Preserving a Way of Life
In his new novel Salvage, the Boston College professor and noted public intellectual Richard Kearney reminds us of our sacred connection to nature.
Meet Google's Messenger
As the tech behemoth’s vice president of global marketing, Marvin Chow ’95 helps shape the stories told by one of the world’s most important companies.
Google needed to walk a tightrope. It was April 2021, and with the country still deep in the pandemic, the Academy Awards had decided to go forward with its televised ceremony. Google wanted to air a commercial during the show, but it would need to strike a balance between cautious optimism—Covid vaccines had been authorized a few months earlier—and somber respect for the fact that family visits were still taking place over screens rather than in person. What could the tech giant say that would connect with people during such a strange, tense time? The answer turned out to be a ninety-second ad starring an actual Google employee named Tony Lee, who is the adult child of deaf parents. In the ad, called “A CODA Story,” Lee uses the Google Meet video chat service to introduce his parents to their new grandchild, taking advantage of technology in the program that produces a real-time transcription of his words so his parents can understand what he, his wife, and the baby are saying. Rather than a faceless multinational corporation, the ad proclaimed to viewers, Google is a maker of tools that help you live and love even during what feels like the end of the world. The ad was a sensation. Its message that life, love, and family endure through a pandemic touched something in viewers, and long after it first ran during the awards show, people continued to watch the ad on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times.
The creative mind overseeing the ad’s production was Marvin Chow ’95, Google’s vice president of global marketing and the guy the company often looks to for its highest-priority messaging. Chow heads a team of around 250 people at Google, overseeing the company’s marketing efforts for everything from its familiar Search and Maps apps to its artificial intelligence, privacy, and government relations projects. He helps Google figure out how it can drive growth across the board, for all its products. Among his most important duties, however, is managing the creative elements each year for one of the tech world’s premiere events—Google I/O, a widely covered presentation during which CEO Sundar Pichai and other top execs wow investors, influencers, and journalists with the tech giant’s upcoming wonders. Chow, fifty, is involved in every aspect of the show, from working with Pichai on the design of slide decks to making sure that the stagecraft adequately dazzles the crowd. Chow’s boss, Lorraine Twohill, has been known to joke that Chow spends more time with the CEO than she does.
So just what is Chow’s job? His chief of staff, Michelle Winters, said that when something is causing headaches at one of the world’s most important companies, the solution is often “let’s just put it under Marvin, and Marvin will fix it.” Said another way, his job is to help make sure that people understand exactly what Google can do for them. And that just may make Marvin Chow one of the most influential marketing executives in the world.
Chow’s parents immigrated to the States from Taiwan before he was born. After settling in New Jersey, they moved around a fair amount within the state. Along the way, Chow got himself headed down a troubled path. He began shoplifting at age seven, according to an article he wrote in 2019, and had held a gun by age eight. So the family moved to Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey, and Chow began the third grade in what was already the fifth school he’d attended.
Woodcliff Lake was a safer town, but also a significantly whiter one. Chow stood out as one of only a few Asian kids. “I was made fun of at length for being different—the slanted eyes, the funny Chinglish impersonations, the kung fu acting,” he wrote, “and it all made me want to fit in but also drove me to stand out in my own way, on my own terms.” His parents owned a 7-Eleven in the town, and as a teenager he worked long shifts there, folding the newspapers, stocking fridges in the back, and operating the register once he was old enough. “It was fun because it was good people, but you were annoyed as a high school student,” Chow said. “You’d have to spend the whole weekend at your mom’s store, but that was kind of our life, you know? That was the family.”
Attending BC was a transformative experience. Chow made lots of friends and joined as many clubs as he could. “I just wanted to try everything,” he said. “I went to an all-boys Catholic high school, and I was kind of a shy, not-super-well-performing student in high school. In college, I became a bit more extroverted, and knowledgeable about more things that were in the world beyond academics.”
“Learning from other people and through conversations or experiences was always his thing,” recalled Ginny McCormick ’96, a friend from BC. “It wasn’t about just what he could take out of the experience. It was like, how are we thinking about making it better for everyone?” Of course, people had plenty to learn from Chow, too. And that’s what happened one night during his junior year when he attended a dinner at the home of Brenda Goodell ’80, then the vice president of global brand image for Reebok.
Goodell had always been the type of committed alum who enjoyed finding ways to stay connected to current students. So when she was looking for a nanny in the early nineties, she hired a BC undergrad named Bonnie Hungler ’94. Goodell then encouraged Hungler to invite a few of her classmates over for a dinner party at her Duxbury home. After the meal, as Goodell strolled into the kitchen, she found Chow washing the dishes. They got to talking and it soon came out that Chow, a marketing major, had some experience with the newly emerging internet.
Goodell was intrigued, especially because Reebok was still trying to figure out how to use the internet to its advantage. No one really knew what it might become, but that night over some soapy dishes, Goodell and Chow talked and talked about his ideas for what the future might hold for the World Wide Web. “He saw the possibility,” Goodell said. “He was super smart, but not in a geeky, inaccessible way that I couldn’t understand—because I had no idea what code was or any of that—but in this thoughtful, creative, and passionate way.”
