DESIGN MOVER: R/GA and Robert Greenberg

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R/GA's Greenberg
R/GA founder, chairman and CEO Robert Greenberg is something like the master and commander of design in the interactive space. His shop has crafted and structured stunning websites for the likes of Levi's, RISDE and IBM, and this year, R/GA swept up a slew of honors at the award festivals for its compelling experiential interactive work for Nike and its various categories. In fact, R/GA was the only U.S. interactive advertising agency to earn Cyber Gold at Cannes. A member of the design advisory boards of various institutions like NYU, Parsons and Brooklyn Academy of Music, Greenberg is also the current president of the Art Directors Club and next year will head up the Cyber Lions Jury. Prior to designing for the web, his shop spearheaded groundbreaking and Academy Award-winning visual effects techniques for film and televison and this year, it circled back to its broadcast roots, harnessing its multifaceted talents on a new spot for Purina. Greenberg's combined accomplishments in various media earned him a Chrysler Award for Innovation in Design and more recently, a Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Communications, which placed him in the company of creative pacesetters like Tom Ford and Herman Miller. For our year-end issue, Creativity honors the stellar achievements of the multimedia guru, who here discusses his current fascinations at R/GA and assesses the creative state of affairs in the volatile area of interactive design. (Ann-Christine Diaz)

C How, if at all, did your early breakthroughs in visual effects and production inform what you do today?

RG Before interactive, we created a very collaborative model for the convergence of print, broadcast and features, as well as film, video and computers. I wanted again to merge the three most important things, since that had worked so well before. Those turned out to be narrowband, broadband and wireless.

C How did you know that model would translate successfully to interactive?

RG It didn't completely, but a lot of it did. I used to think that the most complicated thing in the world was doing a complicated visual effects project on a short schedule, only to find out that the interactive channel is much more challenging. Now we're actually a combination of four companies in one, an advertising agency, a game company, a backend integrator and a production company. We also modeled our company after a combination of Wieden, Fallon and Goodby in the sense that those three shops are small enough to remain creative yet big enough to handle global accounts.

C How has your perspective on the interactive field changed since you entered it more than five years ago?

RG We're now looking at three other things: at a transition from what I call brochureware, to e-commerce; the intelligent web, which is very sophisticated, data-driven information that uses artificial intelligence; and the experiential web. A lot of our Nike work is very experiential. If you're going to be attracting the Millenials, you're not going to be doing it by brochureware.

C Describe the Millenials.

RG That's a name that's really taken hold for the 18- to 24-year-olds. They're very different from Gen X. Most important, they're brought up on computers. At a Yahoo event I asked many of them, “If you're going to get grounded, in what order would you want to have things removed, from least important to most important—your cellphone, your television or your computer?” 100% of the time, the TV went first, cellphone second and the computer, last. They also operate as groups and communities, not really as individuals. Current research also shows that a lot of them are Republicans and are very conservative.

C How are The Millenials influencing your current projects?

RG For them, it's a lot about discovery, being in charge as opposed to someone taking you down a linear path. They choose how they want to interact with the brand and react very negatively to brochureware or client-driven stuff. I came up with a metaphor a long time ago that the web is going to move into something that's two minutes by 120 minutes wide instead of a 30-second spot. is a very good example of that. You'll find a lot of one- to two-minute experiences, games, television spots, videos, etc. Those are short, but the linkable experience out there is at least 120 minutes wide.

C And what about your recent work on

RG That's a new site that's launching Nike's involvement with American Football, which so far features three computer graphics games created by our designers. The future of advertising may follow that of interactive television. The interface into that will be a game interface, so I think if you don't understand how to do games, you may have problems creating content for commercials in the future.

C That's a pretty huge statement to make.

RG It's not just huge, it's true. The biggest entertainment area, larger than feature films by far, is the game industry.

C Do you believe the interactive world influences the creativity of advertising in general?

RG I believe most things are being driven now from a language that comes out of computers, particularly out of the web channel. Watching television commercials, seeing print ads, I see the vocabulary being influenced now by the way people look at the web because more innovative creativity is happening there. I believe you're going to find the best creative talent working on the web.

C Where is your focus going to be over the next few years?

RG Next year I think we're going to build out the new model of a digital studio. Our people know all the software and will be able to shoot things themselves, which will be used across everything we do. So many of the best creative talents have been through R/GA, and right now, we've never had better. I think there's an opportunity to do something unusual, create a new Propaganda while we do everything else. Propaganda was created by a group of young renegades who invented a new way of doing longform and then went on to become the best commercial directors and the most popular feature developers. What's to stop some of the group at R/GA from doing the same thing? If you took the boards we're doing to a commercial company, they'd say no fucking way.

C What's your take on the current level of design in the interactive space?

RG Interactive agencies have to understand the importance of good design. I don't think they're there yet. Design makes complicated things more understandable, and it's never been more important in the interactive channel, where you're dealing with so much. Most of the work out there is just terrible, full of mediocre visual design and mediocre information architecture, which is really the user experience, and really has to be thought out well. If people are doing it badly now, it's only going to get more complicated to do well. Unfortunately, a lot of the interactive agencies within agencies are driven by creative directors who don't understand the interactive channel. More and more people are entering banners at awards shows, because they don't know how to do websites at levels worthy of entering them. Banners are easily carried over from TV spots, but creating an exciting web experience is very different.

(This article appears in the December 2003 issue of Creativity.)

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