Agency of the Year 2009: R/GA


The Outsiders

The first time I visited chez R/GA, more than ten years ago, chairman and CEO Bob Greenberg demonstrated some computerized production scheme that gave cars the fluid movements of dancers. The company had created the effect for a Shell commercial, I think, and it was done at a time when R/GA was a high-tech production house with aspirations to be a force in the interactive business. I remembered another visit, when Greenberg let a group of us in on his passion for outsider art - i.e. art made by people with no formal training (such as shut-in Henry Darger).

Then again, things seemed different this time around. For one, in the double-height lobby, which one accesses through a rare feature in Manhattan architecture - an expansive courtyard - there are many more awards than there used to be, making it harder to pick out the one that should stand out the most: the Oscar that Greenberg won back in 1979 for the opening credits of the sci-fi classic Alien. Somewhere up there is probably R/GA's Agency of the Year trophy, the first-ever given, from the Webby Awards; and the 2009 Gold Pencil from One Show Interactive for its Nike Ballers Network, a community site focused on basketball; and the Cannes Cyber Lion it received last June for Nokia's viNe, a campaign for the company's Nseries phone that uses geo-tagging to let users create shareable audio and video diaries.

That said, while the agency has come a long way from simply making cars dance, its work has become so diverse, ranging from interactive retail experiences to building out communities, that it's a little hard to even say what R/GA does now. Is it interactive advertising? Is it marketing experiences? Is the agency a digital farmer, tilling the fertile ground between marketer and consumer so that the connections between them flourish?

To hear executives at the agency tell it, and in fact, this is one reason R/GA received this accolade, it's by focusing on building "campaigns and platforms." This is perhaps a perfect summation of the Interpublic Group shop's evolution from being a production shop solely focused on that hoary old marketing vessel, the commercial, to one whose solutions lie as much now in building out technology-infused foundations upon which to layer specific marketing campaigns as it does on the campaigns themselves.

The best example of the company's "campaigns and platforms" approach is probably Nike+, a platform and community site, first rolled out in 2006, that now serves as a springboard for Nike events. Originally a place where people could upload results from their workouts (using iPods) the site, among other functions, now serves as the hub for the Nike+ Human Race, a global 10K involving hundreds of thousands of runners who this year ran more than 800,000 miles.

But at a time when consumers and marketers are focused on the latest technology, R/GA's mastery of the interactive craft, however one wants to define it, has had an odd effect: The agency increasingly finds itself in discussions with the chief marketing officers and chief technology officers at clients who once would have considered the shop little better than other so-called below-the-line marketing specialists. That means it is being asked to expand its marketing repertoire, as best exemplified with its win of the entire Ameriprise account in December of 2009, for which it will handle all creative and strategy. For Barnes & Noble last year, it handled brand design for the retailer's new e-reader, the Nook, even designing another hoary marketing vessel for the device - something called the brochure...

Thus, the agency and marketing world can only wait and wonder what R/GA will do for its 2009 wins, which include WalMart, Taco Bell, and the global MasterCard business, which it copped from sister shop MRM Worldwide. That client expands R/GA's global footprint to include the Singapore and Sao Paulo markets. All told, client wins and substantial organic growth have led to revenue gains in the mid-single digits in 2009. That sets the stage for employee growth in 2010 beyond the 650 people who now work for R/GA worldwide.

However, to attribute all of R/GA's increasing success to its ability to be more central to its clients' marketing and business strategy is to oversimplify. Dawn Winchester, the agency's chief marketing services officer, says, "The Ameriprise win is a validation of our new agency model; that innovative digital platforms coupled with campaigns are capable of fundamentally transforming brands."

Agency of the Year 2009: R/GAIn fact, one striking thing about R/GA's current work is how diverse it is, ranging from "Dear Mr. President," a social-media-fueled campaign sponsored by Pepsi, which let people send messages to President Obama leading up to the inauguration, to the use of the enormous Thomson Reuters and Nasdaq digital billboard in Times Square that allows passersby to test drive the voice-activation feature in Verizon's new Google-powered Droid phone. The retail installation R/GA London produced in Bahrain for Zain, the wireless retailer in the Middle East and Africa, included extensive LCD and LED screens, text alerts to let people know when it was their turn to see customer service, and touchscreens that made it easy for visitors to customize their mobile devices.

To Greenberg, whose artsy, esoteric demeanor hides a keen competitive sense, R/GA's embrace of a wide range of digital technologies is its way of going against the trend of clients outsourcing to a wide range of "best-in-class" capabilities, such as mobile or social media. The agency's capabilities "have to be as good or better than what's elsewhere," he explains. While other agencies, for instance, might hang out a shingle to flaunt an area of expertise, R/GA, by and large, does not. The expectation is that marketing efforts can draw on internal expertise rather than being outsourced or sent off to another division. This, of course, includes production, where R/GA used to be the outsourcee.

Media is one interesting example of how R/GA goes about its business. According to Winchester, the discipline incorporates "owned" media (platforms such as Nike+), "bought" media (more typical buying and planning), and "earned" media (mostly social media in which brands earn their distribution from consumers).

Another is the handling of two hot areas, mobile and social media, which are both managed under Richard Ting, the agency's executive creative director, mobile and emerging platforms group. In many other agencies, there might be more distinct lines between each area of expertise, something that - if it isn't already - could be more of a liability, as what used to be distinct areas like mobile, social media, and software development become enmeshed. It also seems to help the shop focus on what fits the target market for individual R/GA initiatives rather than choosing new platforms simply because they are new. The shop's campaign this year, on behalf of the Ad Council, to empower teens to stop digital harassment, played to the lowest common technical denominator in mobile, since many teens don't yet have true smart phones. "We wanted [teens] to have the tools to stop that kind of harassment," said Ting. However, the agency made mobile video a major component of its Nike Women's Trainer iPhone effort, which helps women train -- Ting emphasizes the utility of being able to take a mobile device with workouts on it to wherever users practice. It's all about "the right content in the right context," he says.

For R/GA, such an approach meant that in 2009, the agency found itself in the right place at the right time, a place in which the agency has in one sense resided for years, dealing ever more effectively with the change that swirls around it.

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