2013 Advertising Hall of Achievement honoree Tara Walpert Levy discusses bridging the digital divide, engagement over exposure and disruption vs. distraction.

You came to Google with a passion to bridge the digital divide. In the past two years, have traditional advertisers and technology companies been able to close the gap at all? What sort of improvements have you seen?

When I came to Google a few years ago, Mary Meeker was still showing the significant gap between the time people spent on digital and the attention marketers gave to the medium. Time spent on digital was more than twice the budget brands were allocating. Since that time, the two are much closer to parity, so the gap is closing!

The traditional and digital worlds have evolved from fighting over which way is best to learning to take the best from each other. Digital marketing today retains a lot more of the beauty and insight of traditional creative than it did two years ago. Traditional marketers are using substantially more data and insights to influence their online and offline efforts than they did before.

So, the challenge today is less about bridging the divide and more about helping every marketer get the most out of the web. How to take advantage of the elements of digital that make it unique – the ability to reach a passionate audience, to tell your brand story in the most amazing ways, and to drive deeper engagement through participation. The big winners at Cannes the last few years have all taken this to heart – brands like Nike and Dove. But doing this at scale requires changes to organizational approach, to campaign strategy, and to measuring impact.

There’s no playbook; that’s the challenge. But the brands who are investing today in figuring out how to build their brands and businesses in a different way are the ones who in 3-5 years will have a competitive advantage others can’t catch. They will be to brand building what Amazon and Ebay were to SEM. And hopefully we will have been a part of to make the web work for them.

You’ve been spending a lot of time with YouTube lately. As head of B2B marketing for YouTube, what sort of information are you presenting to advertisers to convince them that digital is more than a secondary medium?

Honestly, I’m not sure we have to convince most marketers that digital is more than a secondary medium anymore. Most top brands have a deep understanding of their consumers’ evolving behavior and their shift to constant connectivity. We check our phones an average of 110 times a day. We move across devices 90% of the time before accomplishing a task. Marketers get that, and understand the importance of being where their customers are.

Honestly, I’m not sure we have to convince most marketers that digital is more than a secondary medium anymore.

One of the challenges that pops up though is when marketers themselves are not using the platforms their customers are using. Marketing at the end of the day is often personal. I love ESPN, so I understand advertising on ESPN. I use Facebook so I understand how to advertise on Facebook. But when there’s a disconnect between user behavior and marketer’s personal behavior, you often see a bigger lag. YouTube is a great example of this. It reaches more 18-34 year olds than any cable network, but many marketers can’t name more than one YouTube channel, if that.

So, our challenge is helping marketers understand an experience that can be foreign to them, and understand content that doesn’t look like the content they grew up watching, even though millions of people spend billions of hours watching it every month. Tools like our quarterly report, YouTube Insights, or our weekly content digest, YouTube Re:View, aim to make it easier for marketers to “get it” if they’re not naturally drawn to the platform.

You’re a proponent of engagement over exposure, and you have said that the brands who buy into this philosophy will be the ones that come out on top. As leaders and prime examples of success in this industry, what have both Google and YouTube done, or what are they doing now, to put this into practice?

That one’s easy – Google was built on this principle. Here’s a quick test, to see if you agree. How did you hear about Google? Was it a TV ad? A billboard? No, it was almost certainly originally by word of mouth from passionate super-fans. In fact, Google didn’t run its first ad on TV until just a few years ago. Google was built by super-serving a core group of people, and then using the resulting insights and advocacy to grow out from there.

It’s not just Google who has used this approach successfully, btw. Think about many of the hot brands of the past 15 years: Amazon, AirBnB, Chipotle, Warby Parker. These are brands who grew up in a time when participatory, engagement-driven media were available, and that’s where they naturally gravitated because they had no legacy to overcome. Brands with longer history are now doing the same – think Nike, Samsung, P&G – but it’s harder because it’s a bigger change.

