Google's Matt Brittin on tax, Brexit and the future of the internet

Being a boss at the most powerful tech company on the planet is a prized job. But it brings its own set of challenges, as Google's EMEA president has found out - from ethical dilemmas to facing questions from MPs about tax and his salary.

Photography by Harry Borden
Photography by Harry Borden

Had I been researching this article 20 years ago, it would have been a considerably more arduous process than it remains today. The task would have begun with a trek up to the Press Association library on London's Fleet Street and a request for the files on Matt Brittin, Google and its commercial rivals. The brown manila folders would have taken half an hour to arrive from the filing cabinets and contained a large number of carefully folded newspaper articles. (All would have been in English.) I would carefully have unfolded each one, read it, and if it was of interest, placed it to one side for photocopying.

In 2017, I sit here in MT's office and put the keywords into a search engine and hey presto. Google "Google" and you get about 11,470,000,000 results. Brittin himself merits 45,800. (Incidentally, when you type "God" into the box you only get 1,630,000,000 results. So, Google is seven times bigger than God. At least in its own deep, algorithmic mind.)

Such numbers bring their own sifting problems. What is wheat and what is digital chaff? It is one thing having so much information at your fingertips but judging which bits are relevant to you, the reader, is another matter altogether. Who has decided which are the most important citations? Who knows what proportion of those results are post-truth, fake news? But you cannot take it away from Sergey and Larry. What Google has achieved since its creation in 1996 is quite amazing and, as such, it is probably the most important company to have been created since the Second World War.

Although not based in the all-controlling Californian Googleplex nerve centre, Brittin's looks like a pretty great job. He's a big cheese, the most senior boss outside the United States of what is now the largest company by enterprise value on the planet. It vies with Apple for the top slot on capitalisation. Google is smart, leading edge, hugely profitable and, of course, it does – or did – "no evil". Its London office just behind the mega building site of Tottenham Court Road is hip in a slightly laboured fashion. The free lunch is tasty but someone should tell the interior designer that green shag pile should be kept in Austin Powers' boudoir and isn't suitable for areas of high footfall. ("It's five years old and it still looks all right," he protests.) A new Thomas Heatherwick phantasmagoria in King's Cross awaits London Googleistas.

Google consistently tops lists of companies millennials would love to work for. According to PayScale, 86% of Google employees say they are either extremely satisfied or fairly satisfied with their job. The 64,000 employees get free meals, generous paid parental leave by US standards - and are allowed flexibility to work on their "passion projects". Google's former head of HR Laszlo Bock has said that its mission "to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" is "a moral rather than a business goal". What's not to like about all this? 

Born to middle-class parents in Walton-on-Thames, Brittin's career didn't get seriously into gear until relatively late

But, however well-meaning, Google's market dominance, ostensibly stateless nature and omnipresence leads it into controversy. Those soaring revenues – $90bn last year which have turned the world of advertising upside down and helped trash publishing – combined with super-confident, curious minds get Google onto everyone's turf: into mapping, autonomous cars, phones, wind farms, delivery drones, smart contact lenses, hot air balloons, robotic cheetahs, genome storage, disrupting the music and TV industries with YouTube, even "curing death". ("Larry is restless about the numbers of problems that have insufficient numbers of people working on them," explains Brittin. "Driverless cars can't be argued with when you have a million road deaths each year. Computers can drive cars more safely than humans.")

As it has matured, it has been forced to accept a curatorial responsibility. What does it do, for example, when a search to answer the question "Did the holocaust happen?" brings up the site of a neo-Nazi organisation as the top answer? (The bizarre answer in this case is that Google donations to the Jewish Breman Museum in Atlanta fund an AdWords programme, which costs $2 a click in an attempt to outdo the Holocaust deniers and be placed first in the relevant search list.) It is a strange world filled with thorny problems, which do not have easy answers.

