"I'm a little tired," Bob Greenberg says as he fixes himself a cup of coffee and settles into a Maarten Van Severen-designed Vitra chair in his 39th Street Manhattan office. It's Tuesday morning and the R/GA chairman and CEO is recovering from a Monday night class he teaches for the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University's Tisch School.
"The students are really way out there," he says of the dozen coeds in the spring semester course designed to help them accomplish their final thesis projects. Coming from the 55-year-old, soft-spoken adjunct professor—who often is described, by colleagues and clients alike, as a visionary—that is quite a compliment.
"When you're with Bob, you can see the muscle between the ears is pretty big," says Jerri DeVard, senior vp/brand management and marketing communications at New York-based Verizon Communications, a recent addition to the Interpublic Group i-shop's roster. "He can look at an issue and elevate it so quickly and so masterfully that it just takes everything up a notch."
"Bob is a tremendous, tremendous thinker and creator," says Bank of America chief marketing officer Catherine Bessant. In late 2002, the financial-services company consolidated its above- and below-the-line duties at 16 IPG units, including R/GA. "There are some people [about whom] you would gratuitously say, 'Oh, they're on the cutting edge.' Bob defines the cutting edge. And not in an impossible way, but in a really functional way, a way that really enables application of the cutting edge to real-world situations and real-world opportunities."
In this respect, R/GA is very much a reflection of Greenberg, who, in the mid-'90s, led the company he founded through a transition from one with a focus on print, broadcast and feature films to one that specializes in digital design. The constantly evolving shop has thrived during its 27-year existence by identifying and executing big ideas grounded in sound business strategy.
Last year was no exception. R/GA, the Adweek Magazines/IQ Affiliated Agency of the Year, reaped revenues of an estimated $67.8 million, a 20 percent jump from 2002, thanks to business from existing clients like Nike and Nestlé Purina, and 14 new pieces of business including creative Web work for Levi Strauss and a global-standardization project for Avaya.
Greenberg is, "in many ways, pleasantly detached from the details enough to think very conceptually," says Steve Hardwick, managing director of the Bank of America brand at IPG. "Then he has some very smart, analytical people that reattach things to the details and sort of reconcile those two things."
For a client like BofA—which, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR, spent $10.3 million on online advertising last year—God is in the details. In a year's time, the New York shop churned out hundreds of executions for the Charlotte, N.C.-based client—from online ads, landing pages and intranets to ATM advertising, CD-ROMs and digital signage and kiosks—maintaining the "Higher Standards" positioning throughout all of BofA's marketing communications from IPG.
"Our task is not only to deliver the best interactive marketing work that we can, but also to make sure that every inch of it is completely integrated with all the other channels," explains R/GA vp/client services Dawn Winchester. "It really shows the ability for us to strive for excellence for the channel, but to also be true to the larger effort that's at hand."
R/GA's collaborative culture makes it an appealing asset of IPG, which strives to grow organically by cross-selling its services. "[IPG CEO] David Bell really understands collaboration, integration," says Greenberg. "If one agency is selling one thing to a client, why can't they be selling three? That's what's going to mean something to [IPG] in terms of our growth, in terms of Wall Street."
R/GA was invited to pitch, and eventually won, Circuit City, Levi Strauss and Hilton's interactive business after referrals from fellow IPG agency Foote, Cone & Belding, and it got Bausch & Lomb after an introduction by another sibling shop, Gotham. The i-shop was also a part of an integrated team of IPG units that landed Cablevision System Corp.'s Voom, a digital-satellite-subscription service.
But the vast majority of R/GA's new accounts last year—including Avaya, NYC2012, the Federal Reserve and a project from ESPN—did not come through IPG.
Even in the case of Verizon, it was at DeVard's suggestion, not IPG's, that R/GA was asked to participate in the telecommunications company's online ad account review last November. The top Verizon marketing executive had encountered the interactive agency before, when she was chief marketing officer at Citigroup's e-Consumer division.
R/GA pitched Citibank's interactive business in the fall of 2001 but was passed over for roster shop, WPP Group's Wunderman. "R/GA was very, very strong. It was a hard choice," recalls DeVard.
This time around, R/GA's "perfect balance of creativity, technology, measurement and understanding of this medium" triumphed, beating out IconMedialab's IconNicholson, IPG's DraftDigital and incumbent Havas' Euro RSCG Circle for the creative portion of Verizon's estimated $35 million online media account. The 12 decision makers, including vp/brand management Amy Rubenstein and director/interactive marketing Beth Mulhern, unanimously selected R/GA (aQuantive's Avenue A in Seattle was awarded planning and buying).
R/GA hunkered down, working through the holidays to produce an early 2004 campaign. There wasn't any time to celebrate last year—but there were plenty of reasons to. In addition to scoring new business, the company won an impressive 100 awards in 2003 (for Nike alone, it grabbed four Cannes Cyber Lions, four Clios and five One Show Interactive Pencils).
The athletic-goods marketer is a perennial creative showcase for its online and offline agencies, but the work goes beyond window dressing. "Companies like Nike and Verizon are not going to hire you on design alone," explains R/GA vp/business development Barry Wacksman. "You have to have a marketing story behind it. They're not stupid enough to fall for someone who can just do pretty pictures and force the clients to do strategy on their own."
When Nike wanted to reintroduce the brand to the American football arena, the Beaverton, Ore., company and its agencies concentrated on the idea of speed. "Nike is very good at focusing on an idea as opposed to an execution first: Let's not talk about mediums or executions, but let's talk about an idea first and then figure out how that idea gets translated or interpreted in different mediums," says Rei Inamoto, an R/GA creative director on the account.
A spot from independent Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., depicted actual football players in a video game-like setting and directed the audience to NikeGridiron.com. The Web site from R/GA continued that theme with games, developed by Wild Tangent, featuring Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens and others.
On the Nike account, as with all R/GA clients, visual designers are paired with what the shop calls "interaction" designers, a group overseen by vp/visual design Nick Law and vp/interaction design Chris Colburn. The combination is a winning one, says Harley Manning, vp at Boston-based Forrester Research. "They added the interaction design skills that allow them to make useful sites to the ability that they already had to create compelling graphics and visuals," says Manning.
The 80-person technology department and 40-member production team—headed up, respectively, by vp/technology John Mayo-Smith and vp/production Stephen Plumlee—round out a work force of more than 260, up 25 percent from 2002. The only senior-level defection last year was that of president/CEO Martin Reidy, who left after seven years to head up Digitas-West, a move that allowed him to spend more time with his West Coast-based family.
As the interactive ad market comes back, Greenberg says, talent retention will be a challenge. "They are always being offered more money, that's for sure, but they're staying because of the team, the work, the awards, the potential for the future."
As for the future, Greenberg envisions exploring interactive TV, advergaming, lower-cost commercial production—and the list goes on. "If our staff knows we're getting into this, why would they want to leave?" he asks. "Where are they going to go?"
Ann M. Mack is the interactive editor for Adweek.
AT A GLANCE
Up 20 percent to $68 million (est.)
Avaya, Bausch & Lomb, Voom, Circuit City, ESPN project, Hilton, Levi Strauss, Lower Manhattan Development Corp., NYC 2012, the Federal Reserve, Verizon Communications
WIN/LOSS PITCH RATIO
14 of 18
Developed copy department, bolstered 3-D and digital filmmaking capabilities; created interactive signage for BofA, flash demo to showcase IBM Software's offerings.