R/GA: Digital AOY ’09

At a time when the agency world is shrinking, there’s one number that stands out at R/GA: 100. That’s the number of open positions at the Interpublic Group digital agency that’s the gold standard of interactive shops. Already envied for its work for brands like Nike, Verizon and Nokia, R/GA had a gangbusters new business year in 2009, scooping up major wins with Walmart and MasterCard. It added to its bounty Taco Bell and lead agency duties for Ameriprise Financial. At a time when shops were treading water, R/GA grew 5 percent, laid the groundwork for offices in Singapore and Brazil, and expanded its offices in London and San Francisco. Along the way, R/GA delivered its regular stellar digital creative, crafting what was arguably Pepsi’s best campaign of the year with “Dear Mr. President,” developing the brand identity for Barnes & Noble’s Nook eBook reader, and breakthrough digital out-of-home installations for American Eagle and Verizon’s Droid launch. Barry Wacksman, R/GA’s chief growth officer, believes the key to the agency’s success is its focus on business transformation: “All our clients have the same challenge: they have commoditized products and services that need innovation.” For that focus and continued track record of delivering success for clients, R/GA is Adweek’s Digital Agency of the Year, the fifth time it has won the honor. To see what makes R/GA so unique, Adweek spent the day at the shop’s headquarters in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan.

9:35 > Chanel Web Site Debugging
John Mayo-Smith, R/GA’s soft-spoken chief technology officer, sits at a conference table facing a wall filled with problems. The projection screen holds the bug database for a new Web site R/GA is rushing to release for luxury brand Chanel. The 70 bugs sometimes seem excruciatingly minor. They also ring  familiar with anyone who has arrived at a Web site only to find it doesn’t work the way it should. It’s a moment of disappointment and frustration, two things Mayo-Smith and the 10 R/GA staffers would rather their users not experience. “These bugs take on a life of their own,” Mayo-Smith says. The Chanel team  flips between the bug database and the test site. They debate how to handle the top 15 keywords and how to display “limited edition.” The language selector, with its extra large text, is wonky. Finally, the team turns its attention to a major issue: For fraud reasons, Chanel only allows customers to fill their  shopping carts with four items of each product, yet the site does not display an explanation if a shopper goes back to add a fifth. That could lead to a bad user experience. Mayo-Smith and his team know they still have work to do.

10:08 > Creative Council
Armed with morning fuel from the coffee bar in the hallway, 15 R/GA
creative directors amble into a conference room for a meeting of CCO Nick Law’s creative council. Law quickly turns to R/GA’s ambition to expand into traditional advertising. “All that stuff we spent a lot of time saying isn’t important is now part of the mix,” he says. But not always. Each team is constructed according to client needs. Walmart’s, for instance, has three “pods”: platform, social and campaigns. In the past, R/GA has at times pooh-poohed the importance of campaigns, trumpeting instead the long-lasting quality of a platform like Nike+. Now it looks for a balance. Nike ecd Jill Nussbaum runs a site for the Zoom Kobe V shoe. The site, targeted to teen boys, mixes video highlights showing basketball star Kobe Bryant’s killer instinct with a gaming element. R/GA shot video of Kobe, then stitched it together with game clips. “That campaign thinking has helped the platform,” Nussbaum says. Law closes the meeting by reminding his team that R/GA’s mission to be an “innovation engine” for clients can be, at times, a long process. “Most of our successes don’t happen immediately,” he says. “Solve the client’s problem immediately and couple that with things that can change their business.”

11:12 > ChapStick Planning
At the other end of R/GA’s third floor, the four-person team for ChapStick is settling in for a status update on their vision for making ChapStick a digitally savvy brand. R/GA’s idiosyncratic approach is evident. Creative director Ryan Gerber admits they tend to “come at it from a larger standpoint than we really should.” The team views videos presented to the client of people talking about their connection to ChapStick. What Gerber and others on the team see is a chance for ChapStick, a relevant brand in people’s lives, to become as useful in the digital world. R/GA presented ideas to the client for a campaign that would create a hub for brand-created “truths” about the product to live alongside user-generated ones. Banner ads would encourage submissions in much the same way as R/GA’s successful “Dear Mr. President” campaign for Pepsi in early 2009.

