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Generation Flux

Generation Flux: Bob Greenberg

We spotlight Bob Greenberg, CEO and founder of R/GA. After founding his firm to create visual effects for movies like Alien and Zelig, he now delivers cutting-edge digital programs for Nike, Nokia, HP, and more.

Generation Flux: Bob Greenberg

Bob Greenberg doesn't do the comb-over. Nor does he crop his hair short, or shave his scalp. Instead, beyond the patch of baldness on top of his head, his hair is long and flowing and bushy. It's as if he's saying, "Look, I am who I am. So deal with it."

I met with Greenberg several times this past fall, to talk about both the growth of his business, digital ad agency R/GA, and the incredible churn in its staff. R/GA has been phenomenally successful. The first time we sat down, in September, he nonchalantly dropped that his company had dozens of jobs open to fill, at a time when news reports blared about unemployment and the ad industry overall was treading water. R/GA, Greenberg explained, had expanded by 20% since the start of 2011, from 1,000 staffers to 1,200.

Yet to net those 200 additions, Greenberg had to add 500 new people. Greenberg talks about this intense transition in his ranks with a that's-the-way-it-is nonchalance. He spends more time than ever on talent retention and recruitment. But he's not upset by it; he's not fighting it; and he's not proceeding on the expectation that the pace of change will settle down anytime soon.

I visited Greenberg's office as the weather turned colder. On Manhattan's 39th street, between Eighth and Ninth avenues, on the gritty edge of the fashion district, Greenberg's firm has been gobbling up office space, in a half a dozen buildings along the block. The main office is low-slung and set back, with a courtyard to the street that feels almost Californian—as unexpected as Greenberg's mane of hair. Inside the reception area, the walls are adorned to the ceiling with awards the agency has received, an overflow that continues in Greenberg's own space. He points out an assortment of historical Apple products that he's collecting, and then rummages in his bookcase to pull out his firm's catalog from 1985. Back then, he worked on motion graphics and special effects for films, and he drops names like Brian DePalma and Ridley Scott, how Woody Allen's Zelig couldn't have been made without his firm's help. He shows me pictures of the breakthrough technologies they worked on back then, the machines they made, the computer systems that hadn't existed. He's proud, a bit wistful, and given his sixtysomething age, it would be natural to assume that he's settled into a nostalgic reverie.

So did things change more back in those days, I ask delicately? The tiger inside Greenberg shows its teeth: "Oh, definitely faster today," he growls. "No question."

Greenberg has been distinctive in the ad industry for seeing and exploiting the advent of digital interactivity and continues to be among the forward-looking vanguard in the industry, despite a laconic, eccentric aura that belies the rigor of his intellect. While R/GA is, in the scheme of Corporate America, a small fish, the perspective that Greenberg employs is instructive for how even large firms need to evolve.

"If we don't change our structure, we'll get less relevant," Greenberg tells me. "We won't be able to grow." Despite the tremendous business success his firm is enjoying right now, he's pushing the operation into a radical reorganization. "We see the end of vertical and horizontal integration; it needs to be functional integration." It is, in fact, the fifth time he's hauled R/GA into a new kind of business model. "People talk about change and adaptation, but they don't see how fast the competition is coming, from everywhere. We have to move. We have no choice."

Greenberg pulls out his cell phone—or, more precisely, his four cell phones: BlackBerry, iPhone, Android, Windows. He claims to like them all, though of course R/GA does business for clients who operate on all of them. He's also a believer that new interfaces will dramatically alter our mobile experience in the years ahead: "Kids walking down the street a few years from now won't be texting," he predicts. "It will all be video and voice-based."

Already, Greenberg says, "every person [at R/GA] has video conferencing at their desk. We need people communicating on tasks." Greenberg has been opening offices around the world—Buenos Aires, Sao Paolo, and Singapore in 2011—and plans several more in 2012. "We don't outsource. We don't in-source. We need people united."

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A version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Fast Company magazine.