R/GA: Digital AOY 2008

Stepping into R/GA’s New York headquarters, a visitor notices, amid the general bustle of a busy shop, the beautiful, sometimes haunting images on the walls.

They are pieces from Bob Greenberg’s personal collection of “outsider art,” created by the institutionalized. “What I find in outsider art is the opposite of what I find in the digital world: no compromise and complete expressive freedom,” Greenberg wrote about the collection, in a book published a decade ago.

Indeed, Greenberg’s choice of art is the inverse of how, in his own idiosyncratic way, he has crafted R/GA’s place in the evolving world of brand building. Rather than pursue the kind of singular creative representations that dominate traditional advertising, the 60-year-old R/GA founder and CEO has thrown the agency headlong into a collaborative process that results in integrated digital platforms for clients. His vision of skipping the typical attention — getting advertising in favor of utility has helped the shop establish longstanding relationships with top companies like Nike, Nokia and Verizon — and makes a credible case that he is building a better agency model with technology at the core.

“There’s a couple different directions agencies will have to take,” says Greenberg. “There’s a difference between us and someone like Crispin Porter + Bogusky. We’ve taken the direction of building brand platforms rather than viral stunts or one-off things.”

In a year when even digital agencies began to feel the pinch of a declining economy, R/GA plowed ahead, adding Hewlett-Packard, Mars and HBO as clients, and growing revenue by 20 percent to $126 million. As others scaled back, the Interpublic Group shop beefed up its London outpost to account for 10 percent of total revenue and opened in San Francisco in a bid to grab digital talent.For its financial performance and its continued success in proving the power of brand platforms rooted in utility, R/GA is Adweek’s Digital Agency of the Year for 2008 — its fourth such honor in the past eight years.

There was a time when R/GA was accused of being little more than a Flash sweatshop, offering clients an army of Web designers to pump out campaign microsites. While Greenberg would rail against the primacy of the TV commercial — he was once dubbed the “30-second spot remover” by The New York Times — critics pointed out that R/GA’s immersive brand sites looked a lot like TV ads online.

Yet Greenberg’s vision of building customer relationships through inbound attention is now being realized as many brands sour on the interruptive ad model. The key, as Greenberg has long and frequently advocated, is technology, which enables forward-thinking companies to build systems that attract and retain customers while weaving marketing and product together.

“We’re looking at customer behavior and seeing how to create something bigger than a TV spot or print ad,” says Greenberg, an architecture buff.

Exhibit A remains Nike+, introduced in 2006, but still evolving, which links the Apple iPod and Nike shoes to enable people to track and share their runs online. Nike+ is not a typical advertising idea dreamed up by a copywriter and an art director. It is the result of a deep collaboration among teams.

Systems aren’t built on the back of napkins. Nike tapped R/GA to make the crucial link between a chip in a running shoe and a social-networking Web interface. For a complex product, the Web experience had to be seamless. And while it is different than watching a beautifully crafted TV spot, the feeling one gets after plugging in one’s iPod and seeing one’s running data uploaded and displayed on NikePlus.com is perhaps more powerful. Nike and R/GA saw it as not just a product, but as a system stemming from behavior. Runners track their mileage and enjoy listening to music — what they were missing was a way to combine the two and connect with each other.