Digital Agency of the Year: R/GA

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Though it's been a formidable presence in the digital advertising space for three decades—in various forms—R/GA has truly arrived in its current iteration as a top tier interactive agency, or in R/GA parlance, an "agency for the digital age." Even after piling on the hardware at this year's awards shows for the groundbreaking Nike+ effort, the company went on to produce more innovative and unexpected work for its entire roster of clients, including a 3D superhero-enhanced site for Verizon, spectacular interactive signage for Avaya and more rich and deep interactive campaigns for Nike. This year, the agency's full-scale launch of its in-house digital studio at its New York headquarters, and major hirings of integrated industry vets like JWT/Wieden + Kennedy alum Robert Rasmussen made it an even more potent force at the intersection of creative storytelling and digital savvy. R/GA chairman Bob Greenberg and North American chief creative officer Nick Law reflect on a successful year, the blurring of disciplines and the inner workings of their digitally-enhanced environment.

Is there a renewed emphasis at the agency on creative storytelling?
Greenberg: I think one thing that Nick and I and some others at R/GA discovered is that we have to move into creative storytelling. It's very difficult to do that well without understanding the full digital landscape. I think we're right at the beginning of something very new that to me, harkens back to what happened when storytellers took a new look at rock videos for example. We have to develop and be better at storytelling, and it's a real emphasis that we have across all levels of the agency. On the other hand, most agencies don't have people who understand the digital landscape. If you can cross-train and do what we're talking about doing, you'd really get a 1+1=3 scenario for our clients.
Law: For example, on Nike+, we have a classic application there and an interface designed by designers who understand interfaces, but we also have little pieces which you could say are storytelling pieces, like when the graph draws, you have a little CG runner that runs along. There are little bits that have more of a sensibility that comes from that world. So when you get them working together, you get the rigor of interactive thinking and you're able to tell simple stories within that framework. Then you get something very different.

How has the hiring of a creative like Robert Rasmussen affected the work of projects like Nike?
Law: Robert was actually working on interactive stuff for a long time. Way back, when he was with Wieden, he was doing some of the first dabbles for an agency in the interactive world. So he's very comfortable in that world even though the culture he was in was more traditional advertising. He obviously had a broad range of skills, but more importantly, he saw the world through R/GA eyes before he even got here. He believes what we believe in. He also had a long relationship with the Nike so he was the perfect fit for us in that respect.

How has the in-house digital studio benefited you guys? What is day-to-day like there?
Greenberg: As we go back historically and with some rather recent achievements, we really did created the model for computer-assisted filmmaking and then, for an integrated digital production capability. Now, we're trying, number one, to make it very inexpensive. That means we're working primarily with Apple and Adobe kinds of software and hardware. We do everything from music to transfers to mixes to voiceover recording to editing, compositing and image processing. We have an insert stage, etc. It's really what R/GA used to do before, but now all of the things that R/GA did in the past are available on a desktop. We've restructured it around three people that come from varied backgrounds, including Winston Thomas, an ECD. He's been with R/GA close to twelve years. He's an amazing designer but he also is completely skilled in the digital landscape and crosses over to when we had the last version of the studio that lasted until 2000. Then, I brought back as a creative director Mark Voelpel, who ran our computer graphics group before. He was the perfect candidate for integrating many aspects of what we're doing in terms of compositing, production, etc. We bought in a new hire Vin Farrell as executive producer. He came out of building the studio for Digitas and more recently, he ran in-house production for Spike TV and has also produced feature films. We're up to 30 people and are doubling the size of our space.

Do you think the creative process is hurt by not having in-house control?
Law: I think the process becomes more linear. One of the issues is not just working with production people in-house, but also working with technology in-house which a lot of these other agencies are jobbing out. Unless you have those people at the beginning of the creative process, then you're not going to come up with solutions that are really breakthrough in this environment where technology changes every six months. There are seismic changes that affect what you can do and not just how you deliver it. Unless you have those people at the table from the beginning and you're collaborating, you're not going to get there.

Does the "interactive agency" moniker still apply nowadays?
Law: I don't think we'd call ourselves that, but the trend in the whole industry is the blurring of disciplines. It's not just this binary relationship between traditional and interactive agencies. We compete against companies that design software and do industrial design, and there are times that we compete against PR agencies or brand and identity companies. More and more, the more important agencies span across a few of these disciplines. How to name them is difficult, and that confusion is reflected in the awards, too, where it's getting harder and harder to create categories. The output of these agencies is something that's not as classically siloed as it has been for years.

