R/GA - Making geeks cool

campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 20 November 2009 12:00AM

The London office of the agency renowned for making award-winning apps, as well as ads, is ready to step out of the shadows of its iconic founder and New York base. Suzanne Bidlake reports.

If you could persuade Bob Greenberg to strip and reveal what's beneath his Comme des Garcons suit, you'd glimpse the essence of R/GA. We're not talking something visceral here, though the lifeblood of the agency he created does surely pump through his veins.

No. Look down. Further, to his midriff. Sitting snugly there is a black leather belt from the gothic rock-inspired US brand Chrome Hearts, customised with holders for mobile phones (a BlackBerry, an iPhone and a Nokia N97), wallet, credit cards - and yet a further pouch for earphones.

Greenberg wears Chrome Hearts for its style and design, but he's created a belt that surely goes well beyond the functionality demanded by anyone outside the police force. This fusion of utility and design-led creativity is a hallmark of R/GA's way of working.

Unlike many of its rivals that create either ads or software, R/GA builds platforms underpinned by technology and then communicates them via brand campaigns. Its ads are well-crafted demos of those platforms rather than narrative-based commercials. The way it describes itself, not as a digital agency but an "agency for the digital age", might seem a tad precious, but you see what it's getting at.

R/GA-created platforms are things like Nike+, the winner of the Cannes Titanium and Cyber Grand Prix Lions in 2007, which allows runners to keep data on their runs using Nike footwear and an Apple iPod. Like Nokia's Urbanista Diaries, in which bloggers uploaded photos and tracked their routes for others to follow - and so promoted the launch of the Nokia N82 with its 5-megapixel camera and integrated GPS. Like the "That's not cool" web feature for the US Ad Council to raise awareness about digital dating abuse among teens, which won a bronze Design Lion at Cannes this year.

R/GA is famed for being geeky cool, for producing standout apps and for the prescience of Greenberg, who is widely attributed with the gift of being able to see around the next corner - or several, digitally speaking. Multi-awarded, well-connected at the highest levels and with a seat on every board going - from the Brooklyn Academy of Music to the Berlin School of Creative Leadership - to that extent, Greenberg fits the image of a senior Interpublic politico.

But Greenberg is not your typical network man. It's not just his looks that set him apart - at 61, he dresses entirely in black, wispy shoulder-length hair protruding from his trademark beret and Chrome Hearts bracelets jangling at his wrist. Though he is gentle, kind, mischievously funny and a hugely interesting companion, he has the air of the outsider; a disruptive dyslexic at school with a constant desire to feed his restless intellect. And still, today, there's always an edge. The names of the places he chooses to live: Hell's Kitchen, where he shares an apartment with his long-time Chinese girlfriend, and Lonelyville. And his passion for Outsider art.

The agency he founded 32 years ago grew gross revenue by 20 per cent last year to £80 million, with a haul of new clients including HP, Mars, Zain and HBO joining the likes of Nokia, Nike and Verizon. Wal-Mart and Taco Bell also came on board this year. And the agency has expanded beyond web development and e-commerce to retail, mobile marketing and brand design. It hired Mark Shillum as vice-president, director of brand design from TBWA\London last year.

Yet, for all its US chutzpah, few in the UK would know R/GA London exists, let alone that it has been in town for three years. The UK managing director, Jim Moffatt (the former Nike marketer and AKQA director of integration), claims the latter is all about to change. For one thing, R/GA has its own office for the first time. In June, it installed its 45 employees into two floors of steel and glass in a Clerkenwell building also occupied by IPG sister agencies. Previously, R/GA borrowed desks in other IPG offices.

For another thing, Moffatt hired Liz Sivell as a creative director in September, after months of trawling. She joined from the same role at Profero. "Finding brilliant people is the biggest challenge," he says. "We cast the net wide but we're quite exacting. We want people who can package things so they create a stir but also provide a genuine utility for the long term, not just a two-week campaign." Moffatt is looking to recruit another ten staff imminently.

The agency is deliberately peopled by an eclectic bunch - from teachers to gaming industry types - of 14 nationalities. Anthony Wickham, the group account director and part of the London management, is a chemist by training. James Temple, the executive creative director, studied cognitive psychology and economics. Moffatt himself has only been in situ for just over a year.

But now, Moffatt promises, R/GA London is ready to come out from under the radar. "If you look at where we were two years ago, we have certainly come of age and are ready to hit the market hard."

What will that mean exactly? London may have bagged Nokia's global N95 campaign and won a gold Design Lion at Cannes this year for Nokia viNe, a mobile app that allows users to create a multimedia map of their lives. But don't expect a frenzied new-business drive and a chase for all the big accounts in town. That's not the R/GA style. "Fewer, deeper, longer" is much more the mantra here - born from Greenberg's culture of forging high-level client relationships and nurturing them for the long term. UK clients are Nike, Nokia and the telco Zain.

"We're not perfect for everyone," Moffatt admits. "Clients tend to find us. Our number-one focus is incremental growth with existing clients. The closer you get to clients, the more you see opportunities that maybe they don't." The end of 2009 will be the time to look more outwardly, he says. Financial plans were already outpaced by June, taking gross revenue to £4.8 million in September.

What does Moffatt want people to say about R/GA London in ten years' time? "That it's the most respected agency in town. I wouldn't even say digital agency." Or, he adds, with an enthusiastic flourish: "Europe! London will be the hub for Europe." The London team will also be selling New York's services, including its state-of-the-art digital studio (which also works for other agencies).

