R/GA's Greenberg Puts Connectivity at Center of Marketing Ecosystem

Advertising Hall of Fame Inductee Says New Thinking About Data Is Not About Big Data But About Earned Data

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Bob Greenberg has an eye for disruption.
Bob Greenberg has an eye for disruption.

The world as envisioned by Bob Greenberg is a connected world: the connected athlete for Nike; the connected community for Hudson Yards in New York; the connected car for Volvo; the connected individual for health.

"All these things are going to be a really big passionate part of what I do," says the founder of agency/consultancy R/GA, who next month will be inducted into the Advertising Hall of Fame.

"The thing that I'm most interested in, which is the next really big thing, is where the technology, the information, the interactive aspects of the web -- mobile, social -- intersect with physical space and particularly retail."

Some people say Bob reminds them of Larry David (it's true both men have wisps of hair emanating from unexpected angles), but Bob is as low-key as Larry is confrontational. He appeared at our video session wearing his standard black-on-black ensemble, and he settled in without any advance logistics for our interview.

Bob, along with his brother Richard, started the firm in 1977 as a film-production company. It morphed into R/GA Digital Studios as an umbrella brand that included a feature-film production company; a TV-commercial production company; a rep firm for top directors; a print studio; and eventually an interactive division. Bob's company has worked on over 4,000 TV commercials, including the dancing pumps for Shell Oil and the spectacular Diet Coke campaign that composited a living Paula Abdul with archival footage of Fred Astaire. He has won almost every industry award for creativity, including an Oscar for his contributions to film technology, D+AD and the Cannes Lion.

The new model, which Bob calls functional integration, puts the consumer in the center, surrounded by products and services -- what Apple and Google are based on. "What [Steve] Jobs was able to do was to create products and services that were integrated so the consumer would buy many of them rather than just one. So the new models are what we call functionally integrated companies that have products and services that tie together into a platform and then into an ecosystem" -- one building on the other, like Nike+Fuel, which the company describes as "a single, universal way to measure all kinds of activities, from your morning run to your big night out."

In connection with the Nike products that collect data on the activities of users, Bob contends that "the new thinking about data is not about big data but about earned data." The data that comes back from FuelBand, for instance, is a "fair trade" with the consumer. "Consumers really want [Nike] to use that data to give them back insights on their own data."

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I asked Bob whether consumers understand the tradeoff. "I think they do. I think they understand that they are a part of -- at Nike, let's say a running club -- and that their information is shared and is combined in a way that is useful to them. So it's also utility. If they get back some interesting utility, they feel it's a fair trade."
Bob has always been good at anticipating what lies ahead, and he attributes that skill to his dyslexia. "As you overcome aspects of dyslexia, you get a benefit to sort of pre-visualize things. That's why so many of the people who have it are in business in things like architecture" -- which is also an avid interest of Bob's.

Big changes
One of the things he's able to spot is disruption. "The music business was really disrupted because in some cases the margins were not that high to start off with and then technology had a tremendous impact on the business. We've seen technology disrupt so many industries, like Blockbuster getting completely disrupted by Netflix. …

"The disruption that I see in the advertising business is happening around television commercials, which we just went back into. I think what I'm seeing is the ability for us to go from the Internet, mobile and social, back to TV rather than what traditional agencies do generally, which is to go from TV to internet, mobile, social."
R/GA is getting back into TV commercials because "we don't believe that storytelling is going away," Bob noted.

He pointed out there's a lot of storytelling going on now, but the commercials don't necessarily need to take the form of a 30-second TV spot. Just as with the music business, where there is more music than ever (just not on records). "There's still need for great television commercials. That's not going away."

Bob's latest projects involve working through an accelerator company to launch nine startups, and the building of his version of the connected home in upstate New York. There are four separate glass houses based on Mies van der Rohe's and Phillip Johnson's designs of the late '40s and early '50s. "When I leave I hit one button and everything closes down."

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