11:39 > Nike+ Active Game Plan
If there’s work that defines R/GA, it’s for Nike+, the running application that melds utility and branding. Now, cd Ian Spalter is leading a brainstorming meeting on how the shop can improve an offshoot: Nike+ Active, an application R/GA created last October to take advantage of the new version of Apple’s iPod Nano, which  includes a pedometer. “We wanted to deliver something that wasn’t available on the device,” says Spalter. Rather than give the kind of performance data important to runners, R/GA designed it to appeal to walkers rather than athletes, showing fun data visualizations of how many steps a person has taken, for instance putting it up against scaling Mount Everest. The team breaks down what it learned from the market. One member chimes in that perusing questions and comments on the Nike+ Active’s Get Satisfaction feedback section shows that people are interested in health improvements. Another staffer takes off a FitBit monitor he’s been wearing for weeks. Another shows off a wristband she’s been wearing to learn more about the Switch2Health platform, an application that gives users rewards for physical activity it tracks. Spalter is intrigued by the game mechanics of that system. Law urges the team to keep thinking about how Nike might partner with existing applications, noting he’s been using the Lose It iPhone application that requires him to enter his meals, which momentarily stumped him when he ate tabouli. “I now move toward foods I can spell,” he says.

12:34 > Lunch at Arno
Dawn Winchester likes Times Square Italian restaurant Arno for its old-school vibe. Located off Broadway on West 38th Street, it’s a rare find near R/GA’s rough-and-tumble neighborhood: an authentic Italian eatery with dizzyingly fast service. R/GA’s chief marketing services officer is at lunch with Beth Mulhern, her client at Verizon. Winchester is an R/GA old-timer, joining in 1999. Greenberg takes great pride in how long R/GA’s top management has remained intact. Wacksman and chief experience officer Chris Colborn joined 11 years ago, Law nine years ago, Mayo-Smith 12 years ago. The advantage of such long tenures is deep histories with clients. In fact, Mulhern was a client of R/GA in a previous job with Verizon. The two have known each other for seven years, back when Mulhern chose R/GA in an interactive marketing review in 2003. “They’ve always been in the boat with me,” she says. The two are wrapping up a planning meeting for Verizon.com, specifically addressing how to take product descriptions out of “Verizon speak,” as Mulhern calls it. In her years of working with it and other shops, Mulhern says R/GA has stood out for its willingness to take criticism and improve its work. “Some agencies get wedded to their ideas,” she says. “I’ve always called them the ‘ego-less’ agency.”

1:57 > Bob Greenberg’s Office
Back at R/GA, agency founder and CEO Bob Greenberg, Wacksman and Colborn are wrapping up a working lunch with Hewlett-Packard CMO Michael Mendenhall in Greenberg’s office. Amid empty takeout boxes, cans of soda and bottles of water, the four discuss agency models. The mere presence of Mendenhall at R/GA is testament to how far the shop has come. Greenberg has been savvy in cultivating high-level relationships with clients, knowing that without them R/GA would be relegated to executing work defined by a client’s traditional agency. Bit by bit, he’s succeeded with clients like Nike, Barnes & Noble and now HP, which hired R/GA in 2008. Greenberg and Mendenhall have an easy rapport. The two presented together at Cannes last summer. They recount the numerous technical snafus that nearly derailed the session, including a teleprompter that cut off words from the end of sentences, something Greenberg notes is particularly challenging to his dyslexia. It didn’t help that the green room was boiling hot. “I wonder if anyone could tell there was so much stuff going on?” Mendenhall asks. Turning to work, he notes that HP has seen very good results from its new global rebuild of HP.com. The company is taking the unusual step of rolling it out in international markets prior to the U.S. In Ireland, both uniques and time spent are up, he says. “It was important for us to see that engagement,” he says. The platform is a partnership in that HP introduced R/GA to agile development. “We brought this to them,” he says. “It was our engineers working with their designers.”