And there is now a perceptible tech backlash. Trump has certainly fed from it. Tech divides society as it stands accused of taking away jobs - first blue and now white collar. (It is noteworthy that it was principally tech chiefs who protested Trump's January Muslim travel ban -Google's Sergey Brin, from a family of Russian refuseniks, even appeared at San Francisco airport to join the demonstration.) Rival Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg seems aware of this dilemma and has made the statesman-like promise to visit all 50 US states this year to listen and explain. And to us Brits, there's something quite mysterious and hidden about Google, almost arcane like a sect. "They can come over a bit wide-eyed, like the Moonies and they just love their own Kool-Aid," says one observer who would rather remain nameless, as do most who express an opinion about the behemoth. But its market position is undeniably strong – it has 95% of the search market, depending on how you define that these days.

Another voice who has observed Google for decades says: "They are NOT evil. Perhaps, though as a bunch of geek engineers with minimal EI (emotional intelligence) between them, they are sometimes overly obsessed with perfecting their product rather than the potential impact the services may have on the more frail or sensitive in our communities. In the main, their obsession has helped the world – the speed and precision of search.

"However if you believe, as many do, that porn or Isis-related materials etc are too easily accessible by those who could be very negatively affected by them then that obsession has gone too far and should be limited. Their problem is the moment you start filtering, you don't just affect the content you don't want people to see, it slows the speed and precision of all search."

Brittin faces all these issues each day after his commute in from the south-west London suburb where he lives with his wife Katherine and their two boys, born in 1999 and 2001. He did used to cycle in a fair bit but his bad back now means a standing desk and suffering the vagaries of South West Trains.

Born to middle-class parents in Walton-on-Thames, Brittin's career didn't get seriously into gear until relatively late. He was a rower at Cambridge where he studied land economy and geography and unfortunately lost the Oxbridge boat race three times. He took part in the Seoul Olympics of 1988, and a relatively mundane job as a surveyor for six years enabled him to foot the bill for competitive rowing in the days before Lottery funding came in.

Then he decided it was time to take work more seriously and completed an MBA at London Business School before joining McKinsey. It was here he got into tech strategy and he became commercial director at the Daily Mirror publisher Trinity Mirror in 2004. He had by then turned down a job at Google, which he has said was his "biggest personal mistake". Given a choice between Google and Trinity Mirror now, it's clear which most people would take.

Eventually he joined Google as director of sales in 2007 and rose rapidly to become MD for Google UK in 2009 and then vice-president for Northern Europe in 2011. He did well defending the controversy over privacy when Street View was something that started to exercise more squeamish or clandestine philandering members of the public, and this impressed the triumvirate of Eric Schmidt and the founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Although very well known on the tech scene, his moments in the public limelight have occurred since 2012 when he has been summoned on several occasions to appear in front of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee. This was in order to answer questions about Google's tax status in the UK and what unfolded were some of the worst multiple pile-ups of the post-Crash era of "business-in-the-doghouse". With almost palpable hostility, the MPs accused him of behaving in a "calculated and unethical manner", and told him, "I think that you do evil."

At his last appearance in 2016, the MPs kicked off the session by asking him repeatedly how much he earned, but he claimed not to know which provided widespread ridicule. "I politely declined to give that information. It was not relevant," he says. As a result, the Daily Mail went nuclear and printed a picture of his '£4 million' house in Teddington, which probably merited an invasion of privacy action. It then added that Google's average UK staff member salary was £160,000. The Guardian commented that he had "the look and manner of an over-enthusiastic second-hand car dealer: sharp suit, sharp tie and the sweetest of tongues" and joked that he was on a cool £137m.

Incidentally, when you Google his name the predictive search function suggests first salary and then net worth. This isn't in itself unusual – for the very successful that is often all the envious great unwashed wish to know.

