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There are certain laws that have been regarded as sacrosanct in the advertising business, and particularly within the creative side of the ad world. They include the following: 1) A great campaign revolves around “the big idea.” 2) Said big idea usually takes the form of a memorable line or perhaps a metaphorical story that somehow captures the essence of a brand. 3) These big ideas are best generated by placing a copywriter and art director in a room together and forcing them to engage in a series of exchanges that typically begin with the words: “OK, what about this?”4) Upon coming up with the big idea, said creative people shall hand that idea off to various types of specialists (film producers, media buyers, digital techies) whose jobs are to make sure it gets distributed in three or four media formats, with special emphasis on (ca-ching!) high-budget TV commercials. 5) Handing off the ideas in this way is important because it enables the "creatives" to get back to the really important stuff-dreaming up the next big idea.

It was a good model while it lasted (for six decades, thus far), but a lot of those old laws are making less sense in today’s marketing landscape, which is increasingly dominated by digital communications. In this new world, marketers can’t necessarily rely on a clever line or 30-second story to do the heavy work of building brands; they need lots of multifaceted ideas, including ones that go beyond slogans and metaphorical narratives to offer something more useful to the public. These ideas must work in multiple formats, and on various devices, with everything seamlessly integrated. In that kind of complex environment, the old Bill Bernbach-inspired, two-guys-in-a-room creative model can be too limiting. What’s needed is a more wide-open, technologically sophisticated, collaborative, multidisciplinary team approach to creating brand communications. Or so believes Bob Greenberg.

Greenberg thinks it is high time to dispense with the old Mad Men advertising model and replace it with a new one made for these modern digital times. Of course, the ad business has always had more than its share of revolutionaries calling for radical overhauls, but they’re usually fresh-faced upstarts running small entrepreneurial hot-shops. Greenberg, on the other hand, is a 61-year-old industry veteran who resembles Benjamin Franklin (albeit Franklin dressed head-to-toe in downtown black, with shimmering silver wrist bracelets). He is no upstart: His agency, R/GA, goes back three decades, employs 640 people in three offices and works with top brands such as Nike, Nokia, Verizon, Mars and Hewlett-Packard. And, oh yes, it is owned by Interpublic, a top holding company and one of the pillars of the advertising “establishment.”

None of that seems to discourage Greenberg from lobbing rhetorical grenades at his own industry. Spend any amount of time with him and he’ll tell you—in the softest, gentlest of tones, and with a shy, polite smile—that big Madison Avenue is headed for big trouble (“I suggest that what is happening to Detroit’s car companies right now will soon happen to the large global agencies,” he says), that the revered Bernbach model is increasingly obsolete, and that the “perfect storm” now descending upon the marketing world will wash away all those who don’t sprout gills and otherwise adapt.

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Dismiss him as a provocateur if you will, but there are good reasons to believe that Greenberg is dead-on about what’s coming—and that it may already be here. The contracting global economy is forcing marketers to urgently reassess old ways of conducting business, with particular scrutiny on large ad expenditures such as TV campaigns. And while budgets are tightening, interactive technology continues to explode, creating that perfect storm Greenberg is talking about.

The startlingly rapid growth and mainstream acceptance of smart phones, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter has begun to push TV commercials into a shrinking corner of the communications realm. Marketers are scrambling to figure out how to adjust to a new environment where the best way to generate impact may involve not just making people laugh at an ad, but getting them to fully and actively engage with a brand and its offerings. For advertisers, this isn’t just a matter of adapting traditional messages to a few additional media outlets or new gadgets. Rather, it turns the old way of communicating inside-out: Instead of just sending messages out, brands now must find ways to draw consumers in—enticing them to click, enter, stay a while, and maybe bring some friends along.

This is no easy thing to do, but Greenberg and his firm have been working on it for some time, and it seems to be paying off. While much of the industry has been contracting of late, R/GA has continued to grow, coming off a year in which revenues surged about 20 percent to $126 million. The agency has been adding staff in its satellite London and San Francisco offices, while the joint is already packed at R/GA's New York office, a large Bauhaus-inspired space with “outsider art” adorning the walls.

Greenberg himself has long been something of an outsider in the ad world, initially entering the business from the production side. In 1977, Bob and his brother Richard opened a film production company that specialized in bringing computerized special effects to movies, creating memorable title sequences for films such as Alien and Superman and compositing images of Woody Allen into historical scenes for Zelig [See ca Sep/Oct 1984]. Greenberg’s use of technology in film was groundbreaking at the time. “We started doing computer graphics before there was a name for it,” he says.

As film began to go digital in the late 1980s, the firm evolved into a digital studio (and along the way, brother Richard left to pursue other interests). But Greenberg made an even more dramatic shift in the mid-1990s, when he got out of the film production business altogether and reinvented R/GA as an interactive ad agency. Although Web marketing was in its infancy, he saw a bright future. Not all of his employees agreed.
Only 30 of his 250 staffers made the transition to the new company, and for the next few years during the late ’90s, “It was a very difficult period,” Greenberg says. But now he is thankful he made the change when he did: The firm’s painful transition took place during a healthy economy, and by getting in early, R/GA got a jump on the competition in interactive marketing (which, in those days, were mostly microsites that augmented ad campaigns) [See ca Nov 1999]. By the early 2000s, as major companies began to get serious and more innovative with Web marketing, R/GA was positioned as an industry leader.

