Digital A-List 2009

R/GA Smashes Boundaries of Digital-Shop Model

Agency Sets Itself Apart by Partnering With Marketers to Create Brand Experiences

By Published on .

Illustration: Pete McDonnell

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When it comes to digital marketing that forges deep, lasting connections with consumers, R/GA is still the gold standard.

In 2008 the 32-year-old Interpublic Group agency proved it has come a long way from its days as a specialty shop, blossoming into a full-service agency that top marketers call a trusted partner.

R/GA was among the first to eschew the old-media marketing approach of creating a narrative about a product in favor of building digital platforms that show what a product can do. The agency's work for Nike and Apple's iTunes is the original and often-trotted-out example of its knack for building custom digital applications. But where R/GA really pushes the boundaries of the established digital-agency model is in the creation of brand experiences for Nike and other global companies such as Nokia and Verizon.

Last year marked a period of intense growth for R/GA. There was the new-business story, with the haul of new clients including Hewlett-Packard, Mars and HBO, that helped R/GA grow 20% worldwide to some $130 million in revenue. It grew in terms of geography too, spreading its wings to set up a San Francisco outpost that quickly succeeded in landing a blue-chip anchor client in HP. R/GA's London office is also growing at a nice clip, responsible for 10% of revenue.

R/GA in 2008 expanded its offerings from the core competencies of any digital agency, such as website development and e-commerce platforms (things it still does), to demonstrate its digital prowess in areas such as retail, mobile marketing and brand design.

Size issue
With all that growth, the old Jay Chiat adage "How big can we get before we get bad?" is hard to ignore. After all, any number of smaller, envious competitors are doing their best to nip at R/GA's heels. But R/GA Exec VP-Chief Growth Officer Barry Wacksman said being the best digital agency means being the biggest, too. "Digital is almost inverse to traditional. [At traditional agencies], you just can't hire enough talent to work at the level of Lee Clow," said Mr. Wacksman, referring to TBWA's creative legend.

WORK
RGA Nokia Vine

The Nokia Vine app records photos, videos, songs and texts that are geotagged to a map of the user's journey.

"What we're doing most of the time is inventing ... so the scale of it is actually critically important. Those quote-unquote smaller, nimbler competitors, they don't have the depth of knowledge of having delivered 2,300 projects for our clients last year."

Of those, the Nokia Vine is probably the best example of what R/GA has perfected in three decades that many of its younger peers are still learning: the art of blurring. The stamp of the agency's work lies in the difficulty of distinguishing the product from the marketing of it.

The Nokia Vine mobile application marries a range of functions of the Nokia N Series phones, from GPS to cameras and music. Using those, users can capture, upload and share their experiences with friends in real time. "It's becoming clear that you can't separate something from how it looks, how it behaves," said VP-Director of Brand Design Marc Shillum, who joined R/GA last year from TBWA. "With Nokia Vine, the logo has become not a dormant, static object that is in the bottom-left-hand corner of communication. The logo is in the experience, rather than on the experience."

When its longtime Verizon client sought to enhance its customer service, R/GA decided to transform the retail digital experience, starting with employees. The agency partnered with Verizon to develop a centralized system that manages and distributes key product information in real time to more than 3,000 Verizon and Verizon Wireless locations nationwide, and replaced confusing charts of complicated plan and phone grids with easy-to-use in-store interactive tools.

Pro bono
Some of R/GA's most compelling work last year wasn't for a client at all. In a first for a digital shop, the Ad Council tapped the agency to lead one of its pro bono efforts.

R/GA teamed up with the Ad Council, Family Violence Prevention Fund and the Office on Violence Against Women to raise awareness about digital dating abuse among teenagers. The resulting campaign, an integrated effort that comprised TV, radio, outdoor and web videos, called "That's Not Cool," reminds teens to be wary of cellphones and the internet being used as weapons via incessant texting or Facebook break-ins.

"This campaign really framed the issue of domestic violence in contemporary terms," and in a language that young people understand, said Peggy Conlon, president-CEO of the Ad Council. "The real core of the campaign lives on the website, and gives kids the tools with which to draw the digital line." R/GA is seeing early success in spreading its message; within days of the launch, thatsnotcool.com culled upward of 300,000 hits.

Noteworthy, too, is that the campaign was rendered in R/GA's in-house production studio, a burgeoning facility that sits across the street from R/GA's gated New York headquarters. At 30 staffers and growing, the studio is increasingly churning out work for non-R/GA clients -- a healthy revenue stream for the agency, particularly in a challenging economic climate.

MOST IMPORTANT DIGITAL LESSON I'VE LEARNED

Dawn Winchester
Befriend not only the chief marketing officer, but the chief technology officer, too.

"In the current landscape, it's increasingly vital for marketing and technology to work in tandem," said Dawn Winchester, exec VP-chief client services officer at R/GA, who has been with the shop for a decade and is credited with maintaining several of its long-standing client relationships.

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