Bob's nine-year itch

Bob Greenberg has been responsible for groundbreaking ideas for decades. Will the latest iteration of his pioneering digital agency prove another?

R/GA founder Bob Greenberg
R/GA founder Bob Greenberg

Few of today's great inventors actually look the part. So, Bob Greenberg, one of the greatest as far as this industry is concerned, is in the minority.

With his signature grey, frizzy hair and round professorial spectacles, from the neck up he looks like a 19th-century scientist. Conversely, from the neck down, his smart-casual uniform of a black polo-neck sweatshirt tucked neatly into black jeans is reminiscent of another great inventor, the late Steve Jobs.

The Chicago-born digital savant is the embodiment of R/GA, arguably the biggest, most innovative, digitally centred global network on the planet. And, at the age of 62, is still leading and reinventing the agency he founded almost 20 years ago. As he looks back over his long, distinguished career, he is lucky enough to have to struggle to remember any low points.

He does admit to having had "some painful weeks", saying: "The transition from boutique, to interactive, to full service, to global model was a big task." As well as commandeering the digital world, he has evidently mastered the art of the understatement.

The self-taught polymath, who counts the Bauhaus movement, the artist Jean Dubuffet and the pianist Glenn Gould among his influences, is charmingly unassuming in person. His rather serene presence is enhanced by the soft, mellifluous Chicagoan intonation, which makes him sound like an extremely erudite Droopy Dog.

His "boutique" days refer to the time in the late 70s and 80s he spent adding stardust to Hollywood blockbusters. The opening titles of Superman and Alien, as well as the graphics in Ghostbusters, Predator, Weird Science and hundreds more, were his (and his brother Richard's) handy work in R/GA's first iteration as a motion graphics company.

They also made thousands of commercials, including the groundbreaking 1992 Coke ad with Paula Abdul dancing with a digitally realised Gene Kelly. He could have stopped there and his legacy would have been assured. But he'd only got started.

He moved from the movie business to the digital world as the motion-graphics software he and his brother had developed was becoming available off the shelf and, also because of the advance of the internet, R/GA evolved into an interactive agency in 1993. Every nine years, the inherently integrated agency (there hasn't been a silo in sight since its genesis) is reinvented by Greenberg and his team.

"In numerology, nine years equals the end of something and the beginning of something else," Greenberg explains. "But also, within that time-frame, without a doubt, we see major changes happening."

Major changes such as the move from linear commercials to digital and then to mobile and social media. Last year at Cannes, where R/GA New York picked up a Cyber Grand Prix for its "pay with a Tweet" work, Greenberg revealed the agency's latest model. Its working title is "functional integration". By which it means enabling clients to step beyond pushing products to offer a range of useful services to the consumer, in the mould of Apple, Google and Nike.

To do this, R/GA is adding consulting to its expanse of offerings. Functional integration is the next step for brands and a space the big consultancies, such as McKinsey and Bain, have failed to occupy, according to Greenberg.

"Much as the traditional branding firms have not really understood the digital landscape the way digital agencies do, the same is true of large consultancies in the marketing, communications and advertising space," he notes.

The network, which has recently expanded its London offering and just opened its ninth office in Sao Paulo, is now actively recruiting people from consulting companies. The new model (planned for 2013) will allow R/GA to not only market and position new services for clients but help clients come up with ideas for services, build technology around them and brand them. The aim is to put the agency firmly in the clients' C-suite and enable R/GA to provide capabilities in a place where, according to Greenberg, agencies have lost a lot of footing.

"Clients have lost confidence in agencies being able to direct them and be great consultants on what they should do when technology has impacted the consumer in such a major way," he explains. "Agencies have not been building businesses in the timeframe of Ogilvy and Bernbach."

R/GA has plenty of experience in building businesses. The agency was the brain behind Nike+ (the world's biggest running club), which it has since moved on to Nike+ GPS. And, for Google, it recently launched and designed Google Wallet, the phone tap payment system.

