Tech savvy

Cera Ward, left, on selling Google and gender balance in adland 

Google has overtaken Apple to become the world’s most valuable brand. In a sign of the times, tech-related brands dominate the most valuable index with Amazon, Microsoft, Samsung and Facebook among other companies included in Global Finance’s rankings.

Google’s value rose by 24 per cent last year, up from $88.2 billion to $109.4bn.

It is a position Google has held since 2011. Apple, which has held the top spot for the past five years, dropped one place after its brand value fell by 27 per cent last year, from $145 billion to $107.1 billion. David Haigh, chief executive, Brand Finance, says Apple had been living on borrowed time for several years by exploiting its accumulated brand equity.

Google plans to cut 30-second ads from YouTube at the end of the year – apart from the skippable ads. Ward defends the move as a way of encouraging the making of good ads consumers will happily watch. “Google is all about giving consumers choice,” she says. “If someone doesn’t like the experience, they shouldn’t be forced to sit through it.

“In a lean-in, up-close environment that’s a mobile phone or your desktop, to sit through 30 seconds seems like a long time. So we want to give users choice, to make it skippable. It puts pressure on the industry to make good relevant ads. We’ll happily take two-minute ads, once they’re good. Our research shows, target right with good creative and people watch ads.”

A lot of new Google products fail to see the light of day in Ireland. It took five years after its US launch for Google Shopping to arrive here and Ward worked with retailers on its rollout. But the company was still not happy with its ability to support it because it is an inventory feed in real time, which means it is amazing if all goes to plan, but a headache otherwise.

“If everything isn’t in place it could be quite damaging to a business,” Ward says. “The reason for the delay was because we weren’t sure we had the resources to launch it in more markets from an internal support perspective. They were testing out new languages. For once in our life, in Ireland, being an English-speaking country with the euro went against us.”

It was because it was not allowing them to test new services. Ireland did well to get on the recent round of national roll outs. It comes down to advertiser relations too. Google will never launch beta products unless there are strong relations. Ward launched the Irish break out team in 2012 and they always try to get products which are suited to market needs.

Being a small market can sometimes be a negative. How about Brexit? “It’s going to be really tough for some of our clients… small businesses,” Ward says. “What we’re working on with clients at the moment is seeing where there’s consumer demand. Sometimes that’s a shop in Cork selling to a consumer in Monaghan. More than ever, online presence matters.”

There is the likes of McElhinneys department store in Ballybofey, Co Donegal, a relatively small regional shop, which has done exceptionally well through an online presence. It even won a global search award last year. As Google has its European HQ in Dublin, Ward is spared the hassle of having to travel a lot overseas, which for a young mum is a blessing.

Ward says it is absolutely critical that the Stem skills in maths and science are properly developed in Ireland. It is important for the future that computer science is on the curriculum. Google, Facebook and LinkedIn came to Dublin because of the quality of Irish education. As things get even more technical, we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball.

She is grateful that she has not had to deal with any specific Irish problems around fake news. It is something Google is addressing, with people working on what they call ‘the quality of search’ and making constant assessments. “We clamp down on any abuse by putting in preventive measures and do not condone anything that isn’t real on the internet,” she says.

Ward was chuffed at being crowned the winner of last year’s IAPI Doyenne award. She is mindful that the gong has its critics, with suggestions that such an idea amounts to positive discrimination in trying to right the gender balance among senior management in adland. But she remains steadfastly in the Doyenne ‘yes camp’ and strongly defends the award.

“Aidan Greene (IAPI president) stood up and spoke brilliantly about why we don’t have enough women taking senior positions in our industry,” Wards says. “There’s more women   entering at ground level and then we just lose them. There’s something fundamentally wrong there. There needs to be more role models for women – show them they can have it all.”

When she walked into Google five years ago, she saw Women@Google, a women’s resource group, her heart sank a little. “Google was meant to be the best place in the world to work, blah, blah, blah” she remarks. I stayed away from it for almost two years. Then I realised, most women are fundamentally wired differently than men. We don’t put ourselves forward.

Able lady: Cera Ward won last year’s IAPI Doyenne award, sponsored by Google employs 3,000 full-time staff and just shy of 2,000 contractors. The big skills will be languages and IT. As Dublin is a creative hub, recruitment is not a problem.

“We’re more hesitant. We need more encouragement. You read any stats… a woman will not put herself forward for a job unless she’s 95 per cent of the criteria – a man will do it at 50 per cent and normally get through. I did this (Doyenne), not to get an accolade, but to be a role model to other women in the industry. I really wish we didn’t have to do it.”

Women either enter or their companies nominate them for Doyenne. What finally prompted Ward to go forward was after she heard a talk by Eileen Naughton, the then vice president of Google’s sales and operations for the UK and Ireland, who has since become head of what Alphabet calls ‘people operations’.

She is responsible for keeping 64,000 staff in check.

Rated one of Google’s top managers, Naughton was a founder of Women@Google, along with Sheryl Sandberg, now COO at Facebook. “Naughton is an amazing New Yorker, who ran Time magazine. With a name like that, she’s obviously got Irish roots. She asked me, ‘Cera, why don’t you go for that (Doyenne)?’ Being a supplier, I thought I couldn’t enter.”

Doyenne was then only for ad agencies. Luckily for Ward, IAPI changed the competition’s entry rules. Just 24 hours to the deadline, she got her application off to IAPI, writing it with her infant son on her knee, 200 or 300 words, whatever – and that was that. She was getting her head back in the game and making a return to work after nine months’ maternity leave.

“I thought, this will help me take stock, how I can show up differently when I go back to work,” she said. “You’re mad not to take a window for whatever reason… a sabbatical or an extended break, to then not use it as a chance to reassess your situation.” It made Ward write down her achievements and have a good think about the whole kit and caboodle work-wise.

Ward has a motto for her team, which is do something which “scares the bejaysus out of you” every quarter. Fail to do so and you’re not pushing yourself, it is a fear of stepping outside one’s comfort zone. She never knows what it is but as soon she hears it, she realises,   that’s it. “I’ve lived by that motto and it’s helped me realise what I can do,” she insists.

While quietly confident and brim full of vim, she is the youngest of five children reared on a family farm in Co Monaghan, Ward, while used to enterprise, never imagined she would be where she is now in her career. Her first job was in sales with 98FM. After 18 months, she joined branding agency Image Now. A year later, she returned to radio and Communicorp.

She worked her way up the ranks at Newstalk to become sales director in charge of a team of 15. She was the only woman on the management side until Denis O’Brien brought Elaine Geraghty on board. Then, in 2011, it was off to Google, where she became country manager. Last June, she was made country director for large customer sales for the UK and Ireland.

When not toiling away in Grand Canal Dock, Ward likes to relax performing “high energy activities”, running and cooking. Given how well she has done in sales down the years, she probably enjoys a bit of target practice too. She does voluntary work for Camara Education, an Irish charity which repairs computers and laptops and sends them to schools in Africa.

Voice search accounts for less than five per cent of searches in Ireland. But Google sees it catching on big-time. It is why they launched Google Assistant last October. An intelligent personal aide, it is similar to Amazon’s Alexa. Ward believes there is a time and a place for voice. It will be used more but there will always be a demand for a screen of some sort.

The search continues.

In an interview with Michael Cullen






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