To be clear, this isn’t about digital vs. TV, or even engagement vs. exposure. It’s about a prioritization and sequencing. It’s about answering the question “what would my media plan look like if engagement were my top objective?” Exposure is still important, and most brands will still benefit from a mixture of both traditional and digital media, but what we find is that by asking that simple question, a light bulb goes off and marketers start thinking about things differently. It’s about engaged reach, vs simply reach alone.

I could bore you for pages about all the thinking on this, but it’s probably easier to check out our collection of articles from industry leaders at the Engagement Project.

What are your thoughts on the whole “disruption vs. distraction” paradigm? How can we toe the line between ads which enhance user experience, and those which take away from it?

There’s an easy way to determine which ads create value for users and which ones don’t; let people choose whether to watch or engage with your ad. At Google, we believe deeply in the power of choice. Search began by allowing for user choice and favoring the results that users choose the most often. It creates better value for users because the results that get clicked on the most rise to the top, and it creates value for marketers because they only pay to get interested parties. We’ve now extended that philosophy to video and display. Already more than 75% of the advertising on YouTube is choice based.

We believe most advertising will be choice-based in the near future.

We believe most advertising will be choice-based in the near future. In many ways, it already is. People are already making a choice by DVRing, picking up phones, or just ignoring. The difference is, by building choice deliberately into the ad mechanism, brands can benefit by not paying for un-interested users – and by gaining insights on what interests people and what doesn’t. And as for users, they benefit because the tension between disruption and distraction will slowly fade away.

Google has always been a leader in data insights, but Creative Sandbox (part of Google’s Think Insights platform) shows off a completely different side to the company. What challenges (if any) did this foray into creative present to a company so built on numbers and algorithms?

Ha, that’s funny. It’s true, it’s taken us some time to understand and embrace the art of marketing with the same passion we did the science. But there’s nothing like a convert! We’ve definitely come to embrace the value of combining traditional and new approaches to make it easier for brands to do what they’re trying to do in the simplest, smartest, most compelling ways.

Creative Sandbox was one of the first examples of how we celebrated creativity and data coming together for marketers. Check out Art, Copy and Code, a series of experiments to re-imagine advertising for some of our latest thinking that really pushes the boundaries of what’s possible.

What these efforts have taught us is that marketers value Google not only as a place to be relevant and precise and insights-driven, but also as a place to tell beautiful, seamless stories. The ability to take a creative idea and bring it to life in formats that are native to the experience, direct to the consumer, unfettered by typical creative constraints, across each of the moments that matter to people as they go about their day is pretty unique. And as brands’ stories matter to people more than ever, there are incredible opportunities to offer content people value as core to how they live their lives.

And for those who still aren’t “feeling it” from a visceral, emotional standpoint? Well, we just show them the data on the difference seamless storytelling can make!

Can you tell us which industry trends or concepts you are most intrigued with currently? Where is digital headed in 2014-15?

Well, there’s always the hot buttons of social, mobile, and local. The evolution of the web to be much more visual and the unprecedented access to video. Those are important trends and platforms to understand. But what excites me most are the opportunities these trends create. Trends like these mean that people are constantly connected and as a result, we as marketers can be part of people’s lives at more of the moments that matter.

As both a marketer and a consumer, I’m excited to see a move toward greater value – to creating significant utility for people through marketing. Let’s face it, we are very good at ignoring things that aren’t interesting to us, and technology has only made it easier to tune out. This forces us as marketers to think about not only how we will get in front of people, but why they should listen, care, and respond. It’s helping us to raise our game.

As devices become more personal – first it was the phone, soon it will be glasses, watches, and other wearable technology – marketing can become more personal. 100 years ago, brands and marketing were intensely personal. It was the relationship between a merchant and his customers. Then the broadcast age came along, and the relationship with our customers became more distant, as communications went from 2 way to 1 way. We now have the opportunity to bring back that personal touch, at scale.

Finally, digital has brought us into the participation age. It’s a return to two way engagement. To knowing the customer, listening and responding to their needs and interests. To helping them be part of the conversation. A dialogue is much more exciting than a monologue.

These are the things that make me hurry to work every morning.