Social Climber

It had been a good Super Bowl for Twitter. It was the start of the second half and the San Francisco-based social network already surpassed last year’s total of 13.7 million Bowl-related tweets. And then, less than two minutes into the third quarter, half the lights went out in the Superdome.

Twitter exploded. For the next half hour, Twitter said its users published posts about the outage at a rate of 231,500 tweets per minute. As that happened, Josh Grau (IMC04) sat in the Superdome monitoring the second annual #AdScrimmage, a contest where users could tweet-vote on their favorite Super Bowl ads. This year it was easier for users to vote, because 26 of the 52 national ads carried on-air Twitter hashtags.

Between the contest and the ads themselves, Twitter posted more than 300,000 ad-related tweets, a drop in the bucket compared to the power outage, but a 273 percent increase over last year’s tweets, when only one out of every five ads carried a hashtag.

“It just goes to show that not just Twitter but this idea of social communication, sort of sitting around a global campfire … is becoming the norm now,” says Grau, 37.

“It’s pretty exciting. That Twitter is leading that charge is even more exciting.”

The San Francisco 49ers may have lost the game, but the Super Bowl was a huge victory for Twitter and for Grau, who is the company’s head of brand strategy. In that role, he leads a global team that works with advertisers to create custom marketing programs that utilize the social network’s unique, 140-character platform.

“He is world class at crafting solutions for brands that are beyond that of the basic ad unit,” says Twitter Chief Executive Officer Dick Costolo, who recruited Grau for the job. “He’s always coming up with solutions that are embraced by the brands and are creative and thoughtful.”

To hear such praise about Grau, who joined Twitter in 2010, is not unusual. After all, he’s helped integrate campaigns for brands across ESPN’s multimedia platforms and helped build YouTube’s first marketing solutions team. Rewind a little more than a decade, though, and Grau would not be talking about brand

He was too busy developing tactics for the women’s volleyball team he helped coach.

Yeah, it’s been an interesting ride.

Grau was in eighth grade and still hadn’t found a sport he liked. Sure, he had some athletic ability, but nothing piqued his interest. Then one day, his parents were late picking him up from school. While he waited, Grau wandered into the school’s gymnasium. A net was up. Kids were banging a white ball over it, running, sliding, diving. When his parents arrived, he asked for a net and ball for the backyard.

Grau dove into volleyball, becoming a student of the game, focusing on strategy, digging and setting up shots.

He practiced with club teams. He played all four years of high school at Berkeley Prep, a K-12 school in Tampa, Fla.

“I ended up pretty decent,” he says. “I definitely had more of a mind for the game.”

But he also had another passion: going to Northwestern.

He wanted to go to Medill, major in broadcasting and maybe anchor ESPN’s SportsCenter one day. His mom, Kathi, grew up in nearby Park Ridge, Ill., so he knew the area. Several of his friends were already there. To Grau, it would be the ultimate college experience.

He got into every school he applied to — except Northwestern.

He ended up at the University of Florida, and in 1997 graduated with a degree in psychology. He played for the university’s club volleyball team, helping them to four conference titles and two national runner-up performances.

As he considered graduate school, he held onto his dream of journalism and Medill. But again, it wasn’t to be.

“That dreaded rejection letter,” Grau says. So he shifted his focus.

He enrolled at the University of Texas in 1998 to pursue a master’s degree in sports administration. He had a knack for marketing and reaching out to people creatively. And he liked the business side; he cut his teeth working as a marketing director for four local CBS Radio affiliates. But he still kept one foot in volleyball, spending a year as a graduate assistant for Texas’ women’s varsity team.

Grau graduated from Texas in 2000 and was headed to Los Angeles for a job with FOX Sports. Then he got a call. There was a school whose women’s volleyball team was at the bottom of the Big Ten conference. They needed someone to help with recruiting.

Guess what school it was.

When he got to Evanston, Grau took a moment to let everything sink in. He was finally at Northwestern. Then reality hit. The Wildcats finished 4-26 the previous year, 2-18 in conference play, the team’s 10th straight losing season. Any more in the basement and there would’ve been a water heater on the court.

But Grau saw it as the ultimate hard sell. He toured the club team scene, packaging Northwestern as something of a startup to prospects. Come to Chicago (or close to it), he said. Start immediately. Play in one of the toughest conferences. Build this team into something special.

And it worked.

In three seasons Grau played a major part in getting five high school All-Americans to commit to the Wildcats. Northwestern finished 17-16 in 2002 and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament, its first in 18 years.

But even before that season began, Grau knew he wanted to do something more. As rewarding as coaching was, it was also grueling, monotonous. He wanted more balance. He learned about Medill’s part-time integrated marketing communications program and thought it would help reintroduce him to the marketing and media world. So, for a third time, he applied to Medill.

This time, he was accepted.

No, it wasn’t vindication, Grau says. “I feel like in 1993, they weren’t ready for me yet.”

Grau was not the typical IMC student. Many came from the world of media and advertising. They understood metrics. They spoke the same corporate language. And then there was Grau, the college volleyball coach, the guy walking into class in Adidas sweats while everyone else was dressed in business casual.

