From Gamer To Google Guru

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1_IainTait02_030Photographed by Winnie Au

“I’m trying my best not to become irrelevant,” says Iain Tait, executive creative director at Google Creative Lab. “Or, at least, start enjoying becoming irrelevant and phase myself out.”

It’s the kind of smirking, knowing, slightly unsettling comment that’s become Tait’s stock-in-trade. After all, this is the same man who helped bring us the Old Spice guy and dozens of other digital advertising campaigns that tweaked and twerked our notions of fusty, old brands. Sometimes his ads were even more popular than the products they promoted. Other times, they were more popular than Obama.

If you think about it, a man who can devise campaigns that make you scratch your head as much as buy a product is exactly the kind of guy who remind us that Google — a startup that's quickly become essential to modern life — creates things that are not just needed, but also amazing. Moreover, the move from superpowered creative firm Wieden + Kennedy to Google actually seems like a bit of a return to form for Tait. "I was okay at school," the Scot says, "I always had some combination of 'could do better' or 'try harder' sprinkled in my reports. But, at university, I had this one amazing professor of human-computer interaction who showed me the early web. I started swapping mixtapes online via email lists, and I got bitten by the potential of the network. I was suddenly connected to a bunch of people who were joined by nothing more than computers and a love of house music."

The passion Tait has for the connectivity and the Internet led him to start his own digital creative firm, which he and his colleagues launched to "put some fun back into the medium we loved." From there, it was Old Spice, Wieden + Kennedy, and now Google Creative Lab, where he's trying to make the world's most visited site the world's most loved company. "Sometimes we make things that suggest what Google’s products might be like in the future," he says. "Sometimes we create things using Google’s products that demonstrate their potential or a different way of thinking about them, and sometimes we tell (hopefully) interesting stories about the products that help people to understand them a bit bitter."

It's no small order, and we'll be duly impressed if Tait and his team are able to pull off even a bit of it. We've got to admit though, in a world of TED-talking, self-impressed, self-serious web evangelists and visionaries without vision, Tait is honest and refreshing enough to make us think he's the man. "Don’t take yourself too seriously, he smiles. "No one else does."
2_IainTait01_084Photographed by Winnie Au
Play to Lose
“My parents bought me a computer when I was 10, and I was hooked. I mean, I played a lot of games. Playing 1980s video games was very different back then. You died again, and again, and again. Every time, I had to go back to the start and try a slightly different tactic. I learned much about failing, over and over. It’s a really valuable skill when you’re trying to ‘sell’ creative work. You have to be okay with failure — continually ask, ‘Is this right for me?' — and tweak your path, so you really go after the things that excite you.”

Master of None
“I have very nonspecific skills (maybe I have no skills?). I can write well enough to get by. I’m a terrible designer. I know my way around iMovie like the average 12-year-old, and my coding skill is practically zero. However, because I know a little bit about lots of things, I can hack together ghetto versions of things that can communicate an idea. And I like to think that I can help people to do better work by asking dumb questions (they might disagree, of course).”

Money Ain’t a Thang
“I once quit a startup two weeks before they sold, because I wasn’t enjoying myself. The loss of paper money hurt for a bit, and lots of people thought I was an idiot. But I did the right thing for my happiness and, coincidentally, that was the moment I started working with Nicolas Roope, who I later founded Poke with. If I’d stuck around for the money, I’d have missed out on so much.”

Google Me
"The reason I came to Google was the chance to do things that have the potential to touch everyone. I love the fact that Google makes things that everyone can use, for free, to do amazing things. From Search to Maps to Gmail to Docs to Chrome to Android, there’s such an array of things that have changed our experience of the world. When I think back to my early days of trading mixtapes, using Pegasus Mail, it feels like a completely different era in history."

Working in the Cloud
For certain kinds of creativity, of course, you want to be left alone with your own thoughts. But sometimes having lots of people hacking away on a script or whatever at the same time can be incredibly liberating and strangely energizing. At the extreme end, I’ve been part of two projects where people have used the platform to propose (both said “yes,” which gave everyone involved a nice, warm feeling).”

Digital Detox
“The desire to 'turn off' is a very real thing. I’ve tried it. It was quite nice. I learned a bunch about myself in the week that I did it. But cold turkey isn’t really the answer. I think we need to design for technology to stop being so ‘needy’ and help people to moderate their habits and focus on each other from time to time. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

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