Agency of the Year: How R/GA Dominated Digital by Finding Its TV Groove

Going big with Beats showed the shop's modern storytelling mastery

In hindsight, it's no surprise that one of the best ads of 2014 came from an unlikely corner of the advertising world: digital agency R/GA.

"The Game Before the Game," for Beats by Dre headphones, featured Neymar Jr. along with a dozen other international soccer stars acting out their pregame rituals. Saturated in the high-stakes drama of the World Cup and set to the stomping soundtrack of "Jungle," by X Ambassadors and Jamie N Commons, the June ad seemed like an upset victory, arguably outshining messages from brands like Nike and Adidas during the year's biggest global athletic event.

In fact, R/GA—Adweek’s Digital Agency of the Year for 2014—has been cranking out killer TV spots for Beats since late November 2013, starring pro athletes like the Brooklyn Nets' Kevin Garnett, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, all using noise-canceling Beats headphones to tune out insults from fans and talking heads in favor of Aloe Blacc’s irrefutably cool track "The Man."

But for global chief creative officer Nick Law, the watershed moment came almost a year later. On Oct. 20, 2014, a new Beats ad was going viral. Set to Hozier’s "Take Me to Church," it welcomed LeBron James back home to Cleveland after the NBA star's four years playing for the Miami Heat. The same day, R/GA unveiled the 10 startups making up the second class of its TechStars Accelerator for Internet-connected software and devices, including Astro, maker of simple home-automation appliances like lightbulbs and speakers.

“So on one end of the spectrum, we’re doing sort of classic narrative advertising on broadcast—and obviously it has a big impact in social—and on the other end of the spectrum, we're announcing the Accelerator,” Law says.

Especially when compared to more workaday ads the agency made for Ameriprise in 2010, the Beats campaigns signal R/GA’s maturation into a shop that can deliver not only great digital products but also truly top-tier TV spots, vaulting ahead of its digital rivals.

“We’ve created not just great TV and video work, but also we’ve done it, finally, on our terms,” says Law. “We have an approach to that sort of advertising, which would distinguish us from the Wiedens and Drogas, all the best companies that we’ve always respected in that space. We’ve reached their quality, but I think we’ve done it approaching the whole problem of TV advertising differently … which comes from the fact that we came up through social and more sort of digital channels. That’s satisfying, that we have that breadth, and both are different and world class.”

Bob Greenberg, Founder, Chairman and CEO | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Beyond the Sizzle

It doesn’t hurt that music icon Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Beats, picks songs for the ads, bringing to the table the kind of hitmaking experience that is outside any agency’s wheelhouse. If R/GA had been responsible for selecting the music, points out CEO Bob Greenberg, “it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.”

R/GA’s expertise runs deeper than traditional or digital marketing sizzle.

The agency also helped design the branding and user interface for Beats Music, the buzzed-about streaming service that the company launched in January. And while the tight-knit relationship makes Beats one of R/GA’s leading four clients in terms of revenue, it’s also just one piece of the agency’s 2014 success story.

The Interpublic Group shop has enjoyed substantial growth, with global revenue up 11 percent to $296 million, according to Adweek estimates. This, thanks to new accounts such as Airbnb and a growing relationship with Volvo, as well as expanding assignments from marketers including Google and Samsung.

In recognition of its creative excellence, it earned a truckload of industry honors this year, including 23 Clio Awards (including two Grand Clio Sports), 10 Cannes Lions, five One Show Pencils and two Effies.

Nick Law, Global Chief Creative Officer | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

It is not uncommon, of course, for this agency to make a strong impression. Todd Pendleton, Samsung’s U.S. chief marketing officer (and a former Adweek Brand Genius), hired R/GA as digital lead in 2013 after working with the shop in his previous post at Nike, which remains one of R/GA’s key relationships.

Samsung, for its part, doesn’t brief R/GA specifically for TV assignments, but the partnership yields filmic work, like an online clip this fall about two guys driving across the U.S. on a single charge of a Galaxy S5 smartphone. And the agency is in the client’s inner circle, not just on campaigns but also on core and forward-looking aspects of the consumer tech conglomerate’s business.

“There is some very good cutting-edge work that they are part of,” Pendleton says. “It’s starting more from, as you [think] about our brand and our products and the ecosystem that we have across phone, tablet, TV, appliances, etc., how do you get all of these products to really start singing together and working together in new ways? They are working with our teams in [Silicon] Valley, as well as us, to think about some of those solutions.”

New Prospects

R/GA’s attention-grabbing TV work for Beats is helping generate new prospects, as well. The agency recently found itself in the finals to lead creative work for the NBA, pitted against traditional shops like incumbent Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Translation (which ultimately won). “It’s certainly opened things up for them quite a bit more,” says Russel Wohlwerth, principal at agency search firm External View Consulting Group. “Their ability to understand we live in an omnichannel world … they’ve really embraced that. It’s a total market approach.”

