R/GA: ‘Adweek’ I-Shop of the Year

When R/GA CEO Bob Greenberg talks about creativity—or anything for that matter—there’s no telling where the conversation will end up. It might start, simply enough, with a discourse on narrative structure, then veer off to Bauhaus, before taking another detour to touch on Miami Vice and LonelyGirl15. With its zigs and zags, the soft-spoken monologue can, at times, bewilder, but when taken as a whole, his point becomes crystal clear: The nature of storytelling is changing in a world shifting from analog to digital media.

In much the same way, the 58-year-old—known for his trademark beret and all-black ensembles (even in the 90-degree heat of Cannes)—has created R/GA, melding technological firepower, creative acumen and growing strategic chops to try to shape what advertising will look like in the future.

In 2006 Greenberg’s industry homily, premised on the notion that digital would reside at the heart of advertising, started to come into focus. Content began to move freely in a variety of digital media. Interactive initiatives catapulted to the top of brands’ agendas. Consumers expressed themselves, digitally, through easy-to-use tools on sites like YouTube. Yet more than reinforcing the cliché that the consumer is in control, the gathering upheaval proved Greenberg’s view that advertising needs to be more useful, often less gimmicky, and ultimately rewarding to consumers.

“I think he’s a visionary,” says Brian Price, executive director of Verizon’s online center of excellence. “He’s usually well ahead of most. I’m sure a lot of people have trouble following the visions he has.”

But R/GA delivered more than visions in 2006, expanding revenue over 35 percent to an estimated $150 million, the bulk of the growth coming from existing clients like Avaya, Nike and Nokia. On the new-business front, R/GA won the global lead digital agency role for L’Oréal Paris, besting the network firepower of Euro RSCG 4D and McCann WorldGroup’s MRM Worldwide. For its enviable financial performance, envelope-pushing creative and knack for building compelling brand experiences, R/GA is Adweek’s Interactive Agency of the Year for 2006.

The solid performance is a testament to the agency’s unique approach, forged by its roots as a production studio three decades ago, making technology the equal of creativity. During the 1980s, it used computer-assisted filmmaking to create thousands of movie trailers and TV ads, leading Greenberg to conclude during R/GA’s transition in the 1990s to an interactive agency that it should keep technology as a core competency. When broadband became ubiquitous, R/GA already had several years experience building high-performance Web sites made for fast connection speeds. Unlike digitally fluent agencies such as Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, R/GA takes pride in the fact that its work is not just dreamed up in-house but also executed there.

“The line between technology and creativity is more of a gradation,” says Nick Law, R/GA’s North American chief creative officer. “That’s a hard thing for a lot of traditional agencies to accept.”

An application like the music mixer created for Verizon would be impossible without this setup. The feature, which debuted in July, combines video footage of famous beatbox artists and a sound mixer, inviting visitors to mix their own beats to forward to friends, post in a gallery or embed in their blog. The “big idea” is driven by the innovative use of technology, showing off the power of broadband connectivity. The payoff, Price says, was bloggers’ surprise that a company like Verizon was behind such an innovative site. Average user interaction on the site topped five minutes. “They’re out-of-the-box thinkers,” Price says. “They not only think of a concept, but it’s also operational.”

The application approach to brand building often means technology takes the form of a creative idea, as was the case with R/GA’s collaboration with Nike and Apple to create NikePlus. R/GA helped the client conceive the idea of a site where people could record their running information, then created the technology that made it possible—middleware that transferred data from the iPod to NikePlus.com. R/GA also built a social networking site where runners record their training and challenge each other. “They’ve been really good about exploring and evolving our thinking in the digital space,” says Stefan Olander, Nike’s global director of digital media.

But is NikePlus advertising? Does the label even matter? “The consumer experience isn’t just what the consumer is looking at, but what they’re doing,” says John Mayo-Smith, R/GA’s chief technology officer. Since its release, NikePlus.com’s visitors have uploaded over 4 million miles. In Nike user surveys, 97 percent said they would recommend the system, which Nike execs said in a recent earnings call is more successful than anticipated. While Wieden + Kennedy might create TV spots touting NikePlus, R/GA created an experience that brings the brand to life, says Greenberg.