Yes, he was different, certainly older than most of the students, says IMC Associate Professor Paul Wang. But Grau was also more giving. He could connect with people, work with them. “Other people cared more about themselves. But Josh had the best interests of others at heart,” Wang says. “A coach’s job is to bring out the best in others, and he always had that skill.”

He also could keep up with his younger classmates.

Grau cruised through the program while continuing to recruit prospects and run scrimmages. The 2003 season brought with it another winning record (18-16), a tourney berth and a promotion to associate head coach.

But it didn’t matter. He turned in his resignation three months before the ’04 season, the same time he graduated from IMC. Then in 2005, Grau got to fulfill another dream. Well, sort of.

He went to work for ESPN, just not as an anchor. As a marketing director based out of ESPN’s Chicago office, he developed campaigns that would run across multiple forms of media — print, Internet, radio, television and mobile.

Meanwhile, Mark Murphy, who was Northwestern’s athletic director at the time, was on an advisory board for a new program at the university’s School of Continuing Studies: Master’s in Sports Administration (MSA). It would focus on the business of sports, from negotiations and labor management to marketing and public relations.

Murphy remembered Grau and dropped his name. “He was such a great recruiter,” says Murphy, now president and CEO of the Green Bay Packers. “He was talented, so you knew he could do anything he put his mind to.”

With his master’s from Texas and his time at Northwestern, Grau was the ideal candidate. Three months after landing the ESPN gig, Grau began teaching part-time and helped develop new courses for the sports administration program.

He continued to balance life at ESPN with his work for the MSA program until he received an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Back in 2004 when Grau was pursuing the ESPN job, he was also being recruited by Google. ESPN made the offer first, so Grau withdrew his name from contention, but he kept an eye on what Google was up to. Once Google bought YouTube in late 2006, the company had Grau’s attention. He watched as Google put a big effort into building a marketing and sales team to help effectively monetize the site. He heard amazing things about the culture of the company. He wanted in.

Grau contacted Google in August 2007 and received an offer at the end of the year to become head of content development and sales strategy for the branded entertainment section of YouTube.

“YouTube was a cultural phenomenon, and I was a power-user,” Grau says. “I saw a great opportunity to help build YouTube into a multi-billion dollar business, and we did.”

As he’d done multiple times before, Grau was tasked with building something from the ground up, in this case moving YouTube beyond simple text ads on videos to creating advertisement-based programming on the video-sharing site. He brought in Burger King to sponsor Seth MacFarlane’s web-based “Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy” series. One of his last projects at Google was Ad Blitz, a contest where people could watch Super Bowl Ads on YouTube, then vote on their favorite.

Grau continued to teach at Northwestern, and in 2010 he was named director of the MSA program. He did not keep the title for long, though, because in April of that year he received an email from an old colleague — Dick Costolo.

Costolo worked at Google at the same time that Grau was at YouTube and in the same office. He left in 2009 to become chief operating officer of Twitter. He emailed Grau to say he wanted his former colleague to join him at Twitter as soon as the social network was ready to monetize.

In April 2010, Twitter announced it was launching Promoted Tweets, 140 character-sized ads that companies could buy. By July, Grau was in San Francisco working for Twitter.

“Everybody that worked with him talked about his work ethic, his passion for working with the customers, his creative ability to put solutions together,” says Costolo, who was named CEO later in 2010. “The go-to people on those teams were all big fans of his.”

What Grau saw at Twitter was the same thing he saw with YouTube: potential for an incredibly popular and profitable business. Many of the brands he started working with, including several Fortune 200 companies, were tweeting already.

“They saw Twitter as an extension of their brand DNA,” he says. “What we were able to do was give them the ‘White Glove Treatment.”

Today the seven-year-old company has 200-plus million active users posting 400 million tweets daily. Celebrities talk to fans. Friends “LOL” over shared articles. Hashtags abound on TV. It wasn’t until the Arab Spring, though, that Grau truly saw Twitter’s global impact. Two days after widespread protests began in Egypt, state-controlled telecommunication providers were shut down, and 23 million Internet users vanished from the North African country. Yet Egyptians were still getting their message out on Twitter.

“To know that the platform could give the people of Egypt a voice and they could communicate with the outside world,” Grau says, “that was one of those ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ moments.”

Now three years into the job, Grau circumnavigates the world, working with companies in Latin America, Southeast Asia and the Middle East to bring their brands to Twitter. It leaves him little time to enjoy his Russian Hill neighborhood, located just south of Fisherman’s Wharf. Whenever he’s in town, he’s either in the office or at the gym. He hasn’t picked up a volleyball in three years. “It would be scary if I did,” he says.

But for all the work and the travel, Grau loves what he does. When he arrived at Twitter there was uncertainty, but the same could be said for his career path. What he’s learned along the way is how to find solutions, be it on the court or in a tweet. And it’s that chance to shape an unknown future that continues to intrigue him.

“When the opportunity presents itself,” Grau says, “I like a good challenge.”