The Interview Series // 40

Would you believe R/GA (http://rga NULL.com), digital agency of the decade, started in the late seventies as a production company? Founded by two brothers — they created the first integrated computer-assisted production process (oh Wikipedia, you make us sound so clever)! Translation: they revolutionised motion graphics and special effects. Heck! They did the opening titles for the original Superman (http://www NULL.youtube NULL.com/watch?v=1qHDWdGPomw) and have Oscars on their wall. Flash-forward twenty-something years and they’ve shaken up the fundamentals of the digital agency — creating innovative digital solutions for clients, like the fandangled-ly cool Nike+ (http://nikerunning NULL.nike NULL.com/nikeos/p/nikeplus/en_AU/) utility. This baseball cap-clad Aussie expat is Associate Creative Director. Paul started his career in Sydney as Production Assistant, before becoming a suit, before working his way into copywriting – all at the one agency. Then he decided it was time to ditch traditional and go digital. And where better to do that than New York City! During our recent trip to NYC, our chat to Paul in R/GA’s sunny front yard opened our eyes to the future of advertising.

Junior: Where did it all start for you? You’re a Sydney boy?

Paul Dery: I was actually born in Melbourne. I moved to Sydney when I was about 15, and then I started at M&C Saatchi as a Production Assistant. From there I made the switch to account service. Which was an excellent learning experience. All creatives should probably have a stint there, even if it is just a week. To understand what it’s like on their side of the fence, but to also understand how to sell stuff. What the client needs to hear and what helps them buy an idea. I then did AWARD School and then obviously moved into the world of Copywriting. It was a great apprenticeship though, coming through Production and Account Service. I’m very grateful for it.

Jr: Did you move over at M&C? Was that a challenge?

P: I did, it was tricky. I remember the first fight I had with a suit, and the whole department was laughing, because they were like ‘welcome’ to being a creative.

The transition was made easier as the beauty of creative work is that the proof is always in the pudding. The harder you work, and as long as your stuff keeps improving I think people quickly forget that you were the Production kid or the Account guy.

Jr: How did you do it? Did you just hound the Creative Director?

P: It’s a pretty simple rule – I think 9-5 you’re an account person, and 5-9 you’re a creative. I was really lucky. The Creative Director, Michael Andrews set me a task that every Monday he would give me a brief, and every Monday he would look at the work from the week before. We did that for six months. He said, ‘by then we’ll know. You’re either rubbish, or you’re good’. Don’t know if I was good, but six months later I had a book that was probably just good enough to get me my first job in the agency as a writer.

Jr: So you stayed there for a little while?

P: I was there for seven years in total. I did a stint for about a year in the Melbourne office too. It’s always had a history of doing good work. It was nice to have a bit of time at a smaller agency. Big and small agencies each have pros and cons and are very different places to work in, and they’re very different places to get work made. It’s good to understand both spectrums.

Jr: What stage did you decide you wanted to get a gig in New York?

P: A funny story actually, I won a green card in the green card lottery.

Jr: No way!

P: I saw a web banner promoting it. I think it’s the only banner I’ve ever clicked on. I then got an email from the US Government saying that I’d won, and I thought it was a Nigerian scam. Even as I was stepping off the plane into JFK I thought something would go wrong.

Jr: What happened when you got to New York? How did you end up at RGA?

P: R/GA is an amazing place. It’s 1000 people, for one, and it’s grown crazy fast. For me, it felt like the first place that could lead the transition the industry is going through. Advertising is changing every day, the beauty of R/GA is that you can write the future. Nobody fully understands what’s going to happen with advertising but we have a pretty good idea of how people are consuming and how they want to consume. That’s why I thought R/GA would be a great place to be. I came from a traditional background of writing TV and print ads. At this place, you’ve got to start again in terms of media. Creatively you still need the traditional idea grounded in a good truth, but if you’re not using the technology that’s being developed and on offer, then it’s totally unutilized.

Writers in traditional agencies who are writing great ads could probably be much more effective if they worked with the technology a bit harder. That’s why I joined R/GA because I thought bugger it, I’ve got to understand how this works or I could be an old dinosaur at an early age. So I jumped on board and for ages I turned up to meetings and had no idea what these people were saying. I just kept nodding. I think my favorite phrase was ‘Yup I think I saw that on TED’. It was my only get out of jail card line I could use!