Creating applications that tie to community is the new advertising.” —Bob Greenberg

Greenberg has never been content to play interactive second-fiddle to conventional agencies. He argues in favor of a marketing approach that places interactive at the center of branding campaigns, maintaining that the most important interaction between consumer and brand tends to happen in the digital space—often starting with a Google search that leads to a company Web site. What happens when people arrive at that site may very well determine the survival of a brand.

In the digital space, Greenberg says, “Brands must be designed for motion.” Everything from the way a logo moves and sounds to the functionality of interfaces serves to shape the experience and either strengthen or weaken the relationship with consumers. In the past, designing corporate identities used to involve worrying about a static hundred-page annual report, but Greenberg’s designers must grapple with corporate Web sites that can have thousands (or even a couple of million!) linkable pages. “And it all must be designed so that you’re never more than two clicks away from anything,” Greenberg says.

All that linkable content means that interactive designers aren’t just telling one 30-second linear story—they’re telling hundreds of interwoven stories as well as non-stories, everything from short films that link to demos, that link to games, or workouts, or social networking applications, all of which ultimately should come together to form a cohesive brand experience. With so many moving pieces involved, R/GA must approach its task very differently from the way a conventional agency goes about making commercials. Say goodbye to those two guys in a room, trading punchlines and doing hand-offs.

The Greenberg model elevates functions such as “technology” and “analytics” to the level of core disciplines on a par with “copywriting,” “visual design,” “interaction design,” “planning” and “media.” The agency has been set up so that groups work in multidisciplined teams—technologists partner with copywriters, designers, researchers and planners. The teams collaborate on projects from start to finish, instead of handing off ideas to separate departments or outside suppliers. R/GA even does its own video production in a state-of-the-art digital studio across the street from the New York head-quarters (as Greenberg points out, when you move beyond splashy 30-second ads and start using digital video to create broader, more complex brand stories and experiences, you must be able to produce a high volume of video material at a much lower cost). If the old agency model called for acquiring and then siloing off various disciplines, R/GA strives to bring them together in that open, bustling, Bauhaus space.

This represents a profound change in the agency creative process. Nick Law, who serves as Greenberg’s chief creative officer, says that when agencies follow the old way of handing off ideas from the creative team to other disciplines, they effectively serve to marginalize them. The copywriter/art director (and their narrative storytelling approach) tend to dictate the direction of creative work; everything else, including interactive, becomes an add-on. “And if you just do hand-offs in the interactive space, you’re missing out on a large part of interactive creativity,” Law says.

And if you just do hand-offs in the interactive space, you’re missing out on a large part of interactive creativity." —Nick Law

As Law sees it, R/GA is melding not just different disciplines, but different ways of thinking and solving problems. He maintains that there are “narrative thinkers” and “systematic thinkers”; the former tend to reduce problems down to one simple idea or story, while systematic thinkers are more apt to enlarge a problem as they try to solve it, synthesizing lots of ideas and possibilities. R/GA does not preach that one way of thinking is necessarily better than the other—it combines the two approaches by mixing narrative and systematic thinkers throughout the agency and within each project.

Law points to one of the agency’s greatest successes, its work on the Nike platform, as an example of a great idea that emerged more from a systematic way of thinking than a narrative one. The Nike system works by transferring data from a chip in a running shoe to the runner’s iPod, whence the information (tracking distances run, calories burned, etc.) is then routed to a special Web site. There, the runner can not only track his/her own performance, but also connect with other runners using the Nike system. R/GA’s technologists helped figure out how to make the tricky “middleware” connection that kept the data flowing, while its designers worked to turn Nikeplus.com into a thriving social network. Runners got hooked on the community experience: Over a million people now interact with Nike about three times a week, using it to motivate and challenge one another.

Also for Nike, R/GA has created a Facebook application called Ballers Network that allows basketball players to connect online in order to arrange pickup games, form leagues or just find a good court to play on using a localized interactive map; it’s like Nike for B-ballers. With sites like these, Nike is able to forge a deeper connection with its customers. Ordinarily, people might visit a Nike site only when they needed to buy shoes, but “if I'm checking my Nike data three times a week, or arranging a basketball pickup game a couple of times a week, then I’m constantly interacting with the brand,” explains Chris Colborn, R/GA’s chief experience officer. “Within that context, there are natural opportunities to introduce a new shoe or piece of gear.” Which may explain why, in the two years since Nike was introduced, the brand has seen a significant jump in its global market share in running shoes.

R/GA has had similar success creating social media applications for other clients, such as Nokia. A GPS-based, mobile mapping app called “Nokia viNe” allows users to create a vine-like visual trail of their daily travels and activities. They can tag the various places along the way with notes, photos and videos, creating a multimedia diary for friends to check out.

According to Greenberg, “Creating applications that tie to community is the new advertising.” He believes all brands should be thinking about how to come up with their own unique versions of Nike or Nokia viNe. But creating a social network around a brand is not about gimmickry: “Online communities get formed by providing something that is actually very useful to the people in that community,” Greenberg says.

Advertising that is useful? Now there’s a big idea—why didn’t those two guys in a room think of that? ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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