Part of New York's success lies in its unconventional model. Traditional art director and writer teams are replaced by seven disciplines - planning, analytics, media planning, interaction design, copywriting and visual design, which all feed into account manager and producers who work together. The concept is clearly taken seriously as agency chiefs the world over struggle to define the agency model of the future; its explanation is the most heavily trafficked part of R/GA's website.

Greenberg's own view is that there's been a perfect storm brewing that will see a dramatic deconstruction of the ad industry. The impact of technology on communications, combined with the global economic downturn, will mean the survival of the fittest only. "I hope it doesn't get to the Lord Of The Flies or something," he intones in his Woody Allen-esque manner. You can't be sure if he's looking for a laugh.

There's no doubting the gravity of his prediction, however. More has impacted agencies in the first six months of 2009 than has in the past six years, he claims: "If 50 per cent of your audience is online, not watching TV and skipping past commercials or the commercials don't mean much to them, and print and radio and billboards have a major problem, then ...?"

Greenberg predicts that clients will move faster than agencies to reshape around consumers and will "do to agencies what agencies did to production companies" - go direct to the best for each part of their campaigns: "They won't ask a holding company to do it for them." And digital will no longer be a defining agency characteristic. Top-flight creativity, a global footprint, high-level client relationships, B2B expertise and so on will be the markers on which appointments are based.

The result will be an industry contraction as some fail to "cross the line" and go under, merge or are acquired. "People think I have Tourette's when I say that," Greenberg whispers. "They can't hear stuff like that."

R/GA made some layoffs in New York this year as the recession bit deep, and it lost Subaru. But long term, the company is part-way through its fourth phase, with international expansion a major plank in the strategy.

With a reinvention every nine years, R/GA Mark 5 is due in 2013. Greenberg is likely to be around for that, but he may be forced to leave R/GA's sixth reincarnation to the next generation.

IPG has ensured that team is already in place, he claims. But succession management will be a key challenge for the company that's been so identified with its iconoclastic architect.

For R/GA London to make a name for itself, the need to step out of the shadow of New York and, ultimately, of Greenberg himself couldn't be more immediately pressing.

BOB GREENBERG ON BOB GREENBERG

Age: 61

Born: Chicago

Lives: Hell's Kitchen, New York City, and Lonelyville, a beach community on Fire Island, south of Long Island. Building a house in upstate New York. The architect is Toshiko Mori, the Harvard lecturer and former chair of the architecture programme. The house is a reference to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House.

My influences

Jean Dubuffet was the first artist to embrace Art Brut or "Outsider" art as the most original and inspiring art form. Art Brut has had a major influence on my life both as a collector and lecturer. It represents the most extreme expression of a singular vision, allowing no compromises and is the embodiment of complete creative freedom. This approach is the polar opposite to the digital world of R/GA, where a successful business favours compromise, collaboration and teamwork.

Bauhaus founders developed the model that the sum is greater than the individual parts and the idea of integrating art, design, architecture and technology. This is the guiding principle for R/GA. Mark Rothko, a modern painter who managed to derive emotion and spirituality out of a flat surface.

Edward R Tufte, a pioneer in the field of information architecture and the visual display of information.

Muriel Cooper. As the chair of the Visual Language Lab at MIT Media Lab, she developed and pioneered three-dimensional representations of database-driven information.

Alexander Rodchenko introduced me to Russian Constructivist graphic design and theory.

My favourite author JD Salinger. The books The Catcher In The Rye, Franny And Zooey and Nine Stories each had a major effect on my view of the world and particularly New York City.

Musicians who changed my world Bob Dylan and Glenn Gould. Gould predicted interactive multimedia. I was also attracted to his philosophical concept of The Idea Of North.

I like to ride the Ducati Superbike model 996. Fabio Taglioni is the industrial designer responsible for the design of modern Italian motorcycles.

I like to wear Rei Kawakubo (Comme des Garcons). She pushed the boundaries of contemporary fashion design by using experimental fabrics and inventing new forms.

A CYCLE OF REINVENTION

1977: R/Greenberg Associates launches as a computer-assisted filmmaking company, run by the brothers Robert and Richard Greenberg with a start-up capital of £7,600. Works on blockbuster feature films such as Superman, Alien, Predator and Zelig. Wins an Academy Award

1986: Reinvented as a digital studio. Works on 400 films, including Se7en and Braveheart. Its 4,000 commercials include the legendary Diet Coke ad featuring Paula Abdul dancing with a young Gene Kelly. Richard Greenberg leaves

1990: Renamed R/GA

1995: Reinvented as an interactive ad agency. Sold to True North. Creates TV ads for Oldsmobile, Shell Oil and Reebok using special effects

2001: Joins Interpublic with True North acquisition

2004: Reinvented as the "agency for the digital age"

2006: Opens in London

2008: Opens in San Francisco

March: 2009 Gross revenue of £80 million

THE CAMPAIGNS

NIKEiD (May 2005) ... the Times Square crowd used mobile phones to custom-design shoes on a 23-storey digital sign in real time

Nokia's Urbanista Diaries (March 2008) ... global campaign to launch the N82. A customisable widget allows bloggers to update photos and track their route on an interactive map, showcasing the phone's camera and GPS

Nike Women Training Club iPhone app (Jan 2009) ... the web experience was extended to the phone to provide portable access to training regimes, 70 instructional videos and leaderboards

Pepsi 'Dear Mr President' (Jan 2009) ... Pepsi created an open letter to President-elect Obama and invited participation via video and text submissions. The campaign centred on the website RefreshEverything.com and was promoted through multiple channels

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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