Where Google’s Advertising Chief Searches for Insight

A week before Lorraine Twohill applied to engineering school in her native Ireland, she found herself reviewing a brochure about a new degree called international marketing. Its promise of a year studying abroad led the math whiz to swap engineering for marketing.

The last-minute shift three decades ago broke the heart of her father, a math teacher, but changed her life. Her studies at Dublin City University and year abroad in Spain put her on a path to become the chief marketing officer at Google, a role she has held long enough to watch the plucky search company transform into a tech giant with an ad budget of more than $5 billion.

“I started that course and never looked back,” Ms. Twohill said.

Bio Bits

  • Age: 49
  • Education: Dublin City University, international marketing and languages
  • Family: married with two children
  • First job: stocking shelves at a local grocer in Carlow, Ireland
  • Favorite book: Anything by Zadie Smith or Jennifer Egan; “The Country Girls,” by Edna O’Brien; “Let the Great World Spin,” by Colum McCann.
  • Pet project: Cycle for Survival bike ride to raise money to fund a Ph.D. student for a year to research rare cancers. WomenWill, a program started with women at Google to bring digital skills to 50 million women.
  • Hobby: Walks with friends, board games, Peloton and family basketball
  • Time alarm clock goes off on weekdays: At 7 a.m., my husband brings me tea and my daughter joins me for snuggles. Because neither of us are morning people, at 7:30 a.m., we get out of bed.

A few years after graduating, Ms. Twohill landed at a dot-com era travel company, Opodo, where she bought early digital ads on Google—then a search engine startup. When Google invited her to visit its office, she arrived expecting to discuss Opodo’s account. Instead she found herself in a series of interviews that resulted in a job offer that she nearly rejected.

“I had a great job and another offer that looked like a much bigger job,” she said of the 2003 opportunity. “But I saw firsthand the genius that was AdWords.”

In 2009, Ms. Twohill relocated to the U.S. to lead Google’s global marketing. As her responsibilities increased, she assembled a team around her that supported her at work and home, including a doctor whom she could call or email at any time.

That support became critical when Ms. Twohill noticed her urine was black while traveling overseas for work in 2016. Her doctor advised her to go immediately to the hospital where she was diagnosed with stage two cholangiocarcinoma, a rare and lethal cancer. She underwent an operation two weeks later.

“I was very, very lucky,” she said, noting that most people don’t catch cholangiocarcinoma until stage four.

She now has been cancer free for five years, and said she has since been more inclined to delegate at work. Currently, her team is focused on promoting the benefits Google offers at a time when headlines about the company often accentuate problems, including a recent sexual harassment scandal, controversy over AI practices and antitrust lawsuits.

A commercial that ran during the Oscars showed a Google designer who grew up with deaf parents. He described how he used automatic captioning tools in video chat to introduce his mother and father to their newborn grandchild.

“I want to do work that makes people not just think or do something but feel something,” Ms. Twohill said. “For me, empathy is very important.”

Here are four of her most trusted advisers:

Sundar Pichai

Chief Executive of Alphabet Inc.

When Mr. Pichai was the product leader for Google’s Chrome, Ms. Twohill worked with him on a marketing effort to increase uptake of the internet browser. The TV commercials, which debuted in 2009 and went on to feature Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, helped Chrome become the world’s dominant browser with a 65% market share.

“Sundar saw firsthand the role marketing could play by having us at the table,” she said.

Through the years, Mr. Pichai has provided her with valuable advice, including to empower her team and pick three things that she worked on deeply. The team can handle the rest, he said.

“It’s been good for me as I focus my time and energy,” she said, especially as she was returning to work after cancer.

Jane Rosenthal

Chief Executive of Tribeca Enterprises LLC

When Ms. Twohill moved to the U.S., she didn’t know many people outside of work. She met Ms. Rosenthal at a Google event, and they connected as working mothers in executive roles.

Ms. Rosenthal, who became a lifelong friend, often provides Ms. Twohill with what she calls “working mom advice.” They often share stories about kids and work, and in the process, they discuss how to be good moms and successful executives.

In the past, she has turned to Ms. Rosenthal when she’s debating whether to travel for work during a time when her kids have something special happening at home.

“She’ll advise me: You’ve got to be there for the moments that matter,” Ms. Twohill said. “She’s helped me feel braver and say, ‘I can’t go do that because I need to be here.’”

Steve Stoute

Founder/CEO of Translation Enterprises Inc. and UnitedMasters LLC

While attending a Google event with clients and partners, Ms. Twohill met Mr. Stoute. She stayed in touch with the music-industry veteran and entrepreneur.

Ms. Twohill, who is Irish, grew up without an understanding of African American culture. Mr. Stoute, whose agency Translation advises brands on the nuances of hip-hop culture, helped deepen her knowledge of Black history.

“He almost became my teacher,” Ms. Twohill said. “Steve could help me understand, ‘Lorraine, it’s not just about fighting for women. You’ve got to fight for Black women. You’ve got to fight for race. You’ve got to fight for others.’”

She also appreciates that Mr. Stoute appraises Google’s marketing efforts.

“He holds me accountable,” she said. “He will text me and go either, ‘Bravo,’ or he’ll say, ‘you know, you could have worked harder there.’”

Nikesh Arora

Chief Executive of

Palo Alto Networks Inc.

In 2001, Mr. Arora attended a birthday party for Ms. Twohill and her best friend, whom he worked with at a telecommunications company. Mr. Arora spent much of the night speaking with Ms. Twohill’s father, which she appreciated.

Three years later, Mr. Arora joined Google where he served as vice president of European operations before relocating to the U.S. where he became the company’s chief business officer from 2011 to 2014. He tapped her to join the board of the security company he leads, Palo Alto Networks.

Like Mr. Pichai, Mr. Arora has counseled Ms. Twohill to be selective about what she pours time into at work. He also drilled into her the importance of hiring well.

“One of the best things he did at Google was the bench that he built and hired,” she said. “He taught me to hire senior talent who are not learning on the job. The jobs will grow to the talent. I always hire someone who will eventually challenge me and bring in complementary skills.”

Write to Tripp Mickle at [email protected]

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