The Most Insane Marketing Product Ever

When Nathaniel Dorn learned that Google, the company he most admires, was launching a magazine, he was thrilled. It was March 2011 and Google had just announced the debut issue of Think Quarterly, a magazine focused on technology and innovation. To launch any sort of magazine, much less one that claimed, as this one did, to be “a breathing space in a busy world,” would have been a counterintuitive move for the company that had made its fortune in Internet search and advertising. But for people like Dorn, then a twenty-eight-year-old contracts negotiator for an international defense contractor, the magazine was a welcome change from gadget-driven tech publications. Already a fan of Google products such as Gmail and Voice, and a subscriber to sophisticated magazines like Monocle, he was more than ready for Think Quarterly.

“Tech sites and blogs are a dime a dozen and virtually indistinguishable from one another,” Dorn says. “Nobody was taking the time to mindfully address the important questions behind technology: the how, why and who. Until Think Quarterly, that is.”

He was not alone in his enthusiasm. On issuu.com, a digital publishing platform, the first issue of Think Quarterly, “Data,” has received nearly a million views as of this writing. (Readers have the choice either to digest Think Quarterly articles discretely on its website or to engage fully with the magazine on issuu.com, whose Flash applet mimics the experience of reading the print edition.) Each issue revolves around a unifying theme. So far we’ve been treated to issues on data, innovation, people, speed and creativity. It goes without saying that all of these topics are of extreme interest to Google as a profit-making enterprise. But Think Quarterly carefully distances itself editorially from Google’s bottom line, claiming to capture “the collective mindspace of journalists, academics, experts and industry leaders from around the world” and promising “insights and outlooks on the digital future.”

It’s easy to see the appeal of Google’s magazine. It has no ads, it’s free and its online archives contain every article from the print edition. What might not be apparent immediately is the value Think Quarterly has for those outside of what its editor, Matt Bochenski, calls the “select group of clients, partners, friends and generally cool people” to whom it’s targeted, and who receive the print magazine every three months. Not only is its content fresh and thought-provoking, but it’s also a proving ground for radical experiments in magazine design. “We wanted to make something that people had never seen before, that wasn’t constrained by all the usual clichés of editorial design,” says Bochenski. “Like a mutant version of McKinsey Quarterly, Rolling Stone and Fast Company.”

That’s a combination that anyone interested in digital technology, business, marketing and global culture should be able to get excited about. But questions remain. Who is the intended audience for Think Quarterly? Can a magazine effectively serve the interests of both a multinational corporation—especially one as rapacious as Google—and its audience, whatever it might be? Is Google trying to establish a thinking man’s technology publication, or is it merely hoping to boost brand loyalty by putting out a slick, magazine-length advertorial four times a year? Is Think Quarterly worth the attention of a general readership? And finally, what can others in the world of magazines learn from it?

One of these is easy to answer. “Think Quarterly was created for, and its content is tailored for, our business partners,” says Sandra Heikkinen, a Google spokeswoman. “That said, we are more than happy for the content to spark thoughts and discussion in general.”

To unpack the other questions, it helps to look at the quarterly’s production. Like many corporate magazines, Think Quarterly is not produced in-house by Google staff but rather by a custom publishing house, in this case a British creative agency, The Church of London. Bochenski, who is also the editorial director of The Church of London, said that although the print magazine is put together by his staff, the editorial content is a collaborative effort between TCOLondon and Google’s marketing team in New York.

The second issue, “Innovation,” includes Amit Singhal, the engineer who developed Google search, on science fiction; and Russell Davies, head of planning for Ogilvy & Mather, on what the next technological leap might look like. (Spoiler alert: It will be an “Internet of Things,” complete with “flying robot penguin balloons, quadrocopters that can play tennis, Wi-Fi rabbits that tell you the weather.”) Issue four, “Speed,” features an essay by Astro Teller, Google’s new-products director, on how to overcome the human tendency to think linearly, as well as a practical, actionable article about HTML5, “the new web language that promises to put the magic back into your digital marketing.” This mix of content, from the highly theoretical to the eminently practical, sets Think Quarterly apart from other technology publications. And its articles are accompanied by superb design: interesting typography and graphics, surprising illustrations.

“There’s a desire to push the boundaries of the medium in a way that I don’t think other publications are interested in thinking about,” says Bochenski. “We come to this not as business magazine makers, but as magazine lovers in general.”

