An Adman's Guide To Survival

To Bob Greenberg, agencies must reinvent themselves top to bottom

Bob Greenberg is made for the part. The fringe of untamable hair, the hip-professor specs, the all-black wardrobe, the geek-chic demeanor under-scored by the gnomic utterances he serves up with Yoda-esque calm.

Greenberg is the sort of media futurist who has stopped talking about the "third screen" (on your cell phone) because he's onto the fourth (massive outdoor digital signage -- think Times Square or Tokyo). The 57-year-old CEO and chief creative director of Interpublic Group's New York-based interactive ad agency R/GA has made much noise of late outlining what ad agencies must do to survive this media moment. As he sees it, as bad as the current great unraveling is for TV and newspapers, it's worse for ad agencies. "They aren't in the business of ads anymore," he says.

Their new business of selling is a far cry from the days of mass media models. Ad agencies now have to be conversant with information architecture, he says. They also have to be able to design e-commerce, play in the world of personalized media, and create retail environments.

The jargon boils down to an agency that creates marketing -- or a marketing experience -- that blends the strictly functional with gamelike gewgaws to draw consumers on entertainment value alone. R/GA itself is behind both the Nike (NKE ) iD Web site -- on which sneaker freaks can endlessly design their own kicks -- and Circuit City's (CC ) unflashy but smartly efficient e-commerce site.

Greenberg's vision of the agency of the future, coincidentally, describes with some accuracy R/GA, in which information technologists, data analysts, and so-called experience designers work closely with more traditional ad types. Any seer's spiel can get tired quickly, all the more so should said seer promote his own company as an exemplar of the new world. But judging by the swelling ranks of clients and admirers, Greenberg is worth listening to. His agency has won numerous prizes for work found at all points along the hipness spectrum, from Purina to Subaru to Nike iD. In the past year its staff size has shot up from around 315 to more than 400.

R/GA once produced first-generation digital movie effects (including Zelig and Altered States), then morphed into an interactive agency -- a good perch from which someone like Greenberg can rethink these strange days. How strange? Executives from five TV networks jointly held a Nov. 16 press conference to insist that wider adoption of digital video recorders does not equal more ad skipping. They had better talk fast. Top marketers such as Samsung and Verizon (VZ ) (an R/GA client) have said they have at least tripled Internet ad spending. This presents problems for agencies, since TV ads are, historically, their most profitable business. "Agencies have to push the 30-second spot. Their whole financial model depends on it," says Greenberg.

Enter R/GA and its post-mass media approach. "Bob and his folks are obviously very smart and cutting-edge," says Verizon Senior Vice-President Jerri DeVard. "It's not just about putting something cool out there but looking at all the metrics first." For Verizon, R/GA designed, where users can submit videos that sing the praises of a broadband world.

Greenberg gets just as enthused about all the technical underpinnings as he does about big-brand stories. One pet project: a computer program that lets multiple agencies track complex collaborative ad projects. He hasn't decided whether to sell it or just make it available, open-source-style.

Sometimes you can glimpse the future in a bit of code and some sharp information design. Advertising was once the domain of decades-old icons ho-ho-ho-ing on TVs everywhere and bigger-than-life executives wielding lavish entertainment and dining budgets. That hasn't all gone away -- far from it. But if Greenberg is right, the future of a business built on surface and bluster may yet be distilled into a sharply designed spreadsheet. You needed more proof that the geeks are taking over?

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By Jon Fine

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