Jr: How did you go about getting in if you came from such a traditional background?

P: I got really lucky. R/GA, obviously from a pure digital background were starting to broaden their horizons. So they were looking for traditional ad guys I guess. A lot of their clients were asking for video content that required a lot of script writing. It was the middle of a horrible recession, the middle of a freezing cold winter. Ignorance was bliss — I walked in and got extremely lucky.

Jr: You would have had some pretty good work under your belt coming from M&C though?

P: It was ok. I hadn’t had that many years as a copywriter. It was prolific, I worked across a lot of brands and had a lot of stuff made. Now looking back, with the account service background, whether it should have been made is another question!

Jr: Do you think that a creative would get more concepts made in Melbourne or Sydney than you would in New York?

P: I’d say there’s more of a delay in coming up with an idea and implementing it. Here at R/GA you’ve got a broad range of clients like Nike, Walmart & Mastercard. We tend to implement a lot of business changing ideas, and that takes time. Whether it’s a new platform, or a new customer service stream using Twitter, whatever it is, to turn a big client around isn’t a fast process.

Jr: That would be really cool, not just thinking in terms of ads, but also in terms of business.

P: I think that’s the enjoyable part about thinking digitally. I’m used to getting a brief where media is bought, they want TV and print, and your brain is trained to execute. Here, the media is open ended. The client want to sell something, and you’ve got to come up with a solution. It could be anything. Is it an online scavenger hunt? A Twitter contest? A Facebook Connect Video? It’s whatever you think people can consume the idea best. That was the hardest thing for my brain to get around as a creative. It’s hard enough to start with that blank page to come up with a script. It’s super hard to come up with a blank media environment.

Jr: They sound like pretty awesome briefs!

P: They’re pretty open but the planners still manage to get a lot in! Advertising is definitely going through some kind of change, I don’t know if it’s a revolution or evolution but you’re given your freedom when working with a strategy.

Jr: For those of us who are used to and have trained at traditional agencies, how does R/GA work in terms of skill sets?

P: R/GA is quite unique in regards to the fact that everyone is on an equal playing field. It combines design, copywriting, ID (interaction design), and the tech guys. There’s a suite of people all under the umbrella of creatives. Everyone has a chance to pitch an idea. Normally as a copywriter you are used to having a firmer say on ideas. Where here a great idea might come from a techie nerd guy who had this thought, and sure it doesn’t have an umbrella campaign line, but it’s an awesome use of technology that you can latch onto with a campaign. In terms of skill sets, it’s a really interesting place. R/GA came from a production and design background. When it went into an advertising realm it built websites. I think that’s why design is a strong lead at R/GA and heavily relied upon.

Jr: So you obviously don’t work in traditional two person teams anymore?

P: I don’t. There are teams, but they aren’t as common. I don’t have a partner. I kind of enjoy the freedom to roam across different accounts. You could be working with a traditional art director one minute, and then an iPhone app developer who had a good idea. It’s cool. It seems to work.

Jr: In terms of the junior kids back home in Melbourne putting their folios together, they might have scam ideas that have never run and they’re doing stuff for online/digital – is it the idea that is the most important and not to worry about the technology?

P: Absolutely. My first advice is to get a website, which most people have these days. But idea is still king, it’s not how fancy your site is. In fact, some of the best sites are just straight blogs of peoples work.
A digital book should always be like any book, idea centric. It can take us a year to implement a good idea online, so I don’t think people expect for your book to be 100% real. Hopefully the technological ideas you present can be made, but that’s less of a concern.

Jr: Sometimes it feels in Oz that if you have an idea, especially in terms of the digital stuff that you see around, they’re all variations of things that have already been done. It’s never a breakthrough original use of technology

P: I think we’re going to see the rise of the nerd in advertising. They have always been prevalent in good creativity. And they are the ones with the finger on the pulse of what’s new.

Jr: They’ve got us by the balls.

P: These guys eat and breathe new technology, and it’s so hard to keep on top of it unless you eat and breathe it too. I certainly try to do as much as I can, but these guys are a special breed. It’s great to find those guys and talk to them, because they’re the guys that are finding the new uses of technology. Something might just spark and you could end up with something that no one has ever seen before. And that’s the trick.

