Q&A with R/GA founder Bob Greenberg and APAC boss Jim Moffatt: Reinventing our model is a problem we create for ourselves every nine years

Bob Greenberg and Jim MoffattR/GA, the “agency for the connected age”, has reinvented itself five times in its 39-year history since starting out as a visual effects production company in 1977. It is now one of the world’s most influential digital agencies.

The agency’s founder, chairman and CEO Bob Greenberg was in Singapore with Asia Pacific EVP and MD Jim Moffatt to talk to Mumbrella about the Asia Pacific expansion plan, why progress in this region has taken time, and the next step in reinventing an agency that changes its model every nine years.

You’re in Singapore, Shanghai and Sydney. Tell us about the India opportunity for the agency, which has been on the cards for a while.

Bob Greenberg: We’ve made some attempts at India. But it’s not the top of our list at the moment, because it’s very complicated. We thought we’d do one complicated thing at a time. Shanghai [where R/GA has a small office of around 25 people] is complicated enough.

Jim Moffatt: We work with India clients from Singapore and from New York. We’re doing a big project with Star TV, for instance. We tend to find that India clients are interested in working with R/GA because of our global pedigree, and because we’re not local. Every time you see a brand set up on the ground in India, they’re seen as just another local agency. People like the fact that we’re not there and bringing the right expertise from the outside in.

If the right opportunity came along and it would make sense for us to set up on the ground then we’d definitely consider it. But we don’t do roll outs or acquisitions. We would always want to go in with a client who wants us to be there.

There’s a lot of hype about India at the moment, isn’t there?

Jim Moffatt: It’s a very competitive market with small margins when you’re local. When they feel like they need a global solution and a bit of expertise from a different market then I think they’re willing to put more money into it.

Bob, in an interview with Mumbrella fairly recently you mentioned that there doesn’t seem to be the desire for very high quality creative work in China. Do you feel that this still rings true?

Bob Greenberg: No, I think there’s an opportunity to do our best work in that market, but we have to figure the market out first.

It took us a while to get Singapore on the right track, and I’m very happy with this visit because we’ve made so much progress and Jim [Moffatt, who rejoined the agency after a sabbatical in 2014] has done a great job, and we’ll move forward from here.

We have to do the same thing there [in Shanghai]. It’s not like there’s not room for a 100-person agency. We’re looking to get enough scale to do really good work there and that’s going to take us a bit of time. We have 25 people in Shanghai in the new office. We’ve got to get to 50 and from there we can move forward to something that would scale up to about 100. That’s really our plan. And it takes us a certain number of restructures to make it right and we’re going through our first big [office] move. We’ve been there for eight months and we’re beginning to get an understanding of the market and where we fit in.

What is that understanding?

Bob Greenberg: I think you need to have enough people with real experience in that region, and enough transfers from the US and enough clients – in the beginning at least – that are global to give us a shot at doing some work for the market, and then pick up some local work. And also shifting our team about to get the right balance, like what we’ve achieved here. But it’s taken some time to get there.

How have you have managed to kick on to get where you are now after a slow start in Singapore?

Bob Greenberg: We have to bring in the leadership, so Jim’s been doing a great job of attracting the right talent and the right clients for us to go to a phase two here. We still have to get to a larger scale, and we need more brands to do that. But the work that we’re doing, and the people I’ve met, particularly the leadership team, is very strong. I don’t know how our brand is perceived here, but we’re doing a lot of good work and attracting the right talent, as we have in other locations.

Jim Moffatt: It’s all about the people. I also think that the market has changed quite a lot in the two years I’ve been here. Digital a few years ago was seen as highly commoditised banners and microsites that came at the end of a traditional campaign. So people who didn’t really understand R/GA would ask how much our banners were.

But I think the market has matured a lot. At R/GA, we talk about products, services and communications. Over the last two years we’ve moved from really what was just the communications part and slowly into services and products.

We’re working on products with Google, services with Astro, and we’re doing comms for Unilever. On the PR front, we’ve been very keen to start to make noise when we’ve actually got the work to show for it. We’re now getting to the point when we can say we’re doing work that is on a par with any of our other offices around the world.

It’s been a rebuild. Getting the team right. Getting the mojo right. Getting the clients on board. But we’re in a totally different shape compared to two years ago.

Singapore is small, so presumably the focus is to go for regional business?

Jim Moffatt: There’s no bias for one sort of client over another, but Singaporean accounts are probably best serviced by local Singaporean agencies. And given our global knowledge and network, we do tend to work well with regional clients. It’s interesting the breadth of work we’re doing here. We’re doing campaigns that will run everywhere from Russia to Brazil to the Philippines to India. That’s not unusual for a lot of agencies in Singapore, but it’s tough sometimes to deliver insights against all those markets, but that’s what we’re building a team to deliver.

R/GA started out as a special effects production house in the 1970s in New York and has continually evolved into what it is today, an “agency for the connected age.” Do clients get what R/GA is about? Don’t they get confused?

