Why IPG's 'stone thrower' refuses to be silenced

There's a growing feeling that Bob Greenberg's RG/A is the vehicle to propel the group into the digital future.

Bob Greenberg's RG/A, which celebrates its 30th birthday next month, may turn out to be one of the rare examples of serendipity in Interpublic's calamitous acquisition spree, whose aftershocks linger on almost two decades after it began.

When True North was swallowed six years ago, it was FCB's arrival within the IPG fold that made the headlines. The inclusion of RG/A, a modest-sized digital specialist, as part of the package, went almost unnoticed.

Not surprising perhaps. New media had barely begun to be understood by the global agency networks under the IPG umbrella. The early adopters at RG/A were regarded at best as obsessive geeks, at worst potential account rustlers.

The softly spoken Greenberg, with his black garb, beret, wild hair and specs, seemed to encapsulate how counter RG/A was to IPG's Madison Avenue mindset.

Today, Greenberg, 58, seems to have confounded many of the sceptics. Indeed, there is a growing feeling at IPG that RG/A could be the vehicle that propels the group into the digital future without the need to match the £660 million Publicis Groupe is forking out for Digitas.

"Bob is probably the smartest man in the business," Howard Draft, the chairman of IPG's Draft/FCB, proclaims. "He is highly creative, he knows where digital is going, and he understands the technology that will provide the answers."

Certainly, Greenberg paints an absorbing picture of the future. He laid down his marker in 2005 with an electronic billboard in New York's Times Square, which allowed passers-by to customise the Nike trainers on display via their mobile phones.

This, he forecasts, is just the start of the coming interaction between billboards and mobiles. Even shop windows will be designed so customers can "browse" through what is inside after the store is closed.

Ever since it began as a graphics animation company working on film titles (among them Superman and Alien), R/GA has undergone periodic reinventions of itself.

Having morphed from a production company to an integrated agency, it embarked on a plan two years ago to create a new model for a digital agency. The aim: to gain equal status with more conventional operations within the US and beyond.

"Bob hasn't done it yet," Draft says. "But if he does, he will have built an offering quite unlike anything else in the global market."

In doing so, Greenberg is having to overcome a lot of hostility, not least from within other IPG operating companies.

Although Michael Roth, IPG's chairman, claims RG/A is "at the top of everybody's dance card", when it comes to collaboration with the group's established agencies, others say the process has not been a totally comfortable one.

"He's rubbed a lot of people up the wrong way," a highly placed IPG source admits. "Other agencies remain a little old-fashioned. They see they aren't growing as fast as Bob is and they're worried RG/A will steal their business."

Greenberg claims a lot of the early hostility from IPG agencies has waned. Not that he has gone out of his way to endear himself to agency mainstreamers. Particularly over his assertion that the time has come for digital agencies to compete with traditional shops for business.

What's more, he predicts that the 30-second TV spot will be dead in the US in the next three to five years, spelling ruin for those agencies, working on very tight margins, that have become over-dependent on them. He claims they are in danger of going the same way as the music industry, which failed to recognise the downloading boom early enough.

He admits that there have been attempts "to quiet me down", but adds: "I don't think I'm as controversial as I was. The fact is that everybody is now talking the talk even if they're not walking the walk."

Given that IPG still draws 60 per cent of its revenue from traditional advertising, some regard Greenberg as a stone thrower living in a glass house. "He likes to be perceived as the advertising Anti-christ," a former IPG agency boss remarks. "But that's rather difficult when you're actually part of IPG."

Elsewhere within IPG, reaction to what Greenberg is doing can sound a tad condescending.

"We all collaborate pretty well with RG/A," a top IPG network executive says. "They're quite small and we're so big I don't think we need worry."

With 520 people (more than 200 of them creatives) now working for RG/A out of its Manhattan headquarters, a further 16 in its newly opened London office, an outpost in Paris planned to service its L'Oreal business and a client list that also includes Nokia, Nestle, Subaru and Verizon, Greenberg reckons he can ride the criticism.

Moreover, in Draft, to whom he reports financially, he has a powerful IPG ally. Not only are they both Chicagoans, but, as one former associate puts it: "They both spring from entrepreneurial backgrounds and fly by the seat of their pants."

What intrigues Draft most about Greenberg is that he is trying to create the full-service agency of the future from a film background. "He has learned about direct marketing and retail," Draft says. "He now has the platform from which to expand into other markets."

The big imponderable, of course, is how long RG/A can hold the high ground. "The competition is going to get tougher," Greenberg acknowledges. "So, it's all the more important that we get the right clients and establish relationships at the right level. That's happening more and more."