As an interviewee, sitting on his inflatable ball, Brittin is very fast and fluent. On top of the issues, even if one feels he gives very little away. The confrontations in Westminster especially the personal stuff clearly riled him deeply. "I think it's reasonable for companies to undergo scrutiny. And it's right for people to show up to answer questions. But they didn't let me get my answer out. The real numbers are exactly the reason people get angry. They misrepresent the way the tax system works. Companies pay tax on profits. Companies do not pay profits on sales. We went through a six-year HMRC audit. At the end of that, they said exactly what we should pay and we did. We are happy to pay our fair share which is determined by rules."

But surely it was true that the publicity led to a change in their behaviour and an agreement to pay more than they would have done otherwise? Early last year, Google finally agreed to pay £130m in back taxes. "The audit was in the background. It concluded and we changed what we are doing. We had asked for a simplification of the tax rules. We don't want to spend time on that sort of thing. But we have been transparent and they are now happy."

It can't have been much fun being public hate figure Number One for a while, though. And, anyway, it was always going to be hard explaining that a 2014 UK corporation tax payment of £11.6m was a fair reflection of the profits on £3.4bn of sales.

"What was challenging personally was the MPs suggesting I drive at the speed limit. But they didn't like the speed limit. It wasn't for me to explain the whole 17,000-page UK tax code to them. But I understand they were rightly frustrated. We want to pay our fair share and be seen to do so."

This issue is not going to go away. Especially not now that we're in a Trump era with the likelihood of further international company tax harmonisation completely out of the window as nations jockey for competitive tax advantage. And on the subject of huge ructions in the political fabric, how about Brexit? It must have been an unwelcome surprise to him.

"A bunch of us woke up from our metropolitan bubbles and were surprised. I wallowed in the Glastonbury mud for a bit... But we've announced we'll continue to commit to the UK and will employ another 3,000 people post-Brexit. You have to look at the big picture. Back those trends and avoid being disrupted by the turmoil and swirl of uncertainty. The future is very uncertain. How will Trump play out? The Russians? But we're in a world that is safer, more prosperous and healthier than it's ever been."

But isn't life potentially outside the single market and customs union going to make things very hard for the British? "We have huge talent and opportunity in the UK. Our software engineering, world-leading artificial intelligence and machine learning with DeepMind is very strong. We simply don't know what the settlement will be. Anyway there isn't a digital single market today, so we're not in it. And we won't be when it does exist. We lead in e-commerce in the UK - the digital economy is 12.5% of our GDP. And 40% of our people here in London are non-Brits. But I have faith that the government will find a settlement where skilled people are available to British business."

So he's optimistic? "However you feel, I think the nature of Europe needs to be reformed for the modern world. The benefits of a single digital market would be clear. But I'm not clear everyone wants Brussels bureaucracy. In the UK, voters have decided one way to get that reformed relationship. Politicians now must make the best of it."

Google has an uneasy relationship with the EU. The Commission has three actions – or "statements of objection" as they read on the charge sheet – outstanding against the US company, covering Android, Shopping and AdSense. The longest – shopping – has been keeping lawyers in gravy for seven years.

The actions clearly annoy Brittin who as president for EMEA finds the EU grief buck stops with him. "Take the Shopping case. This hinges on questions about products or services. We sometimes give direct links to retailers where you can buy a product. However, aggregator sites want the whole lot included and want to be placed higher. We have tried to find a way forward but the w ay the EU has chosen to look at the market excludes Amazon and eBay, which simply isn't right. Also since that case started, the whole way we access information has fundamentally changed. Seven out of eight minutes are spent on mobile. And you may begin your search on Facebook or eBay."

Many are wondering if Google could win the lottery twice

He continues his defence: "We feel strongly we enhance competition. With Android they refuse to take Apple into consideration. To most consumers that would seem odd. We have now got thousands of different devices from Apple price points right down to $35. There are a million plus apps from thousands of developers."

