VMLY&R’s Jon Sharpe: why Bob Greenberg is My Ad Hero


I don’t know Bob Greenberg. I’ve never met the bloke, never worked for him and never had him over for dinner. We’re not mates. I’m pretty sure the closest we’ve come to connecting is being in the same room together. I think that’s probably the way it should be with heroes. To call the person you shared an office with for a decade your “hero” feels a bit odd.

Heroes should be like stars – bright, brilliant and distant enough to show you where to go. When David Bowie was at the peak of his brilliance in the late-70s he became a sort of guiding star for punk and new wave bands. Whenever they were stuck they would ask themselves, “What would Bowie do?” Bob’s my advertising Bowie.

Bob founded R/GA in 1977 to apply a design mentality to computer-assisted filmmaking. If it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert, what do the 400 feature films and 4,000 TV ads R/GA has worked on since make Bob?

It certainly makes Bob creative. Somewhere shelves are creaking under the weight of Academy Awards, D&AD Pencils and Cannes Lions. He is in the Advertising Hall of Fame, the Marketing Hall of Fame and the Creative Hall of Fame. That’s a lot of famous halls for one person.

The awards are merited. Witness those iconic Superman titles (with his brother Richard who sadly died earlier this year) or the market-creating Nike+ and Fuelband or even the current Michael Jordan campaign that brings “His Airness” to a generation too young to have seen him play in an A/R event that seamlessly becomes advertising with built-in ecommerce. One of Bob’s published 10 Principles is Let Creativity Drive the Business and he does.

He might well be a creative high-achiever but Bob is also a restless spirit with an instinct for where the market is going. Another of his 10 Principles is Leave The Business Model Unfinished. He changes the model every nine years and his agency are currently in their 5th nine-year cycle, a journey that has taken them from film titles to Big Data. The nine years is seemingly to do with numerology.

At first R/GA was focussed on proprietary digital techniques for movies and music videos but when the software became freely available, Bob transitioned the business into an interactive agency. That was the early 90’s and since then he has repeatedly changed to keep relevant. Now he also offers ventures and consulting, products & services and communications and brand and the agency pitches itself as an integrated marketing services company. Which means that Bob is my competitor.

Is it OK for someone in advertising to lavish praise upon a competitor? Who knows, but why pretend otherwise? Artists and sports people respect their competitors. They may compete against each other but they can also recognise talent, are inspired by it and learn something. As competitors, VMLY&R and R/GA are pushing back the parameters of an ever-richer space for digital creativity that is defined by connected consumer experiences and creative innovation. I think we both also recognise that the future for our agencies will involve not only connections but storytelling too.

From Bob I’ve learned that this business is absolutely about being forward thinking, embracing the new and changing the model to stay relevant. It’s not about how great advertising used to be back when blah blah blah. It’s about tomorrow and all the great ideas that are still to come.

They say you should never meet your heroes and that’s working pretty well so far. I should probably commit to studiously avoiding Bob for the rest of time but self-disruption is another of those Bob Principles so if I do bump into him and he fancies a chat, I‘ll be getting the beers in.

Jon Sharpe is CEO of VMLY&R Europe, WPP’s newly-minted brand experience agency.

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One comment

  1. You could have shaved for the picture! Good article. A heroes are hard to find, but good to have.

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