As much as Think Quarterly is an experiment in marketing, it’s also a test kitchen for editorial design, much as avant-garde Spanish restaurant El Bulli was for years in the world of gastronomy. The team at TCOLondon is doing work at a level that few other magazine staffs, subject as they are to market pressures and the demands of advertisers, even aspire to reach. “We’ve had magnetic covers, finger-painting inks, pop-ups, giant artworks, 3-D and motion graphics,” Bochenski says. “These aren’t gimmicks; they all make sense in the context of each issue.”

No wonder Tom Uglow of Google Creative Labs has called Think Quarterly “the most insane piece of direct marketing ever.” And the insanity must be catching—Bochenski says the project is gaining traction within the company, and more and more Google insiders are contributing content. The company that long ago conquered Internet search has made print its newest frontier.

This traction, however, has not been fully matched outside the Google bubble. When Think Quarterly first launched in March 2011, it earned mentions only on tech blogs such as Switched and Mashable. Despite later reviews by The New York Times and The Atlantic, the magazine continues to fly mostly under the radar—so much so that a July 2011 story by Eric Markowitz on Inc.com mistakenly called issue two, “Innovation,” Google’s “first official foray into the world of magazine publishing.” (Strangely, the first issue, “Data,” is missing from the U.S. website, but is accessible on the U.K. site. A story in The Atlantic called issue two “the first U.S. edition,” although, since the U.S. and U.K. versions have been identical ever since, it’s hard to see the rationale for having separate editions and websites.)

Perhaps Think Quarterly’s low profile is due to its raison d’être. Groundbreaking or not, it’s undeniably a marketing product. It has now been rolled into Think With Google, a three-pronged digital resource that also includes Think Voices, a series of video talks by marketing industry leaders and academics, and Think Insights, a sort of digital research library of statistics, infographics and studies on consumer behavior. And its standalone Twitter account has been closed in favor of @thinkwithgoogle.

Think Quarterly, and the cross-platform Think brand more generally, is Google’s attempt to play host to what Heikkinen calls “a smart conversation with smart people about big ideas.” But some critics have found the conversation too self-serving. “To be sure, Think Quarterly is one big advertisement for Google. It is marketing collateral at its finest—elegant, creative, and heavily branded,” wrote Markowitz in his Inc. article. Rebecca Rosen said much the same in The Atlantic, but felt that “several of the essays provide genuinely thought-provoking insights into the future of the Internet and society.”

Bochenski clarifies this. “It was never about selling products or services,” he says, “it was about creating something unique and useful that the target audience would enjoy on its own terms and would feel compelled to share within their organizations.” By giving readers a peek into what Heikkinen calls “the quiet rocket science that happens at Google,” the multinational hopes to encourage industry leaders to think hard about the digital future—and the strategic role Google will play in it.

Google doesn’t share viewership numbers with outsiders, so there’s no telling how many people have read articles on the Think Quarterly website. But Bochenski feels the magazine’s content could appeal to a broad readership. “Anyone curious about where digital is taking us will get something out of [Think Quarterly]. And as that’s something affecting all of us, maybe its potential online audience is really massive.” The magazine world would also do well to take notice of Think Quarterly’s cutting-edge approach to print. “Someone needs to remind the world that print is far from dead. We have an opportunity to do that and we want to get it right,” says Bochenski.

That it took a Google product to teach this lesson is perhaps a sign of how stagnant magazine design has become. With the exception of Bloomberg Businessweek, one is hard-pressed to name a mainstream title that is using the print format to its full advantage.

Think Quarterly is a great example of the power of illustration, something too many magazines are shy of exploiting,” says Jeremy Leslie, an editorial design consultant and founder of the pioneering magazine blog magCulture (see page 9). “It also features great conceptualization around the issue themes, particularly with the cover presentations. It shows how damn hard research and development can lead to great results.”

Google plans to continue production of Think Quarterly for the foreseeable future, and the experimentation will continue, says Heikkinen. “We can’t say with certainty what future versions will look like, but this will be an ongoing evolutionary process.”

Given this evolving identity, it may be best to look at Think Quarterly as a multivalent print product: not simply an inspirational technology publication, a heavily branded think-tank conversation or an effective tool of corporate soft power, but all of these and more. Bochenski effectively sums up the complementary nature of these various missions: “The more people understand what is happening across the digital landscape, the better that will be for Google, and the digital world, in the long run.”

For better or worse, when industry leaders think, they now think with Google.

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