Back Chat with R/GA's Bob Greenberg: 'Some people who seem to have it all don't take the risk'

Back Chat with Bob Greenberg

Chewing the fat in the latest issue of The Drum is none other than ad industry legend Bob Greenberg, founder, chairman and chief executive of R/GA, who talks procurement, architecture, risk-taking and spaceships.

How are you and what’s keeping you busy?

There’s two things that I’m mostly involved with. One is building up R/GA’s global network – we currently have 15 offices, but we’re pushing to have the numbers we would need as pitches become more global. The other is our new office building in Hudson Yards, which I think is the most exciting new area in New York City. The office presents an opportunity for us to pull the four offices that we have on 39th Street in Midtown all into one space and really bring together our physical space with the digital landscape.

What’s your biggest gripe at the moment?

I could run with this all day and I’m sure I wouldn’t run out, but procurement and the way it has taken over the business really concerns me. I don’t have anything against procurement departments in general but their goal is to get the price down to as low as possible, and that’s often at the expense of creativity. Another thing that I find increasingly annoying and problematic is how long it takes from a pitch to a start. We’re often seeing up to six months, and the fact it takes so long makes it extraordinarily expensive and hard for agencies to plan. It puts us in a position where it’s very hard to offset the costs.

And what have you been enjoying recently?

I’ve been very interested in architecture recently and I really think we’re in a golden age of architecture right now. There’s a huge number of architects working on exciting and innovative things – Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster, who’s not only working on our building at Hudson Yards but also the new Apple Campus. The things I follow are based on the disruption of technology, whether that’s buildings and physical spaces or content, which I also think is having a golden age.

Are there any projects you wish you had worked on?

I wouldn’t mind doing some of the things Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla is working on. A friend of a friend just joined Elon Musk and wrote an email to her friend about how she’d injured herself bumping into a spaceship, and I thought that was pretty cool. There are lots of people doing really cool things at the moment and I don’t think we’ll have any shortage of people who’ll continue to innovate.

Who or what inspires you?

I’ve recently been awarded the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity’s Lion of St Mark, and to me it’s a group award; it’s about the people who have collaboratively built R/GA and there’s a lot of inspiration in that. I find inspiration in things like building our global footprint, I’m very inspired by people from other countries who look at things in different ways and have grown up with different approaches. I’m also inspired by great architects and designers. I was watching a video of Jony Ive presenting the new MacBook and that was pretty inspiring, and we spend a lot of time with our Samsung clients who have an awesome design team.

If you had unlimited power or resources, what would you change?

Procurement really is our biggest issue. Aligning the way some organisations want us to work is becoming more at odds with doing the best work. All these things are eating away at the more important things – investing in innovation, people, ideas and creativity, which has always been what I’m most interested in.

And what’s your last word on the industry?

What I see missing from some of the people that seem to have it all is they don’t take the risk. It’s not the same as the clichés ‘you learn from your mistakes’ and ‘if you’re not making mistakes you’re not moving forward’. The risk thing is a little bit different, it’s about taking the plunge. Think Richard Branson or someone like Steve Jobs; that kind of risk taking paid off. What I always visualise is someone holding their nose and jumping off of a really high rock.

A pioneer in the advertising and communications industry for nearly four decades, Bob Greenberg continues to lead the creative vision for R/GA and is the recipient of the 2015 Lion of St Mark for his outstanding contribution to the industry.

This interview first appeared in the 29 April issue of The Drum.

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