RGA Under Bob Greenberg: An Agency Adapting to the Future

New York Shop Makes Technology the Backbone of its Operation

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What if I said the hottest ad agency in the country isn't in Miami? What if I said the shop with the brightest business prospects is owned by the floundering Interpublic? What if I said that the most exciting new agency model is being built by a 57-year-old who could reasonably be claimed by the old guard as one of their own?

Before you write me off as dumb, crazy or preposterously provocative, I recommend a close look at RGA, the IPG-owned, tech-centric shop tucked away on one of midtown Manhattan's grittier side streets, and led by Bob Greenberg.

Please don't misunderstand. This column isn't claiming RGA is either new or waiting to be discovered (readers, please also check out the films of this guy called Pedro Almodovar and take a trip to a little city I've found called Paris). It's been around since 1977 and is as gong-laden as almost any agency you care to mention (there's even an Academy Award in the trophy room). In fact, it was increasingly frequent, unprompted testimonials from admiring rivals, jealous siblings and a RGA client that persuaded me to spend a morning in the shop's offices.

It was worth it. Greenberg-who looks Larry David, but sounds Noam Chomsky-has hired more than 120 people this year, increasing his staff numbers by about 50% at a time when most agencies are still cutting. In the last year it has won business from Lowe's, Target, Subaru, Lucent and Sharp, and, according to IPG agency insiders, played a big part in helping siblings Lowe and McCann win Nokia and Intel.

If you want to see RGA's work, look no further than NikeID.com, the sneaker giant's incredible customization site. An idea spawned by agency and client collaboration, this is less an ad campaign or a Web site than a big business idea supported by impressive manufacturing and interactive sales technologies. (If you haven't visited by now, you're really not doing your homework.)

RGA's structures and processes are radically different. There's no account-man-creative-guy combos, no giant unwieldy media-based silos. In fact, the entire agency is structured into what Greenberg calls "Groupware" (he is master of nifty monikers), meaning teams of about eight people, each including technology developers, data analysts and interaction or experience designers as well as copywriters, media planners and project managers.

While some agencies outsource their software and technology development, they are the creative backbone of RGA's offering, and the shop is built to produce invitational, interactive and database driven "experiences," many with e-commerce elements-ideal for this new media era. RGA is also creating work that allows clients to make better use of their digital assets to feed the need for constantly changing messaging, reducing their dangerously expensive dependence on the periodic creation of new film-based content.

Of course RGA's tech-centricity won't appeal to everyone (even if it should), but the shop is worth studying regardless, if only as a lesson in change management: It started out in 1977 as a production house, focusing on computer-assisted filmmaking; in 1986 it evolved into an integrated digital studio; by 1995 RGA was becoming an interactive ad agency; now it intends to become an ad shop centered in interactivity.

So what forces drove Greenberg from the production business? Primarily technological change that had allowed the clients (agencies, filmmakers) to become backseat drivers in the editing suite, or to farm out whatever part of the process they wanted to whomever they wanted, what Greenberg calls the "modularization" of the business. Second, it was the fact that those same clients were bringing in cost-control agents and driving down prices. Sound familiar?

In this regard we should all be pulling for RGA, because its success is proof that a business that accepts and adapts to change can win and win big.

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