Agency A-List 2008

Agency A-List 2008: R/GA

No. 4: Fast Growth, Important Projects Means Agency of Future's Time Has Come

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1. Crispin Porter & Bogusky | 2. TBWA/Chiat/Day
3. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners | 4. R/GA | 5. Tribal DDB
6. Mindshare | 7. Martin Agency | 8. Vidal Partnership
9. Rapp | 10. Deutsch

In 2008, R/GA continued to show why it's long been a leader among digital-marketing agencies. The house built by Bob Greenberg added more marquee brands to its client roster; made some headway in growing its international operations; and showed that when it comes to building digital platforms for marketers, it's one of the best around.

Illustration: Robin Eley

R/GA, one of the jewels of Interpublic Group, grew about 20% worldwide, thanks to new business from Hewlett-Packard, Mars, Assurant Health, Dr Pepper and Snapple, and HBO. That growth, plus the fact that it's not relying on a car or financial-services account during tough times for both sectors, meant R/GA was a rare agency that made it through 2008 without any layoffs. Even R/GA's in-house production unit continues to grow and has more than 30 staffers both doing work for agency clients and generating its own revenue.

Top brands Nike and Nokia remain major engagements that are helping R/GA begin to flourish into an international network. The London office, which works on those two multinational accounts and other pieces of business, is now responsible for 10% of revenue, and the San Francisco office, which opened last year, is gaining a bit of steam.

But the real action remains at R/GA's New York headquarters, located in modernist digs in a relatively gritty part of Manhattan. There Mr. Greenberg and Chief Creative Officer Nick Law, hold court, discussing the evolutionary ladder of agency models -- at the top of which, you won't be surprised, resides R/GA. That, of course, has everything to do with the fact that digital is at the agency's center, while the knuckle-dragging traditional agencies it's increasingly competing with look positively prehistoric.

The brilliance behind what R/GA does isn't so much about medium. Instead, it's the rather convincing assertion that there's something wrong with the metaphor of the commercial, the time-worn notion that brand or product attributes need to be dramatized. It should be replaced, Messrs. Law and Greenberg argue, with messaging based on demonstration. An easy example: those elegant ads created by TBWA for Apple. All they do is (beautifully) show off the phone and its apps.

R/GA spelled out this philosophy to the industry nearly three years ago with its design of the Nike Plus platform, which allowed runners to keep data on their runs by using Nike footwear and an Apple iPod, and which, Mr. Law said, "is not a conceptual narrative."

"We build a platform and then suggest how to market it," Mr. Law said. "You don't need to have a metaphor. We don't start with the messaging, we end with the messaging."

Building on Avaya
This example of brand utility is now hackneyed, but it still informs R/GA's understanding of what it is and can be as an agency. It clearly craves more lead agency relationships, as it now has with telecom company Avaya.

"R/GA understands technology, and they understand business-to-business marketing," said Chief Marketing Officer Jocelyne Attal. "They know how to find people where they're in need of information and where they're making decisions."

Over the years, R/GA has picked up more and more work from Avaya, eventually taking over lead responsibilities. The agency is now hard at work on an overhaul of Avaya's corporate website that will promote user interaction and make communications between the company, and its customers and its prospects more reciprocal.

Nokia: viNe

R/GA's deep relationship with Nike continues to be the envy of many digital agencies that too often have a tough time making it past project work. In 2008 alone, R/GA work promoted the Nike Plus Human Race, a one-day run that had 800,000 participants; an application to help players find pick-up basketball games called the Ballers Network; and a redesign of Nike's online store.

Chris Shimojima, global head of Nike's e-commerce operation, called R/GA a "strategic partner" rather than an agency. "It's a very symbiotic relationship," he said. "We have a very small team of designers in-house, and R/GA is like an extended part of the team." Mr. Shimojima said in terms of traffic and sales, he "couldn't be happier" with the new site, which added customer reviews and videos.

For client Nokia, R/GA does global strategy for the company's website and is the lead digital agency for its N-series mobile devices. In 2008, R/GA executed more than 200 projects for Nokia, among them eight global campaigns. Its London office this year crafted Urbanista Diaries, an impressive platform that showed off the photographic and geotagging capabilities of Nokia devices. And R/GA's retail team unveiled Club Nokia in Los Angeles.

If these growing relationships are any indication, R/GA's march toward dominance with Avaya may end up being reproduced with other clients.

In the meantime, R/GA can hone its pitch to run the marketing world in new-business presentations. "Our best through-the-line work comes in pitches," Mr. Law said. "I guarantee that next year we'll have a lot more of these relationships."

1. Crispin Porter & Bogusky | 2.TBWA/CHIAT/DAY
3. Goodby, Silverstein & Partners | 4. R/GA | 5. Tribal DDB
6. Mindshare | 7. Martin Agency | 8. Vidal Partnership
9. Rapp | 10. Deutsch

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