Bob Greenberg: It’s a problem we create for ourselves every nine years. We’ve changed this agency every nine years since its inception. And every time we’ve done it, we’ve done it from a place of strength. We’ve gone special effects in movie titles, to special effects in film production, to special effects in commercials, then to a digital boutique, then to a full service digital agency, and now to an agency for the connected age. In almost 39 years [R/GA celebrates its 39th birthday in February] and this is the fifth iteration of the business.

We’re a couple of years into this ‘connected’ construct. We use our speeches at Cannes each year to put a flag in the ground. Functional integration is a term we always suggest that we don’t like, and it’s really about changing with the consumer. Consumers are now surrounded by products and services, so we have moved more into the product and service arena.

Last summer, we did a speech around Accelerator [R/GA’s programme to help startups], which is now a sizeable part of our business.

What’s next for R/GA at Cannes?

Bob Greenberg: We’ll do a presentation on space and around our new headquarters in New York. There, we have two floors each the size of a soccer field; 200,000 square feet. We’ll be the first company to tie the physical space into the digital landscape. That will be a new offering for us and a new direction. After we get it worked out in New York, we’ll do London and then later retro fit the APAC offices too.

What exactly do you mean by connecting the physical space with the digital landscape?

Bob Greenberg: When we looked at creating the space, we hired Sir Norman Foster’s company, which is also doing the Apple Campus. I started to realise after looking into it with our folks, that literally no one has taken physical architecture and tied it into the digital landscape; internet, mobile and social.

It seems so obvious, but there’s not a company or agency or startup doing this. We looked at agencies in New York that have just renovated. They do it in a way that has better carpeting, better furniture, better IT, better lighting, but nothing innovative. Even new museums don’t have any innovation in this area.

We’ve come up with a new space that has 51 innovations. We’ll have 800 beacons in the new space, for example. We’ll have 8,800 programmable light bulbs that will duplicate the circadian rhythms of the body. There are 30 massive screens the size of entire walls. There will be glass conference pods. When there’s nobody in them the lights will dim and the LED screen will come on and the room will glow a certain colour.

As we take people through the office, instead of taking clients through PowerPoint slides we can take them through an experience – the presentation will become an interactive journey, using the content management system that we’ve built to navigate the client through the work. They will be able to sync it with an app and then view it privately if they want to.

We’ve never seen a powerpoint presentation of the things that we do that has ever connected with a client. This new physical journey will be very, very different. Video conferencing will work as seamlessly as it’s promised to. The thing is, we’re not inventing anything. We’re just implementing what’s already available. And it won’t be any more expensive than renovating a traditional office.

What’s the reasoning behind the new office? 

Bob Greenberg: It’s mainly about retention. We won’t lose a well-regarded staff member because we don’t have a full-up cafe. We’re doing a cafe very similarly to Bloomberg’s. We won’t a lose staff member because of the space or the accoutrements, so to speak. Collaboration will be much tighter, because we won’t be in four separate buildings.

What do you think of the term ‘digital agency’? Has it lost its meaning these days, since everyone’s doing a bit of digital?

Bob Greenberg: We’re not sure about the word agency even, let alone digital. 40-45 per cent of our work is product and services now. We’re moving in the direction of 45-45-10; 45 per cent product and service, 45 per cent communications and 10 per cent consulting.

We’ve changed to be part digital, part product and service and part business transformation. And I think that is the right model for all agencies, but they have to really invest in transitioning to something like that. And they’re doing that in parts and pieces everywhere. Perhaps a little late, but not too late.

It’s remarkable to me that people who have moved to new spaces haven’t done something similar to what we’re doing. It’s an abstract thought, but the overall marketing budget probably has never changed. A certain amount of that money now goes to Facebook, Google and some goes to so-called digital, some to traditional media. But I wouldn’t want to be production company, when the budgets are shifting as much as they are.

We’re just following our model, which we think is the right model for the business.

We’re also building a new model for producing lightweight, contextual, socially-integrated content. Using our digital studio would be too expensive. If you’re using a long lens, this means that you’re doing lighting, and it’ll take too long and won’t really work for YouTube. For this sort of thing, we need to be able to go in to a pre-lit room with an iPhone or an S6 and and just shoot whatever. The client-planning-production piece needs to be a new group of people who are more close to journalists: Vice-types.

For this sort of work, it’s not something you can do by going [to a partner] outside. You’ve got, say, two days. You’ve got to be very integrated. The boutiques do it right, but they don’t have senior enough talent and they don’t have the right clients at the right time.

Our version will be part physical, in the new space, but mostly structurally different based on what clients need. We can’t be known as expensive, and we can’t be known as being slow – that’s the worst possible combination.

We’ve got clients that need socially relevant content that gets, say, 7m views. We don’t want to do just TV commercials, but the team doing campaign work will be involved with this too – they have to make this transition. We have had to manage out a fair number of people, and that’s been painful and difficult. But it’s necessary and we’re excited about 2016.


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