Reinventing the Reel

The phrase "interactive advertising" is everywhere. Bob Greenberg actually makes it.

“I'm down to 13 pairs," confesses Bob Greenberg, pulling a couple dusty boxes of Armani glasses off a shelf in his office. In the 1990s, he says, he hoarded 25 pairs of the moon-shaped specs when he learned they were being discontinued. Obsessive? Maybe. But anyone with Greenberg's foresight can be forgiven for wanting to keep his focus.

Today, the founder of R/GA, who with his stem-thin legs and partial penumbra of gray hair resembles a dandelion ravaged by wind, runs Madison Avenue's most creative interactive advertising agency. Drawing on the technical ingenuity of a geek, the curatorial instincts of a gallery owner, and the rambling curiosity of a perpetual film student, Greenberg has built an operation that defines what interactive advertising is capable of—and what it can do for business. He and his team design experiences, from the underlying concept itself to the software code that frames it to, in some cases, the very hardware that delivers it. Unlike most creative directors, who master a single craft, the Ducati-driving Greenberg bridges the technical, the imaginative, and the utilitarian to revolutionize the way advertising penetrates our brains.

Few in the field recognized the implications of the Web earlier than Greenberg. And with his peers still scrambling to tap that potential—with decidedly mixed results—it's little wonder R/GA took home nearly every premium award in the past year: a Black Pencil at the UK's prestigious D&AD Awards; a Titanium Lion at the Cannes advertising festival; and best in show at the International Andy Awards, as the first digital work to win the category. According to Adweek, which anointed R/GA "Interactive Agency of the Year" for 2006, the company's revenues grew 33%, to $91million, with clients such as Nokia and Johnson & Johnson, and lured new brands including L'Oréal and Discover Card. But Greenberg was most gratified by R/GA's inclusion in Advertising Age's annual "A-list," alongside heavy hitters such as BBDO and Saatchi & Saatchi. "Two years ago, they wouldn't even consider us an ad agency," he says. "Now we're the only digital agency in the group."

For its first 18 years, in fact, R/GA wasn't an ad agency at all. In the late 1970s, Greenberg and his brother opened R/Greenberg Associates, a production house that made special effects for movies such as Alien, Superman, and Predator. While most of the movie business was fretting that computers would undermine film, Greenberg, now R/GA's CEO and global chief creative officer, found the machines freed him to experiment and innovate much faster. "We designed a lot of the equipment, so we could create things nobody else had seen or done before," he says. The brothers retooled old Disney animation cameras, even cameras designed for the military, becoming one of the first shops to put computers at the center of the production process. In the 1980s, they built one of the first integrated digital studios—film, video, and computer graphics, all under one roof—and were soon making iconic commercials such as the Diet Coke spot in which Paula Abdul danced with Gene Kelly, or the Reebok bit where Shaq shot hoops against 10 6-foot-5 clones of himself. By the early 1990s, R/GA had carved out a name as the "Lucasfilm of the East," earned an Academy Award for technical achievement, and produced work for 400 feature films and 4,000 commercials.

When his brother left R/GA in the mid-1990s, Greenberg decided to turn the shop into an ad agency. The Internet was beginning to remap the landscape, and he sensed that film-based industries were on their way to extinction, with the 30-second spot close behind them. He decided to put digital at the agency's core, a move most ad agencies wouldn't consider for another decade—but which felt completely natural to Greenberg.

While he's clearly a visually charged guy (he embraces his fetishes for his jet-black Comme des Garçons wardrobe, for example, and for the minimalist architecture of Mies van der Rohe), Greenberg has a Rain Man-like relationship to numbers, a fact that has both pained and inspired him. "My grammar- and high-school years were pretty tough because I couldn't add," he says in a vestigial Chicago accent. It wasn't until he was 35 that he was finally diagnosed with severe dyslexia, which he suspects gave him his intuitive ability to quickly recognize patterns, decipher software, and interpret data. "That probably has something to do with my ability to understand and see things a bit differently. It's a core part of what happened in my life."

R/GA was bought by Interpublic in 2001 and is today housed in a sprawling white Bauhaus structure that appears to have been choppered in from L.A. and dropped in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen. Some 550 employees work for Greenberg, dreaming up new campaigns, writing code, even building hardware. Most agencies outsource this kind of gritty labor, but Greenberg, 59, insists that the strongest design ideas flow from the technology itself. So he doesn't segregate geeks and creatives, preferring to percolate the programmers, information architects, and interactive designers together with the graphic designers, art directors, and copywriters.

