TV launch (he won't say when it will debut). TVB president Chris Rohrs concedes there's “a heavy dose of skepticism” about Google entering the broadcast space, primarily that the auction system will commoditize—and cheapen—the value of ads and undermine the role of local ad-sales forces. But Rohrs is eager to keep the dialogue between Google and local television going, which is why he invited Steib to speak at the TVB wingding.
“We're very interested in exploring all of its dimensions, and seeing which work,” Rohrs says. “I think it'd be useful for some groups to put their toes in the water and do a little controlled testing [of Google TV Ads].”
Steib bristles when the topic of Google “commoditizing” TV advertising comes up. He says the program's ability to specifically match ads to viewers through set-top data—for example, TV Ads could serve a spot for running shoes to a viewer watching SportsCenter—dramatically increases the ad's value, and that TV Ads can rope in several thousand national marketers who currently don't advertise on television. “I don't have a very successful business model if my value proposition is, let me make your stuff worth less,” he says. “Just like with search, we think there is a perfect ad and a perfect message for every single piece of inventory.”
Much as he's invigorated by what he calls Google's “extraordinary level of positive energy,” Steib does cop to missing at least a few aspects of his former life at NBC. First off, there's that “dope” office he had (he now shares a smaller space with three others), with music from Today's Rockefeller Center summer concert series wafting through his window. But he's eager to tap Google's vast resources to shake up the TV world.
“What attracted me to Google was the opportunity to use technology to have a really meaningful impact on an industry that I love working in,” Steib says. “It's something I knew would be fun to wake up every morning and do.”
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