Google’s Mayer Tells How Innovation Gets Done

April 1, 2007


Marissa Mayer, Google’s 31-year-old vice president of search products and user experience, helps drive one of the world’s most forward-thinking product innovation organizations. And when Mayer talks about the more than 300 computers a Google search query transverses in milliseconds to answer a user request, or the downside of network latency (speed of response), you know this Stanford alum knows her stuff.

Mayer graduated with honors from Palo Alto with a bachelor’s in symbolic systems and a master’s in computer science. Her specialty is artificial intelligence. She was the first female engineer hired at Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc. in 1999.

Since then, Newsweek named her one of the “10 Tech Leaders of the Future,” Red Herring called her one of the “15 Women to Watch,” and Business 2.0, Businessweek, Fortune and Fast Company all have written about her. Stanford honored her with a Centennial Teaching Award and the Forsythe Award, an award that recognizes research that melds informatics and the social sciences.

There’s one other thing you should know about Mayer: She’s one of the world’s top marketers. You won’t see that in her online bio at The Internet search and online advertising giant eschews marketing and likes to proclaim itself as “not a marketing organization.” Yet Mayer is one of the most impressive marketers of our generation, both for the products she’s brought to market and for the product innovation philosophy she embodies.

When Mayer reads this, she’ll say it’s a team effort at Google. But she leads the product management efforts on Google’s search products, including Web search, images, groups, news, Froogle, the Google Toolbar, Google Desktop, Google Labs and more.

Mayer believes in the products and tools she creates. She’s deeply committed to Google’s mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible. While some product innovators are motivated by greed, Mayer wants to put effective software tools into everyone’s hands. She sees the power that information provides and the way it changes and shapes lives. Mayer wants to close the digital divide.

“I just think about how different my life is today because of the Internet versus how it was 20 years ago. I think it’s really upsetting there are still people who can’t get the information,” Mayer says.

Mayer hales from Wausau, Wis., and recently returned to the Midwest to speak at one of the bastions of marketing, the Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Why invite Mayer to Kellogg? “We wanted Mayer because of Google’s popularity, spectacular growth and the YouTube acquisition,” says Mark Vovsi, a second-year MBA candidate and general manager of the Kellogg Technology Conference.

Then Vovsi hit the nail on the head: “We wanted Mayer because of the central role that Google’s products play in everyone’s ‘digital’ lifestyle.” Mayer’s products are changing our lives.

Her mantra about product innovation is powerful. All marketers should take note. The gist is simple: Recruit really great people. Give them space to create. Put products into the market. Listen to customers. Refine your products. Keep innovating. Let the products speak for themselves. Don’t worry about marketing.

After years of reading the great works on product innovation I was spellbound by Mayer’s Kellogg presentation. I wanted to learn more. So I went to YouTube and found another presentation Mayer gave on product innovation at Stanford. There, Mayer outlined nine ideas about innovation that could benefit every marketer:

  • Ideas come from everywhere—Set up a system where good ideas rise to the top.
  • Share everything you can—Don’t be territorial about ideas.
  • You’re brilliant, we’re hiring—Hire the best people; they challenge you to work at a higher level.
  • A license to pursue dreams—Google allots individuals 20% time to work on whatever they choose. (Fifty percent of Google’s product launches in the second half of 2005 came from this program).
  • Innovation, not instant perfection—Put products in the market, learn and iterate.
  • Data is apolitical—Make decisions based on market facts.
  • Creativity loves constraint—When you constrain your thoughts, you see innovation. (They wanted Google Desktop search to run on 90% of computers. That constraint drove a lot of creativity).
  • Focus on users, not money—Money follows consumers. Advertisers follow consumers. If you amass a lot of consumers you will find a way to monetize your ideas.
  • Don’t kill projects, morph them—If an idea has managed to make it out the door, there is usually some kernel of truth to it. Don’t walk away from ideas, think of ways to repackage or rejuvenate them.

Mayer’s advice to young marketers is simple: Push beyond your comfort zone. Before joining Google, for example, Mayer took a job at the UBS research lab in Zurich, Switzerland. “I like to do things that I’m a little not ready to do,” Mayer adds, “like moving to Switzerland when I don’t speak German.

“When you do something that you’re not ready to do, you learn whole new skill sets,” she goes on. “It is those risks that ultimately cause you to find your boundaries and get good at things you weren’t good at before.”

Adopting that kind of attitude could make you and your marketing organization world-class.

Michael Krauss is president of Market Strategy Group, based in Chicago, and can be reached at or


 ©2007 Marion Consulting Partners