Agency A-List 2016

R/GA Is No. 2 on Ad Age's 2016 Agency A-List

On a Mission to Change Business and Behavior With Technology and Creativity

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(Clockwise from top l.) Global Chief Strategy Officer Barry Wacksman, founder-CEO Bob Greenberg, Executive Creative Director Chloe Gottlieb, U.S. President Sean Lyons, Global Chief Creative Officer Nick Law, and Executive Creative Director Taras Wayner
(Clockwise from top l.) Global Chief Strategy Officer Barry Wacksman, founder-CEO Bob Greenberg, Executive Creative Director Chloe Gottlieb, U.S. President Sean Lyons, Global Chief Creative Officer Nick Law, and Executive Creative Director Taras Wayner  Credit: Courtesy R/GA

A lot of shops might be satisfied with creating spectacular work for a client like Beats on the eve of the headphone giant's sale to Apple. But for R/GA, that wasn't enough. It wanted to save babies' lives.

Working with startup Owlet, one of the companies in which the agency had invested as part of its accelerator program, R/GA developed a sock that transmits an infant's vital signs to a parent's smartphone app. Owlet has already saved three babies, according to Tech Crunch, and was named best startup on Engadget's list of "Best of CES 2016."

R/GA is known for creating game-changing brands like Nike+ but that focus didn't derail the Interpublic Group of Cos.' agency from acting on its larger mission to change business, human behavior and itself by fine-tuning its matrix of capabilities, including technology, creative storytelling and business consulting.

The digital giant in 2015 saw a 14.6% boost in revenue on top of a 12% rise in 2014, and again held onto all retainer clients while growing a number of existing accounts, such as Samsung and Google, and adding new accounts like Verizon, and Constellation brands, among others.

R/GA "knows the digital world extremely well but at the same time they know the creative world extremely well, and they're innovating at that intersection of humanity and technology," said Marc Mathieu, North American CEO of Samsung. "When I arrived about seven months ago at Samsung, my mission was to build a new marketing playbook and find in agency partners people who could help us build the brand intersection of humanity and technology."

For Samsung, R/GA helped "write the marketing playbook" that would align the company's entire portfolio of products, he said. The campaign, dubbed "It's Not a Phone, It's a Galaxy," "helped us bridge from what was traditionally a product-centric model to more of an ecosystem approach," noted Mr. Mathieu. "That blend that [R/GA CEO] Bob [Greenberg] was so early on, of creativity and tech, is one of their strengths."

R/GA in 2015 set out to transform not only businesses, but also human behavior with the Ad Council PSA, "Love Has No Labels." The campaign, which tested the bounds of human acceptance, featured a large x-ray installation that displayed skeletons kissing, hugging and dancing. The real people behind the screens -- same-sex couples, mixed-race couples, people of different religions and abilities -- then stepped out, instigating a call-to-action to learn more about, and defeat, bias. Funny or Die created a parody and celebrities shared the original campaign, making it go viral.

While reengineering culture and behavior, the shop was also reconfiguring physical spin bikes for gym chain Equinox to provide riders with personal data and attract new riders to the classes. The experiment, dubbed Pursuit, expanded from three locations to 20, and Equinox is already seeing, on average, an 18% increase in cycling members. Attendance in classes with the special bikes is 25% higher than Equinox's average cycling class.

These initiatives, which represent just a few of the shop's many buzzed-about campaigns in 2015, couldn't be more different. But diversity has been good for R/GA, especially in an environment where clients seek support across all media and work tied to business results.

The company's energies are divided up like so: about 40% toward communication (think storytelling); 40% toward products and services (think Equinox bike hack); and 20% business transformation. The last is a relatively new consultative offering that hit its stride in 2015, and is growing.

Part of the business transformation is R/GA's new startup investment service for clients that mirrors the shop's own year-old startup accelerator program. The shop helps a client create a startup fund in which both client and agency take equity. The shop earns a fee and also a potential payout down the road. Margins on the offering are in the double digits, the shop said.

"We're in there at the highest level working with them on the most important thing to them, which is innovation," said Mr. Greenberg of all client and consulting work. When it comes to innovation, he considers the shop's biggest competitor to be Andreesen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm, as opposed to other agencies.

All of these efforts should also have a profound impact on 2016, but the move that literally sets the stage for this year is the shop's new New York headquarters. The office takes up two soccer-field-size floors and touts 8,800 programmable lights, constant video conferencing with international offices and noise cancellation among other design treats.

"The whole thing is designed to behaviorally engineer the way R/GA works. Every one of our offices is tied into talent everywhere in the network," said Mr. Greenberg. "Everyone is in there and already collaboration has tripled."

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