What did he think were the differences culturally between bitter rivals Google and Apple? "I've not worked at Apple. They've been brilliant at innovation in an integrated way. All the bits of the iPhone existed before but the way they put it together was brilliant. Google was more born of web and is open to everybody via its standards." Did he think Apple may be showing signs of running out of steam? He smiles – "I wouldn't ever underestimate them. But we don't maximise money per mobile device. We help next to three billion people go online." He almost makes it sound like a charity.

And what of his management style? Did he think he was a natural product of McKinsey? "I liked it there very much but the most I learned, the stuff I use every day, I learned from rowing. Bringing people together into collaboration around a vision of what you're trying to achieve with a sense of purpose. That's what I most enjoy. McKinsey taught me clarity of thinking – breaking big problems down into pieces and communicating clearly. I enjoy doing the stuff myself rather than writing reports." He's taken up rowing again and is in a veterans' eight.

Google is now, of course, part of the larger holding company Alphabet. Advertising accounts for 90% of its revenues and almost all of its profits. YouTube is growing by leaps and bounds. It continues to search for its next big hit with all those moonshot projects and its capital expenditure surged almost 50% last year to $3bn. The self-driving car project now has its own unit called Waymo – the "other bets" division in its entirety reported an operating loss of $927m on revenues of $262m. Many are wondering if Google could win the lottery twice.

It also appears threatened by the advent of voice-activated search. Where is the room for ads on a device that talks back answers to questions from you? Surely nobody will tolerate jingles for the local supermarket interrupting Alexa in full flow? Some argue that as Google moves away from being a search engine to an answer service its utility will actually rise. But its advertising business model would then fall away. Likewise if people begin their hunt for kit on Amazon – as 55% of internet users are now said to do – where can Google deliver an ad?

Brittin seems sanguine that voice won't kill his business. "We already get 25% plus search on mobile which is voice-led," he says and demonstrates how easy it is to summon up a handyman in Harrogate by talking to his phone. "You can scroll these results and read reviews. We can offer targeted advertising within that set of results." Voice may, anyway, have its limitations. Who wants to be seen (or heard) bellowing "find me hotels in Brighton" or for that matter anything of an adult nature while in Starbucks?

So, what about the question whether Google like Facebook is a media rather than a pure tech company with the responsibilities that involves? Did he sometimes feels almost like the BBC with all the high-profile editorial conundrums?

"I enjoy media in the sense that people are trying to produce things that engage, educate and entertain at scale. The parallel with Google is we're building products to help people. But we don't produce content per se. There is an important difference. This is topical as we consider fake news. But we still think our responsibility is to get you answers to your questions that are helpful and relevant and fast. People understand it's a set of links. They have to judge across and consider multiple different points... There is the freedom of speech argument to balance against protecting people."

Finally, did he have any regrets for what has happened to newspaper and magazine publishing, many of whose managers he would do well to avoid in a narrow alley on a dark night? "We've trained 27,000 journalists across Europe with Google News. And we've gone deep with publishers to help build accelerated mobile pages which load faster. More than three seconds and people leave. But the truth is people have got more choice than ever before. And advertisers have got more choice than ever before about how to spend their money. They follow the audience. It's true, we're part of the wheels of change. We help but we cannot make publishing a new business model. It's people who choose what's going on." His organisation has certainly saved this writer plenty of shoe leather in the creation of this article.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING BRITTIN

  • Keeping the tax issue out of the news and the EU Commission's antitrust charges at bay
  • Maintaining a weather eye on the vagaries of Brexit
  • Helping find the Next Big Thing after search

BRITTIN IN A MINUTE

1968: Born in Walton-on-Thames. Educated at Hampton school and Robinson College, Cambridge

1988: Wins bronze medal at World Rowing Championships and competes in Seoul Olympics

1997: Gets distinction in MBA from London Business School and joins McKinsey

2004: Joins Trinity Mirror as commercial director

2007: Joins Google UK; becomes MD in 2009

2014: President, EMEA business & operations

This article was first published on Management Today