A failure at school, Bob Greenberg overcame dyslexia to head up an awardwinning digital group worth nearly £60m. Mike Dempsey follows the trail of this pioneer who began with some cast-off kit from Disney
There is a magical moment at the cinema when the lights gently fade, the curtains open, rainbow shafts of light dance above your head and the movie begins. And in those opening moments, there is often the added joy of a well-designed title sequence.
It never ceases to amaze me that there are still so few directors who seem to care about this aspect of their creation and happily hand over their final cut to one of the many post-production houses, who in turn slap on whatever they like, regardless of its suitability.
In 1979 I was invited to a special screening of a film that had been made under closely guarded conditions. It opens on the dark expanse of the universe. Eerie sounds enhance the sense of emptiness. Slowly, a series of fragmented shapes fade up at intervals across the screen to reveal the title. It was Ridley Scott’s Alien, and R Greenberg Associates designed the sequence.
Fast forward 30 years and Bob Greenberg heads R/GA, a 21st century interactive advertising agency with a turnover inexcess of $112m (£57m), a staff of more than 500 and a client list to die for. It has also, along the way, picked up every award going, including an Oscar, D&AD Golds and a Clio.
So, how did this lanky, bespectacled auteur of the digital age get to this lofty position? Like so many creatives, Greenberg has dyslexia – only diagnosed in his 30s – but he believes the condition gives him an enhanced sense of imagination and visualisation. School was a struggle, and with no qualifications he ended up taking control of his uncle’s mirror factory – highly appropriate for the ‘smoke and mirrors’ world he was later to help define.
His brother, Richard, was an animator and in 1977, Bob joined him to form R Greenberg Associates. They worked in video and film production, with Richard handling the creative side and Bob producing and taking charge of the camera equipment – they had pooled their savings to buy some redundant kit from Disney Studios. They started to experiment with computerised special effects and this took them into the world of film titles. An early success included the titles for Superman in 1978. Its innovative, three-dimensional, flying typography brought the brothers to the attention of Hollywood, and they were to become involved not only in title design but complete CGI segments in movies. Their later pioneering work in digitally inserting long-dead actors into new productions became the norm in later films. Think of Tom Hank’s character meeting President Kennedy in Forrest Gump, or the planted head of Oliver Reed in Gladiator.
But Greenberg was acutely aware of the potential impact the digital world was going to have on society and, in particular, on advertising. He decided to embrace this head on and, after clocking up countless digital interventions in movies, he scaled down R/GA’s involvement with Hollywood to concentrate on the converging worlds of TV, computers and mobile phones. It was a wise move. The company – now owned by marketing services giant Interpublic – is at the forefront of the digital playground, overshadowing conventional ad agencies that don’t understand the potential of this new arena and prefer instead to remain with 30-second commercials and traditional print ads. Greenberg believes they do this at their peril, a view born out of the fragmentation of television audiences who can now control what they see, watch it when they want and easily filter out TV ads.
Advertising is a jungle again and guerrilla warfare is becoming the norm, with ever-increasing ways to entrap the consumer – now more often done via mobile phones, laptops or even digital outdoor sites where a click on your mobile will deliver a trailer or tell you more about a product that has taken your fancy.
This is Greenberg’s world and he has described his role at R/GA as being akin to a conductor in an experimental lab.
Looking at R/GA’s latest work confirms the view that companies working in the interactive arena have difficulty in projecting a personality, because much of the graphic styling is dictated by clients, ad agencies and branding consultancies. The alchemy of this digital world is invisible but often creatively brilliant. The sheer complexity of some websites, with their multilayered interactive information, is mind-boggling. R/GA takes all this in its stride, and is now at the top of the interactive tree.
When Greenberg – now approaching 60 – is not working he spends time at his hideaway refuge on Fire Island, where he no doubt pours over his collection of ‘outsider art’ or, as he prefers to call it, ‘art brut’ – creations by untaught individuals who have an innate creative spirit. That, no doubt, chimes with the qualification-free dyslexic boy, whose high-school teacher said he would never amount to much. How wrong can you be?
Bob Greenberg will be giving a D&AD President’s Lecture on 30 April at Logan Hall, London WC1. For more information, visit www.dandad.co.uk