Emily Tan
Sep 15, 2016

Q&A: Why R/GA gave up on the traditional agency model

How does R/GA create the right conditions for creativity? Singapore MD Iestyn Keyes explains.

Iestyn Keyes
Iestyn Keyes

Editor's note: This article is a free complement to our September 2016 cover story, Building the ideal conditions for creativity to thrive in Asia, which is available only to subscribers

Q: What, in your opinion, do most agencies get wrong and what has R/GA tried to change?

Iestyn Keyes: The traditional agency model is one of being a vendor to the client: take the brief, go away in the creative cave for a few weeks, come back with the big reveal and hope for the best.

This is a very hit-or-miss approach that R/GA has avoided by treating our clients as a true partnership. Through this coming together of equals, we combine the client’s industry knowledge with our design and marketing expertise to develop unique solutions that help grow businesses.

Treating clients as part of the team saves time and money on both sides and gets to better results quicker as we have seen with the 'brand hack' methodology we developed for a large internet company.

Q: What have you tried that's not worked out? What has worked, and what are you still testing?

Keyes: We tried the traditional creative agency model and it didn’t work, so we’ve evolved past it as quickly as possible. We had to create an environment where failing fast is OK and viewed as part of the creative process. 

Not every idea is a good one, and a team normally needs to explore several variants and evolutions before they hit something both interesting and valuable. We want to 'fail fast and fail early' so we can get all of the expected ideas out of the way quickly, allowing us to spend more time developing the less traditional ideas. Having a process through which we evaluate ideas takes the ego out of the equation and allows teams to focus on the most promising work.

Design can be by its nature a subjective art form. As such, it is easy to get gridlocked with clients in a non-productive discussion that goes something like the client saying, “we like red” and the agency saying “ we think blue works better”.  To pre-empt this, we work through principles with our clients quickly, and by agreeing on the overall business problems we are also solving a set of design principles that makes the work go more smoothly.

Q: Do Asia's cultural differences equate to a need for a different style of workplace?

Keyes: If you look around the region, the place is littered with very large and very established advertising agencies that have the same sofas, receptions and Friday 4pm drinks that they have in every office from Jakarta to San Francisco.

And that’s the point they are missing. Consistency of look and feel and processes is one thing. But one is a question of branding and the other is a question of culture…. And the two are not the same. The amazing cultural diversity that’s driving Asia’s boom is a new set of cultures with a new set of challenges dealing with a new breed of consumers.

As such, the Western creative workplace is simply out of date in Asia; and generally just applied to the East by default rather than engineering for the culture, the people or the work.

Q: Anything else you feel the East should stop importing from the West?

Keyes: The 'fear of failure’ in creative agencies here stems for that same hierarchy…. Generally, the East has spent a long time trying to replicate the West’s traditional creative-workplace approach because that’s what people assume is expected. It’s taken a while for agencies to catch on to the fact that they don’t have to mimic the old Western ways to be a creative agency and in fact, the Western model has grown from dealing with Western ‘consumers’—not Asian ones.

There is an entrepreneurial attitude and culture blossoming throughout the East, and it’s fuelled by innovation and collaboration. As such, it’s more important than ever that the workspaces in the region reflect the needs of this new mindset.

Q: How is that reflected in R/GA Singapore? 

Keyes: Often it’s through unlikely partnerships that interesting ideas emerge here. Within Asia-Pacific we use a very flat structure, making sure each discipline is involved from the get-go on any new brief. So we design our office spaces to be able to move teams around at speed and to have plenty of meeting space. We seem to be never more than five feet away from a white board or paper and that’s important.

Q: What do you think are the biggest stupid ideas most agencies seem to love?

Keyes: R/GA has always expanded organically—transplanting key leaders to a new region so that they can establish a new office that can grow and thrive in the new region. Acquiring and then renaming a local agency doesn’t give the rest of the network any more of the valuable regional intel and it also doesn’t mean that the new office has any more of the DNA of the original parent. Organic growth and genuine partnerships are the only way to build an agency into new regions. 

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