R/GA's Barry Wacksman on philosophy, strategy and building an agency

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The latest in our series of interviews between a rising copywriter and a senior executive about making it in the ad industry.

Lalita Salgaokar is a rising advertising writer in New York. Creative Class is a recurring column in which she interviews senior creatives about their professional journey, the state of the industry and how to develop a creative voice.

Barry Wacksman is global chief strategy officer at R/GA—one of the world’s leading digital agencies. When I heard that Wacksman had served on the board of Miami Ad School for 10 years, I was intrigued. So, one sunny afternoon I walked through Hudson Yards to R/GA’s pristine offices. His soft-spoken, philosophical outlook on our industry made this a very rich conversation.

You’ve served on the board of Miami Ad School and many other such educational institutions. Is teaching a passion?
At one time in my life I was in a PhD program to become a philosophy professor, but I dropped out and then started working in advertising. So I do have a little passion for education. But our business is so talent-based that if you want to stay strong and smart as a business, you’ve got to have a connection with your future talent.

Many of us at R/GA are either on boards of schools or we’ve got very close relationships with schools. I have been on the board of Miami Ad School for 10 years, and I’ve been serving as the chairman for 2 years.

How has it been witnessing R/GA grow in the past two decades?
Phenomenal. I have been here at R/GA for 18 years. I didn’t go to an ad school, and I didn’t train to work in the agency business. When I first started, I was very unprepared. But I had a good background in web and web design so I was able to quickly adapt. These past 20 years have been the years of maximal disruption of technology—between our clients, between our media companies and between our agencies—and I was right there at the beginning of it all. 

R/GA does not like stability. We thrive on disruption. We’ve been the prime beneficiaries of what’s happening. When I started here we were one small office, and now we’re over 2,000 people in 19 offices. That’s all organic growth. 

What do you mean by organic growth?
We’ve never made a merger or an acquisition. It’s just growth year after year. It’s been like that because we’ve been building things that clients wanted. And that’s why they were moving more and more money in our direction.

The advertising you make is very different than even digital advertising as we know it. How did that come about?
I don’t know if I would’ve liked the advertising business as it existed. I love a good ad. But I don’t have an inherent love for it. What kept me in the business is the key insight at R/GA—we saw the role of technology in improving people’s lives. There are all these things that technology can do to help us. And we were one of the first agencies to figure how brands could get in that action. How brands could create things, ads or pieces of content that were helping people improve the quality of their lives.

Our most famous body of work is Nike, and almost all of that stuff fits that categorization—Nike ID or people designing their own Nike products or Nike Plus or Nike Fuel.

That was an interesting role that technology had started to play, and companies like R/GA were the pioneer partners to do that kind of stuff.

When did your career turn to strategy? Was that your discipline from the beginning?
I was a philosophy student. I’m a big thinker. I’m not trained as a planner or worked as a professional strategist for clients. I have always led corporate strategists at R/GA.

I defined a new role for myself because I was starting to get a lot of strategic disciplines here. We started with planners. We added data and analytics overtime. Eventually, we built this consulting business that I spearheaded about 5 years ago. We had a lot of flavors of strategy, but there was no one person who was leading it all. On the other side we had lots of types of creativity here, but we had one chief creative officer. But, there was no one whose job was to be head of different strategic pillars of R/GA, so I defined that job and took it on.

You’ve co-authored a book on strategy. How did you carve out time to write it?
Writing the book was like a lost year of my life. Because I had my day job, which is as busy as it can be, I’d write through nights and weekends. I wrote most of the book in 2013, and it took about nine months to get to the first draft. Then the editors ripped it apart. We had to rewrite the entire book in 3 months. It was about a year from start to finish. It was pretty painful. 

Was it satisfying to see it out in the world?
I think it’s very satisfying to get to the end of it. We were very proud of what we did. But the thing with books, especially business books, is that you start to feel like they’re outdated. The minute it was done I felt like I have to rewrite this whole thing. I think it still holds up the core idea that we came up with back in 2011. The book was based on a speech we wrote that Bob and I gave in Cannes in 2011. We called it "The next nine years." In that speech, we laid out our vision for R/GA since we work in 9-year cycles.

Why 9-year cycles?
It started as a happenstance but became a part of R/GA’s culture. We’ve moved away from that, we don’t even think in 9-year cycles anymore. Technology is too fast, but the success of R/GA is that it’s a business that’s based on an idea rather than a craft. The problem with the advertising agency model is that it’s based on a craft.

Please elaborate.
The craft of advertising is storytelling. They don’t want that craft to change because they love making it. It’s like if you’re an amazing woodworker and you love making wood furniture. But then someone says you can’t work with wood anymore, and you’ve got to do something else.

That’s a lot of the problem with the advertising industry. It’s populated with people who are lovers of a particular craft, and they don’t want to move away from that. But R/GA was founded more around this business idea that disruptive technologies come into the marketplace in a wide variety of different categories and you could build businesses if you could spot them early. 

Your team pioneered the idea of ‘cultural data’. Tell me a little more about that.
Cultural data does all things coming out of social. It’s a data stream that didn’t exist before social media. Earlier, you could put out a survey and ask thousands of people to respond. But, cultural data is real because you can go in real time and find out what people are talking about or what the most popular topics of conversation are. 

In 2013, the smartphone was beginning to take over the whole world. Everyone was carrying around these magic boxes that unlocked amazing technologies. Whether it was social media or a tool to control a thermostat in your house or a fuel band or shopping. And we saw that the connected age was unlocking all these things that didn’t exist previously. There was all this data that was behavioral based on things people click on or what they’d search for, and this is data didn’t exist previously. This was all personal data that was coming out of platforms people were using like Nike Plus. Now, brands suddenly had access to this data. 

What do you do to recharge your thinking?
I travel with a purpose. I think it’s easy to just stick in the office and keep your head down and do your job. I try to travel for events. You can read books, but I feel like you have to get out there for inspiration. When my strategic juices are starting to slow down, I try to go far away and connect with other people.

What is your role in the industry at large?
I think I’m a philosopher of the industry. I’m always trying to find a way to simplify really complicated things. I can spot patterns and pull together ideas that unify a bunch of things that look disconnected.

Do you have a favorite philosophy book or a philosopher you like?
Bertrand Russell is always great. There was this philosopher who was the reason I dropped out of philosophy because he was writing the most interesting things at the time and his writings were anti-philosophy. His name was Richard Rorty. He was considered one of leading post-modern thinkers. He really influenced a lot of my thinking at the time. 

In philosophy, there’s this dichotomy between all these philosophers that came out of England and Europe and philosophers that came out of America. Growing up in America, I was exposed to these Anglo-American philosophers, who were actually boring. The more interesting ones were the ones that came out of Europe—the French and the Germans.

You’ve been instrumental in building this organization. Do you wish you’d done anything differently?
There’s a bunch of us who’ve been here for a while. We really like each other a lot, and we like working here. We’ve built this amazing company together, and I never look back and regret not taking a job offer at XYZ place. So I’ve got no regrets. R/GA kept getting better every year. We must’ve done a lot of things right. Every day I come in and I keep thinking how amazing this place is and how it keeps doing more and more interesting work.