As traditional ad firms struggle to keep up with new-media lifestyles, Nick Law, of the Gotham-based agency, is embracing the chaos
"You can't expect people to consume things in a linear fashion," says Nick Law, R/GA's newly promoted chief creative officer for North America, as he sits back in his chair and describes how he is not in the least bit daunted by the apparent unpredictability of the world's Internet users. "You have to embrace that randomness and realize that people do things in a swirl. You can't expect them to be funneled down a nice neat path."
"You have to design your experiences to be flexible—and that's one of the biggest impediments to the traditional advertising world—that's the way they think," he continues. "For 50 years, creatives went into advertising so they could tell 30-second stories. As far as they were concerned, that was the next best thing to working in Hollywood.
"As a result, they're culturally impaired when it comes to creating experiences online, because a narrative like that won't work. It might work as a component of a larger whole, but it can't be the whole experience. So they have to adapt from owning the brand voice to being a little slice of it, and that's very difficult for them."
Law doesn't seem to mind too much that behemoth ad agencies are having problems. The irony, of course, lies in the fact that his company, R/GA, is owned by a $6 billion corporation, Interpublic, a group comprising various international media, marketing, and advertising agencies, including more than a few that might reasonably be considered "traditional"—McCann Erickson Worldwide and Foote Cone & Belding Worldwide among them.
"R/GA is a key part of the new Interpublic," assures Interpublic Chief Executive Officer and Chairman, Michael Roth. "We've built an open-architecture model where collaboration between agencies is increasingly the rule and R/GA is at the top of everyone's dance card. They help our larger, more established agencies think in new ways and also partner with quality specialist agencies, like Jack Morton and WeberShandwick, to create integrated communications. Each agency has something to gain from such collaboration, either an extension of expertise or extension of reach."
There's no doubting the fact that R/GA sees itself in the role of teacher rather than student here. But then, it's not exactly the new kid on the block, even if the interactive medium itself is still relatively young. Founded by brothers Richard and Robert (Bob) Greenberg in 1977, the firm initially started out as a 2D graphics animation company, quickly moving into film titles, creating iconic images for films including Alien and Superman.
EXPLODING IN SIZE.
In 1991, it became a fully integrated digital production company while in 1992, R/GA Interactive was born—one of the first agencies of its kind. In 1999, it devoted itself solely to the interactive medium, while Bob Greenberg (Richard left the company for good in 1995) has become renowned as something of an interactive seer, known as much for his prescient utterances as for his long, flowing locks.
Greenberg remains the company's global chief creative officer. But with Chris Colborn serving as executive vice-president and worldwide creative director and with Law's appointment as chief creative officer in the U.S., it's clear that the chain of succession is being considered.
In recent years, the company has exploded in size. The head office is based in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan and there are now 521 employees worldwide, with nearly half of those working in the creative department. Clients include Nike, for which it just launched the impressive, far-reaching NikeStore.com, selling 30,000 different product-units from the sportswear maker's catalog, and Verizon, for which it recently created a site christened richerdeeperbroader.com.
THE REALITY: COLLABORATION.
"We want to present ourselves as a broadband and entertainment company, not a traditional telephone company," explains Brian Price, executive director of the Verizon Online Center of Excellence. "R/GA and their phenomenal creative team created a hub-site which users can visit to experience the different ways broadband can impact your life. They worked closely with our other marketing partners to develop concepts that would fit in with the larger brand campaign."
Again with the collaborative talk. But that's the reality of the current marketing landscape. Verizon works with no fewer than 12 media partners, while most large or blue chip corporations conduct a similar balancing act. Rather than being threatened by this, R/GA has both grasped and promoted the new reality.
And while Verizon doesn't release figures on its overall advertising spend, Price estimates that interactive now accounts for 15% of the total budget, and that figure looks set to increase over time. By being open to collaborating with a variety of partners, R/GA forces itself to be regarded as a key, not a niche player.
BREAKING THE HABIT.
"R/GA has always been more interested in the work than the theory, and we've always had this coupling of art and science, even before interactive existed as a discipline," says Law. "From a cultural point of view we're in the right spot. We see that the traditional agencies might talk the talk, but they still find the current landscape very difficult.
"We'll talk with an agency about working together on a joint brief, and they'll absolutely concede that things are changing and it's not about the 30-second spot any more. But then when we get to delivering, to the night before a presentation, they'll turn around and confess that they've only come up with 30-second spots. It's hard for them to break out of that habit, " Law says.
And what about the excitement surrounding Web 2.0, and nerves in certain quarters that it's all just a little too reminiscent of the hype the first time around? "People are making money now," Law says simply. "The first bubble was speculation and anticipation of business models of the future. But this time it's not a fad, it's how people live. The balance of how people live has completely shifted." And while traditional agencies must look deep within to assess how to deal with this new reality, R/GA, at least in Law's eyes, is perfectly placed to exploit the chaos.