Feature

Bob Greenberg: fame, the future and midlife crises

A sixtysomething inductee to advertising's Hall of Fame he may be, but, as befits a visionary, the R/GA founder's gaze is trained on future, not past, achievements. By James Swift.

  • Greenberg: ‘We have made an investment in building our storytelling in London, New York and Los Angeles. R/GA and all digital agencies do it badly’

    Greenberg: ‘We have made an investment in building our storytelling in London, New York and Los Angeles. R/GA and all digital agencies do it badly’

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Bob Greenberg, the founder, chairman and chief ex­ecutive of R/GA, has just bought a motorbike. It’s a Ducati 1199 Panigale – "the fastest they make," he adds, a little gleefully.

Greenberg now has five Ducatis and muses that his latest purchase is him acting out a delayed midlife crisis. He has just reached two milestones, you see.

The man who began his career designing title sequences for films including Superman and Alien before switching to advertising has just turned 65. He has also been inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame – in the same class as the Bartle Bogle Hegarty founder Sir John Hegarty.

Campaign met Greenberg over breakfast during the 2014 SXSW Interactive festival in Austin, Texas. As ever, Greenberg was dressed head to toe in black – save for his round metallic specs and silver bracelets – and spoke with a soft Chicago drawl.

The plan was to get Greenberg to look back on his career. The problem is that he isn’t really one for retro­spection. Greenberg occasionally obliged, telling an anecdote from the archives of his near 40-year career in the industry, but he would usually find a way to bring the conversation back to the present and into the future.

In a way, it is fitting for a man who has made a living out of predicting what’s next and – more often than not – getting it right.

Has being inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame made you reminisce about your career?
The part that was interesting to me was that I had to get letters of recommendation. I realised that, in 37 years, I’ve never had to ask for those – I’ve never changed jobs. But the letters that came back were the single most important reason why I’ve decided to stay on [at R/GA] for at least another five years.

I’m 65 now, but I’m in very good shape, so that’s not a problem. But I was very moved by the letters from my peers and clients. It also made me realise that, when I have to make a recommendation of my own for someone, I will really spend a lot of time on it and not just phone it in.

Do digital agencies get enough recognition in the Hall of Fame?
I think I’m the first digital person to be inducted. I think it’s because they never took digital that seriously until recently. It’s probably also because none of the other digital founders has stayed on, which is strange. The Razorfish and Digitas guys have long since left. I think Ajaz [Ahmed, the founder of AKQA] is probably the next best bet for the Hall of Fame.

Where does the Hall of Fame induction rank among your accolades?
I recently got an interesting award in London. The Royal Society of Arts named me a Royal Designer for Industry. Jonathan Ive [the Apple designer] is in there. So is Dieter Rams [the Braun designer]. There can only be 200 people in it at any time. I got in because [the Ferrari designer] Andrea Pininfarina died.

But I think the Hall of Fame accolade is at the top. I’m really proud; I never even thought I’d be nominated. There are a couple of events that everyone in the industry goes to. One is the Ad Council dinner and the other is the Hall of Fame. All the greats are in there. Dan Wieden isn’t yet, but I’m sure he will be.  

What have been the highs and lows of your career?
London was not an easy one to do. It was a very rocky road getting there because we were tied to Nokia and they were rocky. But it has really taken off now.

And the highlights?
It has to be the people, whether they have stayed with R/GA or became alumni. We have some tremendous alumni out there.

R/GA has changed from a special-effects company to an ad agency and, now, a digital consultancy. What was the hardest transition to make?
Transitioning from being a special-effects company to an advertising one was really hard. They’re project-based businesses, but they don’t have many similarities.

Only 30 people came with me when I made that first change, and we were about 225 people at the time. That’s the thing – you talk to people in the industry now and they say they want to make major changes to their business, but they’re not willing to really shake up their organisation.

Do you continue to seek out these difficult changes?
In New York, we’ve now got a group model at the agency. My concern has always been: "How big are you going to get before you get bad?" So we created eight agencies within the main agency. All have P&Ls similar to London; all have a manager, a creative and a technologist.

It was a difficult thing to do and we struggled through it, but I think that’s a new model for agency business. Instead of having a big business and just dropping a client on top of it, we have a group of smaller agencies that run independently but work together. When we first broke it down, everyone became competitive, but I changed the dynamics so that people were rewarded for collaboration.

How can R/GA improve?
We have made an investment in building our storytelling in London, New York and Los Angeles. Agencies such as Grey, Wieden & Kennedy and Havas already do this well, but R/GA and all digital agencies do it badly. It’s the writer/art director combination that we’re working on.

Do you think it’s easier for a digital agency to adopt TV capabilities, or vice versa?
R/GA went from the internet to mobile and social, and then to TV, which is the opposite of what most agencies do. But I think it’s easier to move from the internet to TV because the TV piece is so well-established that you could throw a stone outside and hit a person who could do that for you.

How is R/GA looking to expand?
We’re in full-tilt mode trying to get global. With our 13 offices, we’re international, but we need to get global. Agencies such as Digitas are all becoming global very quickly too. In Europe, we’re looking at places such as Turkey, Amsterdam and Germany. We’re also looking at the Middle East (Dubai) and Africa.

Which agencies do you admire?
Wieden & Kennedy are the best storytellers. They are organically grown, with no major acquisitions. And now Dan Wieden’s back, I’m told.

R/GA and Wieden & Kennedy are the same size and creatively driven. I could never admire an agency that wasn’t creatively driven. I also think AKQA are good, but we’re more competitive with them. There are not many creatively driven digital agencies out there.

What technology do you personally use the most?
I’m very connected through a lot of devices – from TV to laptop to desktop to tablet to cell phone.

Recently, I’ve been trying hard to come up to speed with the new Android. It’s more complicated for me than iOS. I also use the Nike+ FuelBand, but my score has been pretty disappointing on this trip.

Do you think older people are well-understood by advertising, particularly in digital?
The thing everyone seems to have pretty wrong is how with it old people are, technologically. They’re pretty savvy because they have a lot of time. I think we have a real opportunity to work in that space as it has always been underserved. Nike doesn’t think about seniors, but that doesn’t mean they won’t wear Nike technology.

What do you think the future holds for R/GA?
I’d like to see R/GA going into architecture and design. Physical space in retail is also going to be important.

It’s a golden age of design. There are all these buildings going up, so many that it’s hard to keep track of them. I was in The Shard having dinner, when I had to take a leak.

The bathroom had floor-to-ceiling windows and it just felt weird. I don’t think designers get our [digital agencies’] side. I want to be a partner with these things.

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