Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

An audience with Bob Greenberg, hosted by Guardian Media Network

By Kate Bulkley

The Guardian Media Network

October 09, 2012

R/GA founder and chief executive spoke to an invited audience at the Guardian's headquarters

Bob Greenberg speaking at the Guardian, 1 October 2012. Photograph: Robin Hough, Guardian

In the world of advertising Bob Greenberg could never be described as conventional. Yet the 64-year-old self-confessed dyslexic and admirer of numerology is sought out by some of the world's largest companies for his own brand of promotional expertise.

Speaking to an invited audience at the Guardian's Kings Cross headquarters last week, Greenberg, chief executive and chair of his company, R/GA, was on the cusp of a new era. Greenberg, has instigated change at regular, nine-year intervals since the company was set up in order to keep up with technology shifts and 2013 is the next nine-year marker. So why change every nine years? Greenberg explains without the slightest irony that in numerology, the number nine is the end of something and the beginning of something else. "We don't force the change but it kinda just works out that every nine years the impact of technology leads to change," he says, smiling.

It is refreshing that Greenberg is not a conventional chief executive. So it's not so surprising that he and the company's management team has yet to fully decide what form this newest direction for R/GA will take; yet he doesn't look worried. He says the company is moving towards more "functional integration" as a way to help clients make sense of a world where the consumer is surrounded by products and services.

"We will be something else by the beginning of 2013," Greenberg says. "We don't know exactly what yet, but we will drop the word 'agency' just like Apple dropped 'computer'. We do so many different things now that it's fine to just be R/GA."

R/GA has gone through big changes. The company was co-founded with Greenberg's brother in 1977 and the two brothers began in motion graphics and video production, designing the opening titles to films starting with Superman in 1978. Other film projects include Alien, Ghostbusters, Predator and Zelig. The next phase moved the company into computer assisted filmmaking techniques (CGI) and large-scale commercials such as the pioneering 1992 Coke ad with Paula Abdul dancing with a digitally manufactured Gene Kelly.

A conversation with Jim Clark (the founder of Silicon Graphics and then Netscape) about the rise of the internet convinced Greenberg to embrace interactive technologies, and the growth of mobile and social media has moved the company further into digital and widened its global reach. R/GA is part of the Interpublic Group of Companies (IPG) and has about $250 million in annual revenues.

"I don't really like to travel except for pleasure, but as a company you have to be global because that is the way businesses are going. We don't need to have a lot of people in an office to be creative, so I believe that every office has to be built organically," says Greenberg in a soft spoken Midwestern accent (he grew up in Chicago) tinged by years of living in New York.

R/GA is on track to have 12 offices in nine countries with new ones shortly opening in Los Angeles, Austin, Texas and Sydney. The London office, originally set up for client Nokia, is now five years old, has 140 staff and grown by a whopping 40% in the last 12 months. It also has the only in-house production facility outside of R/GA's New York HQ. In addition, R/GA London is building an on-site digital retail lab to test retail solutions for clients looking to integrate digital technology like RFID (radio frequency identification) and NFC (near field communications technology) into their businesses, which will open next month.

What sets Greenberg apart is that he values creativity in both design and technology. "The technology people have to be seen on the same footing with creative people," he explains. "There has to be an integration because you are fighting for talent with the likes of Google and Amazon as well as other agencies." He believes the only sure way to retain talent is to have a "university setting" where staff are allowed to "change and grow".

He also believes that not only the agency but also clients, including some of the world's biggest including Nike, Getty Images and Nokia, need to realise that technology is changing they way they should look at their consumers and their own processes. This is one reason why R/GA started an in-house consulting practice because clients often come with a business problem as opposed to a communications brief.

The company has also added data visualisation as a service for clients that moves beyond more traditional data analytics. The company's work for Nike in creating Fuel Band wrist bands that track and synch personal data with the Nike+ community is symbolic of the kind of thing all brands need to think about, he explains. "The next step we see for all brands is where the consumer is in the centre of an ecosystem of branded experiences that are relevant and delivered through products and services," says Greenberg.

Along with the growth of digital, mobile and social media, Greenberg believes physical spaces are the next big opportunity. R/GA has already started to implement projects with clients like Nike and O2 in the UK that bring people together and offer them rewards like the O2 priority moments campaign. "We are going to see the merger of information and personalised information," explains Greenberg. "You can imagine once you get a community of interest built and you have the technology to know where people are with GPS that there are opportunities to not just send stuff to people hit or miss."

Retail spaces also need to be re-imagined for a digital world, he says. "Apple did it with the Apple stores, but the man in charge of that for Apple moved to JC Penny's and he hasn't been successful there yet. So it's not an easy thing to repeat," he concedes.

Greenberg is a big Steve Jobs fan and one of the things he believes made Jobs who was also dyslexic into a great innovator was that he made sure to keep things simple. "Jobs continues to surprise me with the things developed on his watch that are coming out even now, all around how important the reductionist idea is. It has to be really simple and that also ties in with my thoughts about agencies and what they do with planning and insight. It has to be really simple because that is what really connects."

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