Barry Wacksman, Global Chief Growth Officer | Photo: Kevin Scanlin

Barry Wacksman, R/GA’s global chief growth officer, has seen the benefits firsthand. “We’ve won at least one pitch … [where] I don’t think we would have even been in the pitch to begin with if we hadn’t done that work,” he says. Adds Law: “Our competitive set has broadened.”

Meanwhile, the TechStars Accelerator, which offers participants investment from R/GA in exchange for equity, is also creating opportunities for the agency. “We’ve had a bunch of clients approach us now, including companies we’ve never even worked with before, and inquire about us running a program on their behalf, around a different theme perhaps,” says Wacksman.

“We’ve got one deal pretty well closed—it’s not public yet,” he adds. “There are three other ones that are in pretty late stages, and that’s just right now. So we could have four programs between now and, say, January, closed, that will run next year. So, by the end of the cycle, we’ll have 70 companies that we’ll have equity stakes in.”

Masters of Reinvention

Whether R/GA’s push into the startup world succeeds in the long term, one thing is certain: The agency has a proven penchant for reinventing itself.

Since launching as a New York-based computer-assisted production company in 1977, it has morphed into various services, shifting to capitalize on emerging creative industries. These days, it is seeking to wend its way deeper into clients’ businesses, building a high-level management consulting practice à la Bain or McKinsey. That’s meant to complement the tech, design and marketing skills for which the agency—with some 1,500 staffers across 16 offices—has developed a sterling reputation spanning two decades.

R/GA’s current mix of offerings aims to help brands navigate in a world where old models have been—or soon will be—revolutionized by rapid changes in consumer connectivity. “Fundamentally our clients—you can look across all industries, whether it’s financial services, packaged goods, automotive industry—all of them are now trying to figure out what is our new business model for the 21st century,” says Wacksman. “They’re all trying to figure out how to innovate, and everything that we’ve tried to bring together here is to help them do that. Now at the very end of that, there still is a need to communicate about whatever it is that you’ve made, somehow.”

Adaptability is key to the agency’s own future as well. “Clients are starting to take a lot of things that we used to do in-house—there’s a huge movement toward that,” Greenberg points out. He mentions as an example a 2012 March Madness social response campaign R/GA put together for Nike Basketball, and emphasizes the importance of helping brands manage that kind of shift.

But it is also an opportunity. “We’re in a spot where the clients don’t have the right talent in house to implement what we’re doing,” he says. “So then we’re starting to because we have 20 full-time recruiters … to help clients hire the best talent to [do that].”

L.A. Spinoff

When Apple snapped up Beats this summer for a whopping $3 billion, R/GA faced a different kind of challenge—resolving the resulting conflict with its client Samsung. The agency’s solution: Spinoff a separate Los Angeles outpost to handle the Beats work.

Samsung’s Pendleton, for his part, says he has “no concerns” about R/GA’s ability to keep separate the competing companies’ businesses. (Omar Johnson, CMO of Beats and also a former Adweek Brand Genius, was unavailable to participate in this story.)

With a wide range of agencies competing for digital dollars, R/GA has been able to separate itself from the pack by leveraging its connections in Silicon Valley and grasp of social media culture to deliver ideas that help keep its clients ahead of the curve.

Volvo, which first hired R/GA in December 2013 to work on global digital strategy, this year turned to the agency for more help, as the automaker gears up for a major U.S. marketing push behind new models.

The agency came back with a unique idea: Partnering with Google Cardboard, the tech giant’s new, easy-to-use virtual reality headset, to offer potential buyers an advance test drive of Volvo’s new XC90 model, which won’t go into production until next year.

“What I found very exciting with this project was that R/GA had the opportunity to bring the Google innovation to us in such an early phase of its life,” says Bodil Eriksson, evp, U.S. chief of product and brand communications at Volvo. “So it was actually something truly new and exciting, and it allows people to have very personal experiences.”

R/GA turned the campaign around in three months, in time to debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show in November.

Ericksson, while impressed by R/GA’s chops, says she isn’t looking to the shop for TV ideas. “Grey is our master agency, and our key partner,” she says. “In the digital space there is need for so much creativity, and there is an excellent way of leveraging really knowledgeable and strong agencies like R/GA. … We love to do that, and we would love to continue to do that.”

In any case, the agency’s leaders don’t seem worried about its future. “We’re going after being as good as anyone out there in terms of the short-form, high-end storytelling,” says Greenberg. “But that’s a small part of storytelling.”

@GabrielBeltrone Gabriel Beltrone is a frequent contributor to Adweek.