Jr: Where do you find inspiration other than the techie guys? It must be easy just to get sucked into the internet, and disappear into it for hours.

P: Part of the reason why I moved to New York is that it’s full of inspiration. It’s hard not to meet creative people who have other interests other than just advertising.

Jr: You definitely look offline?

P: I think so. I think that’s where the traditional background comes into play. You have other places to look for ideas, not just online. And often if you see it online it’s been done. Some guy beat you to it.

Jr: What’s the work culture like? Is it different?

P: It’s very different. We’re lucky; Australia has a great outlook on life as a people. We can always have a good laugh at ourselves. American work life is a bit stifled. Even in an ad agency in the USA there’s not the same shenanigans that you get up to back home. Which is probably a good thing, you probably get more work done!

Jr: Do you work harder here than you do at home?

P: What I found is that in America you have your role. And I think that because of the sheer number of people that if you’re good at your role, you stick to your role and you stay doing that. I think because of Australia’s size we’re all good at a lot of things. And that’s probably why Australians do pretty well when they go to America, we’ve had to wear a lot of hats. Although stereotypically not, we do have a great work ethic. Americans work hard, but I think Australians work efficiently hard. It’s a different culture, and I miss the days back home of mucking around having a good creative environment.

Jr: It must be hard when you’ve got 350 or so creatives in your department.

P: Yeah, but here at R/GA it’s a great environment to learn. It’s almost like a university campus, I find, because things change daily, and you’re always trying to learn from everyone around you. That’s where the atmosphere is different. It’s more of a learning environment as opposed to a working environment.

Jr: Do you think your account service hat is helping you in NY to sell in digital ideas to a client that might not necessarily get it?

P: I think a big difference between Australia and America is that the American client is very digitally savvy. They know what’s what. In terms of even just technically speaking, they know their stuff.

Jr: So you’re not presenting to your mum?

P: I wish! I’d get a lot more sold. She’s a big fan. Coming from account service I always said that I was a better seller than creative! It definitely helps. I used to see a lot of great creatives struggle to get their idea up, even if it was awesome, they just couldn’t make it buyable for the client. You’ve got to understand where your client is coming from. If you can help their career, they’ll inadvertently help yours. Selling is a huge part of it. Clients are consumers too. They need to be sold.

Jr: What’s the deal in the US, do creatives present?

P: It depends where you are, but yes, we still present to clients. At R/GA the producer will do the day to do client liaison. It was very foreign for me to see producers on the phone all day with clients, but that’s what happens. A thousand people strong and probably the best digital agency in the world, it’s hard to argue with the formula.

Jr: if you had to write a dummies guide, a couple of tips to digital thinking, could you think of anything off the top of your head? Have you learnt from any of your mistakes?

P: I wish I knew. I think the key thing would be that it has to be fun and entertaining. The beauty of digital is that it’s no longer broadcasting, it’s asking you to participate. So make it rewarding, or make it useful, or make it both.

Nike+ is a great example. It’s an application that gives me data on my run. So all of a sudden I couldn’t go for a run without Nike. It gave runners something really useful, and we call these, utilities. Utilities end up being a fine line between advertising and product development.

If you’re in a traditional agency, don’t fear – your skills are still more than ever needed. Everything still needs to be wrapped in a nice idea. A great bit of technology that isn’t will fail because no one will find it, thus use it.

I think for anyone wanting to move to NY for a job — do your work would be my advice. Getting a full time job in NY, is a full time job.

For eight hours a day I’d be making calls to six people who would give me six more people to see, and so on. It takes time. Do your research and give yourself enough time to have weeks where you get no leads. It took me six weeks, which I thought would be my absolute best-case scenario. I was lucky. But there were times during those six weeks where I doubted myself. One thing I will say that as Australians we often go to America and think, is my work good enough? Is it up to a global standard? And it absolutely is. The work we do back home is bloody great. And Australians do well in the states. My Chief Creative Officer, Nick Law (http://www NULL.rga NULL.com/about/featured/platforms-and-campaigns), is an Aussie boy from Newport, NSW. And he’s a rockstar over here. Best of all he’s still incredibly Aussie, which is great. If your work is great back home, you can guarantee that it’s great here. Make the most of getting stuff made. Not that it was overly easy in Australia, but make the most of it.

Written by Junior
Originally posted on: 09/12/2010