Media Headliner: Brittin prepares to row Google into fresh waters

But does the appointment of Matt Brittin, the former head of direct sales, signal a return to the bad old days for Google?

Someone at Google's UK operation should run up a few of those terribly witty little placards you sometimes see behind the bar or above the counter in shops. Google's would read: "You don't have to be a seriously good athlete to run things around here ... but it helps."

The office joker could scatter a few of them around reception, maybe on Red Nose Day. Not, you suspect, that Google goes a bundle on Red Nose Day, or indeed boasts much in the way of office jokers. Or cherishes feeble office humour of any sort, come to that.

When you work for the flagship company of a whole new economy, you tend to take yourself seriously. As seriously, in fact, as a seriously good athlete.

Matt Brittin is one. Brittin, a man who has represented Great Britain at the Olympics and the World Rowing Championships and who rowed three times in the boat race while a student at Cambridge, was in the news last week because he's stepping up to become the director of Google's UK operations, replacing Dennis Woodside, who is moving to the US as vice-president, Americas operations. That's the very triathlete, Dennis Woodside.

Brittin got the top job ahead of the UK country director, Mark Howe, who has also rowed for his country.

You might think this adds up to a seamless piece of succession management. Some would also argue that, given another salient aspect of Brittin's background, this is evidence of Google's determination to stay stuck in its bad old ways.

One of the biggest gripes the advertising world has had with Google is the way it has allegedly tried to marginalise advertising and media agencies in the search market by talking directly to clients. And Brittin has, since he joined from Trinity Mirror in January 2007, been Google's head of direct sales.

As one observer puts it: "There will be those who point out that, despite all of its protestations about not being quite so aggressive about client sales, it only goes and promotes its head of client sales.

"I'm sure that's not at all fair because we've certainly had no problems recently with the way Google goes about things and it has made great efforts to soften its stance. Still, people have long memories in this business."

But actually, this view is more than counterbalanced by those who argue that Brittin's appointment is nothing short of a breath of fresh air and, indeed, a signal that it intends to move away from the reputation it has acquired for fostering a bunker mentality.

We catch up with Brittin fresh from an interview with Radio 4's Today programme and an appearance on Newsnight the night before. He'd been discussing Google's big new initiative, Street View, which some commentators worry is a wholesale invasion of the nation's privacy and a burglar's charter to boot.

On TV and radio, Brittin oozed accomplished ease as he delivered reassurances about the safeguards in place. He confesses he loves being in the media eye and has clearly missed the cut and thrust of public life.

So he has no problems dealing with one of our first questions, which is also about privacy - this time, concerns about the increasingly sophisticated behavioural targeting (actually, the term it prefers is "interest-based advertising") techniques it can offer advertisers.

Again, he emphasises the safeguards and indeed Google's commitment to total transparency where use data is concerned. And he's more than willing to take head-on the almost comic book notion that there are Google people in some shady backroom somewhere plotting the downfall of civilisation by finding ways to abuse personal data.

He's slightly more evasive on the subject of relationships with the advertising community, declining the opportunity to admit there's been a problem in the past. He is keener to emphasise the general sophistication of the UK advertising market and the huge progress there's been in the way online is now integrated with more traditional offline strategies.

"What myself and Mark Howe have brought to Google is an understanding of how agencies work. And we have a broad set of skills to help agencies and clients get more out of online," he says. "The combination of client and agency and Google and technology is a powerful one."

He mentions Howe several times in the interview - and seems keen to get across the notion of an integrated approach where advertising is concerned.

We'll see, of course - especially if, as is likely, Google vastly increases its already substantial power as a media owner as we work our way through the recession.

The fundamentals, he insists, don't change though - and he's keen to emphasise continuity. In a good way, of course. "I've been here two years so I don't think you can expect a sudden change in direction," he says.

And it helps, he adds, that both he and Howe have one or two things in common. They attended the same school (in different eras, he adds hastily) and when it comes to developing a common language it helps that they've both done considerably more than messing about in boats.

As Brittin puts it: "I think we both understand that the best way to make the boat go faster is to pull together."


Age: 40

Lives: Teddington

Family: Wife Kate; children Fred and Nick

How do you relax? By cycling, swimming and learning to climb with Fred and Nick

Most treasured hi-tech possession: Android phone

Alternative career: As Sir Steve Redgrave

Last book read: Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Motto: "Keep calm and carry on, which is essential for surviving the pace of change in the digital world".