‘Digital is here to stay,’ says Google boss

Podcast Ep 73: Google country manager for Ireland for large customer sales Helma Larkin talks about Ireland’s evolving digital culture, changing behaviours and increased expectations of businesses.

If Ireland was a digital nation before the pandemic, it is more so now with online retail alone in the past year representing 66pc of retail intake, says Google’s Helma Larkin.

Larkin leads the team at Google Ireland that aims to help large Irish businesses grow and succeed domestically and internationally through their use of Google products. Google has committed to supporting 60,000 Irish businesses recover from the pandemic by providing free online tools and resources to businesses to help them adapt to the new normal and drive growth.

“A digital lens is what we believe is going to drive the long-term growth for your business”

It is now 18 years since the Google juggernaut rolled into Dublin and the company is now one of the city’s largest employers with some 8,000-permanent staff in the city. As well as a sprawling campus that has grown around Silicon Docks, Google has significant data centre operations to the west of the city.

Google also runs Adopt-a-Startup Adopt, a start-up mentoring programme whose mission is to accelerate the growth of high-potential Irish start-ups. Since launching the first Adopt a Startup programme in 2014, Google has worked with over 145 high-potential Irish start-ups helping them scale for growth. Many have gone on to raise significant capital funding and greatly increase their employee numbers, further demonstrating the vibrancy of Ireland’s start-up community.

The pandemic accelerated shifts in digital behaviour


As we begin our conversation, I point out how it is astonishing to consider how integrated into our lives Google’s products and platforms have become. For example, as well as searching for everything and anything online and using Google Maps to get us from A-to-B, Google’s Android operating system is on 52.2pc of smartphones in Ireland (Statcounter) and according to Google itself, some 3m Irish adults now watch YouTube for about 50 minutes per day.

Larkin says the digital behaviours of Irish people accelerated during the pandemic. “Online users are about 81pc of the Irish population.”

She said that while the numbers of users have stayed steady in line with a developed digital nation, the patterns around what people are doing with their time online have shifted. “Social media users have increased by 20pc. 55pc of people who are online are watching streaming services. One in two people are watching Amazon Prime, Netflix or Disney+. So while we’re a fairly saturated country when it comes to the internet, what we’re doing online is shifting.”

Larkin leads the sales team at Google that helps large Irish businesses grow and succeed domestically and internationally through their use of Google products. Since joining the internet giant in 2018, she has worked on numerous verticals across the UK and Ireland businesses.

Prior to joining Google, she held the position of CEO at Dentsu Aegis Network, New York City, the first global marketing services group built for the digital economy, aimed at driving sustainable business growth for brands and businesses. Previous to her role at Denstu, Helma held the role of director of Mergers & Acquisitions at PwC, New York City, where she led cross-functional teams across financial, tax, HR and IT.

In her role Larkin deals with large businesses but she says that all businesses need to be cognisant of their digital infrastructure and particularly website speeds. “It is important that Irish businesses understand that they need to be ready to take advantage of 4G/5G and take advantage of the infrastructure as it evolves.

“Site speeds and mobile experiences are some of the key things that brands need to be thinking about.”

According to Larkin, during the pandemic the number of web searches by Irish consumers increased by 22pc, ahead of the UK where search grew 18pc. “So the Irish market made an even more incremental shift to Google to find the things they need.

“I think we are all aware of how much shopping moved to online, but the numbers are staggering to think that online retail has gone on to become 66pc of the total amount of retail intake in terms of Euros in 2020.

“These trends are really indicating a shift in Ireland that is incremental compared to the rest of the world and above the averages in the UK and the US.

“Another trend we are seeing is discovery and people are going to the internet to seek out general information about product and services at a higher proportion than they had in the past. So if you think about those real world experiences, people are now looking online for generic products like shoes or clothes. And that’s really important for brands because they need to be there. They need to be where those consumers are making those generic searches, because they’re not doing it walking down the street they way they were in the past.”

Digital transformation of Irish business

Larkin said that Google has invested in ensuring some 60,000 businesses in Ireland can equip themselves to compete in the digital world. “We’ve created lots of content which in everyday language helps people to understand the different techniques to design a website and marketing in simple terms. If you’re a small business you can start with our Grow with Google website and plug in different services such as Shopify to build a website.”

“There’s a lot of capital flowing into Ireland right now. We see a lot of competitors coming into the space to set up because of the talent that is in Dublin. It’s a very ripe ground”

She explained that there are ways for businesses to be successful at online marketing without having to learn all the intricacies of programmatic advertising, for example. “We deal with big companies who have marketing teams and advertising agencies, but for small entry-level business I think there’s lot of information there. It’s really about your aptitude for wanting to learn.”

While Google has evolved to create enterprise products, e-commerce platforms like Google Shopping and is now a major competitive force in the cloud infrastructure business, Larkin says that at its core Google will be about search and advertising. “It’s about finding demand for your business.”

Prior to her return to Ireland, Larkin said that because of the M&A work she had done in the US she kept up-to-date with the rise of Irish digital start-ups and thinks the Google Adopt A Startup programme has played an impressive role in helping to cultivate the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

“I think the ecosystem in Ireland is incredible.”

The key she believes will be helping midsize organisations to achieve scale. “We double down on helping midsize organisations when they have made it past that initial growth spurt. I see a lot of great work coming out of Enterprise Ireland who we partner with a lot and the same with Retail Ireland. There’s a lot of capital flowing into Ireland right now. We see a lot of competitors coming into the space to set up because of the talent that is in Dublin. It’s a very ripe ground. We can probably always lean in to really help pick the future stars, right? It takes time and dedication to give that extra lift. I think it behoves us all to try and make that investment.”

An example of the calibre of Irish companies that Larkin says are emerging on the world stage is LetsGetChecked, which has recently achieved unicorn status (valued at more than $1bn).

When the dust settles

With 8,000 people in Dublin across a considerable office footprint, made even broader by the pandemic with everyone still working at home, I ask Larkin about Google’s own plans to reopen its offices.

“We’re going to stay within the local guidelines as the Government comes out with what they want businesses to be doing.” In terms of the eventual hybrid structure for when offices reopen, Google announced a structure whereby it will be three days in the office and two at home.

“But until then our local management are trying to figure out what works best for Google Dublin and all of the different groups that work on the Dublin campus. I have confidence that it will be a good, well-thought-out solution, because it always is.”

But overall, Larkin says the business world as we know it has been reshaped by the pandemic. “Everybody is still in recovery mode and it’s hard to imagine a world where all the vaccinations are done and the variants have gone away. The advice I have been giving Irish businesses is to really focus on recovery but also to really come to terms with the changes that have happened and how you can use those to your advantage in the long-term. As I mentioned there has been a 20pc increase in social media by consumers. How are you showing up to those people and getting your products in front of them?

“40pc of people are watching less television; younger audiences are not on television as much anymore, they are spending a lot of time watching YouTube. 3m [Irish] adults are watching YouTube.

“Businesses really need to think about digital, not so much as a temporary shift because people are working from home and there has been a pandemic lockdown. As Malcolm Gladwell says ’10,000 hours and you’ve changed behaviours’ – we believe this is here to stay. So how are your consumers feeling? Where are they spending their time? Are you there? To have them love your brands and buy your brand, you really need to be thinking about that. And a digital lens is what we believe is going to drive the long-term growth for your business.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 22 July 2021

John Kennedy
Award-winning ThinkBusiness.ie editor John Kennedy is one of Ireland's most experienced business and technology journalists.