R/GA’s work on Nike, especially NikePlus and its design-your-own shoe NikeID application impressed L’Oréal Paris president Carol Hamilton, even before she knew R/GA was responsible. “They’ve transformed the way Nike talks to the consumer,” she says. She expects R/GA to take a similar approach to define “the total L’Oréal experience.”

To codify its belief in the integral role tech know-how plays in the creative process, R/GA last year created the position of technical creative director, to be a full, equal partner at the table. “To come up with the big idea, you need to come up with the applications,” Law says.

That means rethinking online experiences. R/GA created the Nike Women Rockstar Workout with pop star Rihanna, a site that pushed online video beyond the simple YouTube clip by inviting visitors to craft their own experience and learn the dance moves from Rihanna’s S.O.S. music video. They could then find where to purchase the Nike Women clothing worn in the video.

R/GA is complementing its applications by moving more directly onto the turf of general ad agencies. Law points out the agency produced more than 100 videos last year that, while not 30-second spots, are representative of a new type of broadband storytelling. R/GA is building out its digital studio, equipped to shoot in-house at a less expensive cost. It shot 11 digital video vignettes for Avaya, using tongue-in-cheek humor to show the benefits of complex products like remote data hosting, IP phone systems and IT monitoring. The videos are being used on the Avaya Web site, in online ads and at trade show presentations. They were done on a shoestring budget thanks to R/GA’s all-digital production infrastructure. “When you look at a traditional agency, they can’t do anything inexpensively,” Greenberg says.

While happy with the video work, Greenberg feels R/GA needs more narrative expertise found in the TV-centric agencies he’s often bashing. He’s hired midlevel creatives with experience at shops like Wieden and FCB. At the end of the year, it recruited ecd Taras Wayner, a Berlin Cameron United and Cliff Freeman & Partners vet. Rather than hire hotshots with big egos, Law says the better fit is with younger creatives who lead a digital lifestyle. “We have to build some of the core competencies we find in traditional agencies into R/GA,” Greenberg says.

Another challenge is to increase its global footprint. Rivals like AKQA and Avenue A/Razorfish are far ahead of R/GA when it comes to international capabilities. The agency made its most ambitious overseas move in 2006 was building a 14-person London outpost that serves the Nokia account. Greenberg is eyeing a presence in China to serve clients in the run-up to the Olympic Games there in 2008.

The Interpublic Group agency is also moving to fill one key void: a robust strategy and media business. It now has 20 people in the group, which has begun planning and buying media. The goal is to mix the type of cultural insights that drive Crispin campaigns with the digital expertise of R/GA. The Verizon Beatbox Mixer, for instance, was built from the insight that urban early adopters were into the underground resurgence of the beatboxing art form. R/GA also won a strategy assignment from Subaru, planning a Web and direct-mail campaign for the WRX STI, a limited-edition performance car. “We want to be asked to solve business problems,” says Anne Benvenuto, evp, strategic services.

Emerging digital outlets in wireless, retail and outdoor offer even more opportunities. R/GA started a mobile practice in 2006, building off campaigns it did during the year for Nokia and Nike. A Nokia push in the United Kingdom let London subway riders download neighborhood maps from outdoor ads through wireless networking technology. “It’s taking a traditionally flat medium and giving it interactivity,” says Rich Ting, head of R/GA’s mobile marketing group.

The opportunities, as Greenberg sees them, are endless as digital media upends the ad industry, and the challenge for R/GA will be to pursue those that make the most sense. Will it all work? Probably not, but R/GA’s track record of pushing into new frontiers gives it a good chance of cracking the code to reach consumers in an on-demand digital world. “The goal,” he says, “is to become the first new agency model that’s started from scratch without legacy parts and pieces.”

Brian Morrissey is a senior reporter covering interactive at Adweek.