She immediately offered him an internship at Reebok.
When something is causing headaches at Google, says Chow’s chief of staff, the solution is often “let’s just put it under Marvin, and Marvin will fix it.”
Chow’s internship led to a full-time job at Reebok after he graduated in 1995. His knowledge of technology was so unusual at the company that he wound up helping with everything from digital marketing to providing tech support for CEO Paul Fireman. “He really charted our path forward for what was, at the time, crazy, uncharted waters,” Goodell said.
Chow would work long hours at the office, then go home to his apartment and work some more. “He was one of those people that could survive on very little sleep,” said Hungler, who was dating Chow at the time. “He’d be like, ‘Yeah, let’s go to a movie.’ And then, we’d go home and go to bed and he’d stay up and work until two or three in the morning.” Then, Goodell recalled, he would show up in the morning with brilliant new ideas about e-commerce or online marketing. And just as important in those early days of the internet, he would explain his breakthrough ideas in a way that people could actually understand. “His ability to teach comes from his ability to have a vision and create that as a shared vision for everybody he works with,” Goodell said.
After four and a half years at Reebok, Chow left to become the chief operating officer of a fitness startup. Less than a year later, another tantalizing opportunity beckoned and he moved to Chicago to join MVP.com, an e-commerce startup created by the sports superstars Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and John Elway. Chow worked on marketing strategy for the company, but the whole thing came apart amid the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2001, and the company was sold. Suddenly out of a job, Chow moved home to New Jersey and slept on a cousin’s sofa for six months. He eventually landed a job later that year as a marketing director at the cable network Nickelodeon, where he worked in e-commerce and marketing. The job was a blast, especially since Nickelodeon shared space with other Viacom properties, including MTV. Chow reported to work every day in Manhattan in an office that loomed forty-two stories above the studio where MTV’s iconic Total Request Live pop music show was filmed. He also got to help build buzz for the launch of a new show that was soon to become a phenomenon: Dora the Explorer. “I had no actual comprehension of how big a deal the show was going to be,” Chow said. “That was just really cool to get a sense of entertainment and youth and how they think about TV.” The Nickelodeon job solidified his sense that his passion lay in storytelling through marketing, but he wasn’t thrilled about using his talents to encourage kids to watch more TV. So when one of his old connections from MVP.com told him about an opportunity to join Nike, he went for it.
Chow started as special projects director at the pioneering footwear company in 2003, working on initiatives for the chief marketing officer. In his new role, he took on innovative—and quirky—projects. Like the time higher-ups at Nike and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs decided that the employees of their famously creative companies should find a way to collaborate. So Chow spent three days in a conference room with the inventor of the iPod, among others, in a strategy session that ultimately led to Nike+, a digital running platform.
In 2004, when Chow was thirty-one, Nike asked him to relocate and work as a marketing director in Korea. Chow was confused—was he being punished? Quite the contrary, his boss clarified, explaining that managing a business unit on his own, in a new country, was an important step in moving up. In Korea, Chow oversaw the company’s consumer-facing efforts in the country, and worked on its World Cup campaign. Plus, he found a real joy in living there. He spoke almost no Korean, but many people in the office spoke English, which helped with the transition. “It was like this undiscovered gem of a country to me,” Chow said. While there, he began dating a woman named Ji-Young, and they were married in 2005.
At the office, he deftly navigated around the potentially awkward fact that he was younger than most of the people who reported to him. “He was a very confident person and a very young person coming into that role,” said Michael Kwon, a colleague from his Nike Korea days. “The culture was different. He’s more aggressive, from America. Korea is a little bit more conservative, more sensitive.” But Chow, showing the same ability to bring people around to his ideas that had impressed Brenda Goodell all those years earlier, won over the staff. “We learned so much from him during those short two and a half years,” Kwon said. “One word that really would describe it best was he empowered us. He let us do our jobs and he didn’t micromanage us, but he was very strategic.”
Impressed, Nike sent Chow to Japan in 2006 to manage a seventy-person team as marketing director. It was a great opportunity, but it came with challenges. Once again, he didn’t speak the language, but in this office, very few people spoke English, and he had to have someone translate for him at all times. Plus, the team had been through a rough period. “I think I was their fifth marketing director in like twelve years,” Chow said. Despite the obstacles, he found ways to build relationships with his staff. For instance, when email proved an inefficient form of communication given all the need for translation, Chow said he realized that, “with my broken Japanese and your broken English, I can walk over to your desk and try to figure this out. I think little things like that, extending that bridge, were really helpful.”
Chow was someone with a “sharp, sharp curiosity,” recalled Davide Grasso, who was Chow’s supervisor at Nike and is now the CEO of the luxury automaker Maserati. What set Chow apart from other smart and ambitious executives, Grasso said, was his essential kindness. “Marvin has this ability to work with pretty much everybody. He wasn’t really fighting with this or fighting with that. He was trying to figure out ways to solve problems.”