R/GA's sprawling Bauhaus-style office in Manhattan houses around 450 people. Inside, the walls are covered in outsider art, of which Greenberg is an avid collector. Outsider art came to prominence (a bit like Greenberg himself) in the early 70s and refers to art created outside the boundaries of official culture. It appeals to Greenberg's sense of being outside the establishment, which took effect from early childhood when his severe dyslexia made his school years pretty tough.

The principles of Bauhaus - ie. the idea that less is more and the sum greater than the intrinsic parts - go beyond the architecture to the agency structure. The R/GA core model integrates planning, analytics and media planning alongside copywriting, visual design and interaction design. As the agency produces a vast amount of software, this is all underpinned by its technology function.

The agency's account management team works alongside producers and R/GA also has its own in-house digital production studio. On top of this, new offerings are regularly added, including retail, mobile, social, brand design and, more recently, live events and data visualisation (ie. presenting data in an easily comprehensible way). It also has its own in-house "university", with what Greenberg describes as a "very sophisticated curriculum". Lectures are streamed to those within the network who are unable to attend.

It is inherently collaborative and the aim is for the network to operate in the same way. "If I was giving advice to a start-up, I would say the most important thing to get right is the culture," Greenberg says. The culture at R/GA is pinned on creative collaboration. "We all sit around a table and the creative idea can come from anywhere," Greenberg says, though he admits to collaboration across a network as being "exhausting". It's also expensive, but R/GA is focusing on low-cost locations, such as Buenos Aires, to remedy this. Video conferencing and operating across time zones allow R/GA to work for its global clients round the clock. "London is great at it - it's very integrated," Greenberg says.

The London office walls are pretty bare in comparison with the New York office, but that will all change soon, Greenberg promises. R/GA in London, headed up by Jim Moffatt, the vice-president, managing director, and James Temple, the vice-president, executive creative director, is going through a major growth spurt. This year, it has grown 40 per cent and will be taking over the entirety of its sizeable building in Farringdon. It counts O2 and Nokia among its clients and recent high-profile hirings include George Prest as its new executive creative director and Russell Davies as its planning director.

Davies joined R/GA because he "wanted to work alongside some of the most influential planners in the world". He adds: "It's no secret in the industry that they are an agency heading in the right direction, and I wanted to be a part of that." Davies sees R/GA as actually merging creative storytelling and technology, whereas others "just talk about it". Prest is of the opinion that the old advertising model is "aimless" and that R/GA is unique in its understanding of the future relationship between brands and people.

R/GA couldn't attract the top creatives and planners from traditional backgrounds in the past, but, apparently, now there aren't enough openings for the number who want to join.

Although Greenberg has been dubbed the "30-second spot remover" by The New York Times, he isn't entirely averse to a traditional TV ad. In fact, R/GA produced a big-budget TV spot starring Tommy Lee Jones last year for Ameriprise. Greenberg gets frustrated at people thinking of the agency, in his words, as "digital shmigital".

"To them, storytelling is the most important thing, be it in print, radio or TV. But what they don't know is that we have 75 people who come out of traditional advertising. We think storytelling is as important as ever," he argues.

Greenberg thinks that the TV ad, in its current form, will be far less relevant in ten years' time. TV work that wins the top prizes at Cannes are entirely metaphorical, he notes. Whereas, at R/GA, the belief is that storytelling should be about the product and services, and should be both metaphorical and demonstrative or, failing that, entirely demonstrative.

Greenberg is a fan of the UK industry and says he has always felt that the best advertising in the world was here. However, he is at a loss to explain how, when it came to digital, interactive, social and mobile advertising, London has been slower to develop.

The digital banner and display ads, which the UK excelled at, were merely an extension of the metaphorical advertising and never evolved, he believes. With the exception of AKQA, digital agencies here have simply not grown as fast as in the US. But there is hope for us yet. He smiles and says: "All of that is changing now."


Nike ... R/GA was behind the Nike Signature Moves Film Room project

Nike+ ... the sportswear giant has enjoyed success with the running platform

O2 ... R/GA London has created a mobile platform for the company's Priority Moments service.