R/GA Branches Out

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Taking the fundamental concepts of branding and updating them for the digital space, New York-based agency R/GA has launched its new Brand Design practice. Based on the idea that a consumer's first interaction with a brand now comes mostly from digital channels, Brand Design aims to bridge the gap between theory and practice by assembling R/GA creatives, planners and account people to work together through every phase of a branding initiative, from creation to implementation.

Newly hired director of branding Marc Shillum will be leading Brand Design. Shillum is a U.K. native whose agency pedigree includes creative director stints at TBWA, London, Wieden + Kennedy and BBH along with a post at noted Netherlands-based design firm Studio Dumbar. Creativity recently chatted with Shillum and R/GA's North American CCO Nick Law (pictured l-r) to discuss the Brand Design back story, its unique offering, how the two parties connected and why Shillum found kinship with R/GA's "brand-down, customer-up" approach.

What was the impetus for launching R/GA Brand Design and how is it different from current R/GA services?

NL: We realized for some time now that when we design something like a website, an application or a more complicated piece of two-way communication, we're having to architect an experience that is a little like architecting a brand. We've done these big, systematic websites where the global navigation of the site really represents a cross-section of the company, and you need to really understand the company in a profound way. Then, when you go and design the site, what you need to understand is not only what the company should look like but how a company should behave.

So, we came to realize that we had to understand interactivity from a branding point-of-view. What makes it Barnes & Noble, what makes it Nike, what makes it Target? We were already doing branded experiences, but we realized more and more that [the sites we designed] were the first experiences of a company that people were having. The theoretical thinking from a branding agency is that everything flows down from a little logo into a system of color, type, etc. We started to think that maybe things start as an interface. Maybe the first impression I get of a company is not necessarily the logo but the way the page loads, what happens when I click through and the page's functionality. That was when we realized there really wasn't a company out there that was addressing these issues from a branding point-of-view.

So the focus of Brand Design is on prioritizing both aesthetics and functionality simultaneously?

NL: That's right. It's also about understanding the whole system. When I think of a company like Apple, my experience with Apple is my experience with an interface. The reason I associate the interface with Apple is because no one else has an interface like it. It says something about their company; they're fresh and modern. So, from a branding point-of-view, what you're creating is a system that people will experience, part of which is a logo. But a logo can't distill a company's character and it certainly doesn't suggest a dialogue which is now a part of what a brand is.

MS: You see it a lot with product design. You kind of know what the product is before you have to work out what the product is. There are lots of things informing it, and you're applying objects and semiotics now to the digital space. There are feelings, sounds and emotions; all of them will inform what kind of impression you're going to get.

Marc, what attracted to you to this position?

MS: What I was really looking for were multi-disciplinarian companies, and I realized suddenly there were very, very few of them. Being very happy and very lucky working in these mono-discipline branding, design and moving image companies, I found that what you tend to have is a very narrow, unchangeable answer. What really impressed me about R/GA was the fact that it's managed to be multi-disciplinarian in several different [areas] over the years. But also, their wealth of knowledge in delivering company messages in a digital way is second to none. These are the guys that get it.

What do you hope to bring to the agency?

MS: What I found myself becoming is something almost like a translator. I feel very lucky to have learned a lot of languages from working [at W+K, London] with editorial [people at U.K. client The Guardian]. I'm happy to sit and talk about two sets of different disciplines and find common ground and hopefully a brand personality that needs to come through everybody's work. Ultimately, it's a customer's relationship with the brand that [identifies] a brand now. I find it quite interesting, the end result of "brand-down, customer-up" thinking, which is what R/GA excels at.

Hopefully, what we're going to bring [at Brand Design] is a seamless experience. There are lots of digital companies that do "customer-up" communication and a lot of branding agencies that do "brand-down" communication, which results in a 400-page book sitting on somebody's desk that you've got to follow. What we're trying to do now is form an idea and an expression of an idea in one place.

Turning the question around Nick, why did you guys bring Marc aboard and what do you expect from him?

NL: We've been thinking about the [Brand Design] discipline for a while and meeting different people. There are actually striking similarities between Marc and [me] apart from the fact that we have accents. But when I joined R/GA eight years ago, I came from a multi-discipline background too. I did advertising at small interactive firms, nothing as [big] as R/GA, and design, branding, etc. The reason [R/GA chairman/CEO/global CCO] Bob [Greenberg] hired me at that point was similar to the reason we wanted to hire Marc. That was because of this breadth of experience. What R/GA has is a broader set of thinking and deliverables than most agencies, so you need a glue to do that.

It goes actually back to what Marc was saying about being a translator. Designers think differently than storytellers. Our experiences have focused on both, so we can be the bridge between the two. There's a difference between additive thinking and subtractive thinking. As a designer, your job is to take a lot of things and make sense of them, synthesize things and make the systems coherent. But as a storyteller, you want do distill a message and make the story part have some sort of payoff. In my experience, they are different people, so understanding how these people work and how they work together, you get something more powerful.

Who were you looking for specifically?

NL: I looked at people who were specialists at branding agencies and accomplished and experienced people from the brand identity world. I just found that they really didn't understand interactive. The issue with the branding companies is that they've always been separate from the execution. It didn't matter so much in years gone by when the channels were so templated. They could give an identity guideline to someone in advertising or to a design company, and they would know there are certain ways that this typeface and this font were going to be applied. But in the environment now, the executions have proliferated in that they're not just speaking at people but inviting them to a dialogue. Things need to be functional and aesthetic, speak through stories and systems.

So, I just didn't find anyone who understood that breadth until I met Marc. He's a good designer, and our creative leaders here have real craft and body of work. More and more, there are "gurus" out there in our industry that are respected but they don't have a body of work. We're all about connecting theory with practice, so [someone with that experience] is very important to us.

MS: [When I was] at Studio Dumbar, there was this amazing moment when they laid some design for AT&T on my desk. It was an abstract shape, and I was like what does it mean? The guy said it's nothing until you make it mean something. Idea and form is a two-way street. You can go either way down. To come up with a five-word planning slide that describes a brand is useless to nearly everyone. It doesn't mean anything. Sometimes you just need to start making and when you start making, you start saying these are functional things that the brand's going to use. If they don't work, they'll ruin a brand. Jumping from theoretical to practical or [vice versa] is an amazing ability and there are quite a few people [at R/GA] that can do it.

NL: It also means from a process point-of-view that it's not linear. We have a very robust planning offering here and they are very smart. The dialogue between planners, designers and copywriters is not a handoff. The nature of the branding industry is that they create something that they hand off. For us, our process is more of a continuous circle with lots of prototyping, making it and seeing if it works, getting smart people to comment on it and trying it again. It's just not as linear. Bringing that thinking in-house and having that thinking work with people who know it intuitively anyways just needs to be codified.

MS: In advertising, what you tend to do is episodic in managing the brand. That means if you're lucky enough every three or four months to have seen some form of communication, you refresh. The traditional branding practices do almost like an origination job where they stop and try to get that big bond to go as far and wide as possible. Now that we're in the digital age, a customer's relationship with a brand is continuous. They're accessing it everyday when they log on or are on the phone or on a weekend when they have to download an application. If you don't work with a brand and in essence, refresh the management of it continuously, then it starts to feel like it's an old brand.
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