Chow worked in Japan for three years, a time that coincided with improved fortunes for Nike in the country. He helped to grow both revenue and brand-of-choice numbers, and was involved in the design and creative direction of the company’s first flagship store in Tokyo. Then, in 2009, the company moved Chow yet again, this time sending him to China as a marketing director. He’d been there for only a few months when Google started recruiting him. He hadn’t exactly been looking to leave Nike, but Google was persistent. “It was like dating,” Chow recalled. “I had sixteen interviews over six months, in three or four countries. It was getting to know them, them getting to know me.”
Chow, of course, was on a successful path at Nike, and a colleague at the company warned him that leaving would be the biggest mistake of his life. But Google was beginning to win him over with its plans for the future of technology, a subject he’d been interested in since college. There was also the fact that Ji-Young saw the potential of a move almost immediately. “My wife is the great counterbalance to me,” Chow said. “After two interviews, she was like, ‘We’re going to Google.’ And then I had to have fourteen more interviews to be convinced.”
In 2010, the year Chow joined Google, the company was racing to launch its answer to the social media platform that felt like it was taking over the world: Facebook. Finally, Google was going to take on the company that was changing how people used the internet. Millions of people already had Google accounts, company executives reasoned—surely they’d be delighted to link them to a new site, called Google+, where they could post photos, give status updates, chat and connect in groups, and share events…just like they were already doing on Facebook. In his very first assignment at Google, then, Chow was going into battle with Facebook. The prospect was daunting. Facebook was already proving itself a formidable competitor. “The pace was just ridiculous,” Chow said. “I work a lot, and I was just like, this is ridiculous.”
By Google standards, Google+ turned out to be a flop. User numbers steadily increased—mainly because Google automatically signed people up for the service when they did things like open a Gmail account—but no one was spending much time on the site. It lingered on until 2019, when Google finally, mercifully, shut it down for good. So, yes, a failure. “But I learned a ton,” Chow insisted. Besides, he added, Google+ may have been a bust, but President Obama still used it for a digital fireside chat back in 2013, and it facilitated an important conversation between the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Such is Google’s reach that, even when something doesn’t pan out, it’s still going to have a chance to shine on a global stage.
Thirteen years later, Chow has ascended through the ranks at Google to become the guy that CEO Sundar Pichai depends on for the biggest event of the year. But what’s kept him at the company is more than just his own growing responsibilities, it’s the opportunities he’s had to bring his entire self to the job. For instance, the article that he wrote about his experiences with racism as a boy in New Jersey came about thanks to a Google initiative in which leaders at the company wrote a “diversity narrative.” Chow expected to bang out a quick page and a half that he’d read to his peers. Instead, he said, “I sat down at this table, and it was dark out, and I wrote for like an hour and a half, and I wrote, I don’t know, seven pages. And I was like, all right, well, clearly I had a lot to think about and a lot to write.”
Google has also given him the opportunity to create a resource group for the company’s Asian employees, something that has extended to providing mentorship to some of the employees. “We talk a lot in the group about how do you advance if you’re on the quieter side, particularly the Asians that are expats,” Chow said. “How do you work toward what your strength is? We always say that you can lead in a lot of ways. If you’re a data person, you lead with data. If you’re more introverted, you do better with sending emails, or other kinds of asynchronous communication.” He has also encouraged members of the group to think about how a community is a shared resource—a place where you should put in as much as you hope to get out of it.
Winters, his chief of staff, said Chow has used his status at the company to advocate for changes that are personally meaningful to him. “I think he’s tried to use a lot of his influence to say, What is the right thing here? And I think he got really energized by the impact and by the work.”
In May, the annual Google I/O event was dominated by a single topic: artificial intelligence. During his presentation, Pichai, the Google CEO, used the phrase “AI” so many times that a video of all the times he said it later made the rounds on social media.
Pichai’s fixation with AI was in response to ChatGPT, the generative AI service that exploded onto the internet last November. Generative AI is an artificial intelligence that is capable of responding to user queries in a way that convincingly mimics human language. With some fine-tuning, ChatGPT can craft a reasonable approximation of a cover letter, or even a basic college essay. Its release prompted debates about the future of art, writing, teaching, and many, many other endeavors. Was the program going to save us the trouble of menial tasks, or would it kill the Great American Novel? Whatever the answers, one thing was clear: Generative AI was going to be a transformative engine for change.
At the Google I/O event, the company released the first public version of its answer to ChatGPT, a program called Bard. The competition may have had a head start, but Pichai blitzed through a long list of reasons that, he insisted, Bard is the superior product. The event was the glittering show it always is, with a DJ, flashy new product demos, and an array of company execs showing off Google’s impressive work. Behind it all, as always, was Chow. The event was built around generative AI this time. Next year it will likely be something else. “There’s not an advancement to mankind that has happened in the last fifteen to twenty years that didn’t involve Google,” Chow said. Don’t believe him? Just try to get through a week without using a Google product. The company’s core mission continues to be to help people, Chow said, whether that’s through video chatting during a pandemic, researching cancer treatments, or maybe, someday, going to Mars. “There is always,” he said, “going to be a new technology that’s going to help people do more, you know?”