Law's right when he says the task of defining agencies has gotten tricky. Case in point, runner-up Goodby, Silverstein and Partners, which outpaced the rest of the "traditional" shops and even other interactive contenders with sophisticated, entertaining campaigns that seamlessly traversed platforms and tapped the interactive space in smart—and appropriate—ways for clients like Milk, Rolling Rock, Comcast, Doritos, Adobe, Hyundai, Sprint and HP. The latter is just one example of how Goodby successfully extends a brand's promise online. The agency stepped up last year's HP-transforming "Computer is Personal" effort and broadened the stories of "mysterious" celebrities like Shrek's Princess Fiona and designer Vera Wang. Even printers got an image boost in a campaign inviting a younger demographic of consumers to have fun with musician Gwen Stefani with inventive downloads like Harajuku Girl paper dolls.

The Work

Nick Law and Bob Greenberg reflect on some of the projects that helped R/GA earn the honor of Creativity's 2007 Interactive Agency of the Year, including, of course, the multiawarded Nike+ community site and challenge tool, Verizon's "Action Hero," the agency's three-dimensional sequel to its "Beatbox Mixer" software from 2006, and more dynamic digital signage in Times Square for Avaya.

R/GA's D&AD Black Pencil and Grandy-winning effort used a community site as a social launching pad for runners. A new digital challenge tool, added in July, enables users to easily create and issue Nike+ Challenges to individuals or groups on a user-generated theme. Some recent group challenges include Red Sox vs. Yankees and Chicago's North side vs. South Side. Nike+ users sign up for a side and log miles to help their "team" win.

Law says: Nike+ has been six years in the making. If you look back at the seeds of what it was, you'll find a manual training log you did for running where you entered data manually on the website. We also created workout mixes that you could download on iTunes. It wasn't something that happened one day with someone [coming up with it] in the shower. It was largely developed by Nike with us involved along the way in different iterations. It was a culmination of a process which is more like rapid prototyping rather than a big agency reveal. Nike considers us partners in this process. It's an ongoing dialogue. We don't disappear for a month, work on stuff and then unveil the work and wait for the applause. We're on the phone everyday with their tech people and their product development people, so we're really an integrated part of the process. For us, the success of Nike+ was great because it represented a moment in the advertising industry where a broader work was recognized. It's also the first time where the agency world looked at a piece that wasn't classic advertising and recognized how profound it was.

Verizon "Action Hero"
Designed to show the power of Verizon's broadband service, R/GA's site for the wireless carrier gave people the use of a massive computer framework that could render their uploaded pics and plant them onto three-dimensional Hollwood-style heroes that save the world from giant bugs, mad robots and deranged scientists.

Law says: The intention is to [present] Verizon as more of a rich entertainment company than telecom. For "Action Hero," it really comes down to the excitement of seeing yourself or one of your loved ones in a 3D environment and an action hero movie. How you get there was a pretty big technological achievement for us. Very important in ideating this was [having] a creative tech lead, which is unique for R/GA. We have people in the technology department that are also creative directors that look at the technological landscape and figure out how to use it creatively. In this case, it was mapping the face into this 3D environment. It was actually well-awarded largely because we did a great case study video. The experience itself, which is not up anymore, is very addictive. It's a good example of these two worlds, the narrative side which we're building creatively and the technology space coming together.

Launched in mid-October, R/GA's software powered and synchronized business communication brand Avaya's "Change the Way You Work" campaign, an outdoor display effort that essentially took over the Reuters and NASDAQ signs in New York's Times Square area. The creative signage featured animated workers leaving the confines of the traditional office cubicle and then "traveling" between the two massive digital billboards, the office workers literally jumping over the windows of the buildings on which they appeared. R/GA says this represents the first time that the actual physical structures of the NASDAQ and Reuters buildings were infused into the design element.

Greenberg says: It's strange that they have windows in the building of the sign, but that gave us interaction with the architecture. That's going to be a very big part of the future— how do you interact with something that's very interesting to look at or very useful? The sign is showing a way forward of what broadband television would really look like. It's like a 24/7 television network that just happens to have nobody working at the station. It's all designed to take whatever you want to put up on the sign from tagged information.
Law says: This comes back to the process of having technology and creative work interchangeably. In a more traditional agency, generally it's a pretty templated approach to media and you know what you're doing. Although a lot of agencies talk about the fact that that model is dead and you need to start thinking more creatively about it, the ability to think creatively about it is tied directly to your knowledge of what's out there—and our knowledge of what's out there is pretty good. When we did the NikeID signs on the Reuters [billboard] where you could design a shoe with your cellphone, we created the technology. We don't distinguish between creative and technology in a lot of our processes and this is a great example of that. We can come up with ideas based on intimate knowledge of the new media landscape.

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