2:40 > Data Visualization Working Group
The problem with data is it’s not sexy. That’s meant it’s not used as much as it should be. Luane Kohnke, managing director of analytics and accountability, and a team of seven others want to change that with an internal project to build a data visualization tool. The idea is R/GA can create a tool that pulls in Web analytics, e-mail, display ad data and other sources of information in an easy-to-use dashboard. The goal: get clients and even R/GA creatives diving into the data to improve how they each interact with customers. Kohnke describes it as her “after-school project.” She came to R/GA in 2007 from Wunderman to lead a fledgling analytics group, which has since grown from 5 to 17 people. The ambition is on display with the makeup of the data visualization team, which includes creatives, designers and even R/GA’s chief scientist, Gregory Glass. Looking over a projection of wireframes, they discuss the best way to show engagement and time spent. One feature the team agrees is critical: a make slide button. “Everyone wants a PowerPoint at the end of the day,” Kohnke says.

3:12 > Mobile Brainstorm
As might be expected, Rich Ting’s mobile team is young. At a mobile brainstorming meeting in a small room with a table filled with iPhones and BlackBerries, Ting leads the seven strategists and creatives in trying to come up with a mobile strategy to reach Walmart mothers. Ting stands at a whiteboard and sketches out the three archetypes of a Walmart mom the agency has devised, then leads the team in filling out the personas with attributes like price consciousness and propensity to own a sophisticated smartphone. Ting wants to get a deck together for the client with at least five tactics included. The team debates new mobile advances that could become retail applications. Google has a new product called Goggles that lets people conduct searches via mobile photos. British supermarket Tesco released a mobile wayfinder for its stores. Could a shopping list app include a line item for how much was saved by shopping at Walmart? As the ideas fly, Ting prods the team to consider what is possible in three-month increments as far out as 18 months. While a sophisticated in-store product-finder app is feasible in 12-18 months, he says, it might make sense to get a basic texting service up and running in the next three-to-six months, like Google’s rudimentary text-search service that to the R/GA team seems like something of the distant past. “That still works,” Ting tells them with a laugh.

4:16 > Pitch Work in Nick Law’s Office
Law doesn’t have an office most CCOs would envy. Tucked in the far corner of the second floor at R/GA, the windowless room has a couch, an oversized computer monitor that Law says he scooped up when Robert Rasmussen departed R/GA for BBH in November 2008, and a box of fruit on a file cabinet. A whiteboard in the office has the admonition, “Don’t be boring.” The only award that can be seen is a Mobile Marketing Association trophy for R/GA’s “That’s Not Cool” Ad Council work. Law and ecd Taras Wayner are on the phone with a storyboard artist in Los Angeles to put the finishing touches on a pitch for a TV spot. The pitch is part of R/GA’s move to do more through-the-line work for clients. In addition to acting as lead agency for Ameriprise, R/GA is finding existing clients open to it sometimes handling all work for an assignment. The shop now has five traditional art director-copywriter creative teams. It expects to hire more. Wayner arrived at R/GA three years ago from Berlin Cameron United, betting a digital shop like R/GA could make the leap from sites and applications into storytelling. With 18 years of experience that includes stints at Young & Rubicam and Cliff Freeman, he’s back on familiar ground as he paces the office and makes changes to copy for a TV spot. Law isn’t ready to cast himself in the mold of the industry’s leading CCOs just yet. “I’m sure David Lubars has a similar office,” he says jokingly. “He probably has boxes of awards. I have rotting fruit.”

4:38 > Digital Studio
R/GA’s secret weapon isn’t even in its main office. It’s across the street, where three years ago Greenberg set up a digital studio. His bet is that in-house production capability is key to the future agency model. The studio consists of green screens where R/GA shoots video for clients and outside projects. It has a sound booth and a room full of producers who can create sophisticated animations. Wacksman credits the studio for R/GA’s near 100 percent success rate in pitches because using it, R/GA can go beyond the typical PowerPoint presentation to craft what it calls “user journey videos” that detail the various contexts in which consumers come in contact with a brand. In a small meeting room near the entrance, head of production Vin Farrell is leading a meeting with the creative team on the Walmart account for an upcoming shoot. R/GA will piggyback on a shoot being done by The Martin Agency, Walmart’s general advertising agency. The creatives and production staff labor to make sure they get the right kind of footage to create a series of rich media banners using a combination of photos, animation and video. Later, Greenberg, munching on apple slices, leads a tour of the studio. He goes directly to the server room. This isn’t the first time a Greenberg-led tour has ended up in a room full of servers. He recounts a bet he made in 2001 that three of the five Academy Awards best picture nominees would be shot digitally. Greenberg said it would happen in 2011. “I don’t think I’ll win the bet,” he says, “but I would a year later.”