The agency's early digital work included a campaign for Dodge that used a supercomputer to organize thousands of engineering files, creating a visual narrative of the car's redesign that unfolded on TV and online. In 2002, it transformed more than 5 million of IBM's Web pages, which had been scattered among numerous sites, into a unified, user-centered destination. But recently, Greenberg and his crew have become exponentially more ingenious. Earlier this year, Verizon asked R/GA for help in repositioning its brand, from phone company to broadband company. The result was "Action Hero," a do-it-yourself film campaign that melded the gaming dynamics of Grand Theft Auto with the visual edge of a Matrix-style action flick. Would-be cineastes could upload photos of themselves and convert them—thanks to groundbreaking software developed by R/GA's 3-D department—into digitized heroes. Then, using Hollywood-studio animation tools and a library of more than a thousand action-adventure sequences as a narrative palette, they could direct, star in, and score their own films, and circulate them online.

For Nike, R/GA's client of seven years, the agency has likewise redefined what technology can mean for the consumer. Last year, looking to reverse its falling market share in the running category, Nike teamed up with Apple to create Nike+, a sneaker with a built-in sensor that collects runners' personal data—distance, time, pace, calories burned. R/GA wrote the software that lets runners sync up their data from an iPod Nano to nikeplus.com with a single click. Greenberg's team also masterminded the breathtaking Nike+ Web site, a Running 2.0 universe that brings together every service an adrenaline junkie could imagine, from user-generated mapping routes to a social network where members can challenge other runners around the globe. It's too early to gauge the campaign's effect on Nike's market share, but together Nike and R/GA have won 26 awards for the site. More than 1,000 runners from 160 countries are joining daily, with more than a billion calories and 24 million miles logged to date.

Technology, of course, can do more harm than good to a brand. "If something's off by just one frame, the entire illusion pops like a bubble, and you lose your audience," says John Mayo-Smith, R/GA's chief technology officer. So when Mayo-Smith's team created the software and interface for the 23-story LED sign that snakes up the Reuters building in Times Square, they had to ensure that all 60 frames per second would be meticulously synchronized. Judging by the stir created by their subsequent campaign for NikeiD, they did pretty well: Their software allowed customers walking through Times Square to design their own sneakers on their cell phones, then display them in real time on the Godzilla-size Reuters screen. "Bob has taken something pretty boring, e-commerce, and created one of the best journeys a consumer can go through," says Kevin Swanepoel, president of the One Club, the international organization that recognizes advertising design. "He's ahead of his time, still."

Now Greenberg is teaming up with architects to overhaul the entire retail environment. He wants to integrate things like Bluetooth, motion-detecting sensors, and mobile applications that can boost customer service. In a retail setting, however, the technology has to fade into the background. "When it's a really cool technology, that's when you have to be most careful," says Mayo-Smith. "It can seduce an entire room without actually enhancing the customer experience." Over the past decade, R/GA has worked with retail clients such as Levi's and Discovery Channel Stores; most recently, it was behind Verizon's Experience stores in Texas and Virginia and NikeiD's New York location.

"Over the years, Bob has always been out there pursuing something that didn't seem as obvious as it does in hindsight," says Jon Kamen, founder of @radical.media, who has known Greenberg for 30 years. Kamen says his colleague's strategic foresight is uncanny, pointing to his reinventions of R/GA and his purchase of the Hell's Kitchen offices—once a truck depot—back when drug dealers and prostitutes swarmed the block. Even Greenberg's 1,500-piece collection of "art brut," created by people locked up in asylums and institutions, sets him apart from his peers, Kamen says. "He collected it when it barely had a name, and he picked it from the trash." Now millions of dollars' worth of the paintings line the walls of R/GA, a reminder to Greenberg's staff of the importance of imagination, however raw and unschooled. "At the time, people may think he's out of his mind," Kamen says, "but he always gets the last laugh."

We designed a lot of the equipment, Greenberg says, so we could create things nobody else had seen or done before.

In recent months, Microsoft, Google, WPP, and Publicis have spent billions scooping up digital ad shops, and annual online ad revenue is expected to blow past its current $19.5 billion to hit $36.5 billion by 2011. Meanwhile, R/GA has become a favored poaching ground for companies from Adobe to Crispin Porter + Bogusky. Greenberg says demand for his people is so hot that he spends much of his time on retention. But there are worse predicaments. He's planning to open R/GA's doors in Mumbai, Shanghai, São Paolo, and Moscow over the next few years. His vision, it seems, just keeps getting sharper.

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