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Tiffany Rolfe: “The Industry Needs to Break Out of the Past Norms of Creative Team Structures and Skillsets”
R/GA’s global CCO Tiffany Rolfe sits down with LBB to discuss the tensions agencies are facing, technological disruption, and how in-housing has slowly made agency structures more top-heavy

Many agencies are facing a tricky spot: how do they innovate, improve, retain talent, all while providing for clients who have - in many cases - seen budgets reduced, gone in-house, and are grappling with new technologies emerging? There are a lot of questions, and not a whole lot of direct answers. 

R/GA has always been - unlike some of its competitors - digitally-led, technology-focused, and attuned to the cultural zeitgeist. Its 5-second long Reddit Super Bowl campaign this year - ‘Suberb Owl’ - saw Reddit’s site crash, gained 6,000 mentions on Twitter, and showed how a simple idea can cause shockwaves. It won the Social and Influencer Grand Prix at Cannes Lions earlier this year, and more recently was named Immortal in LBB’s Immortal Awards

So when we look at the challenges facing advertising, R/GA’s CCO Tiffany Rolfe comes to it from an interesting perspective. And in many ways, R/GA’s foundation in technology means the agency can face the current challenges head on, without needing the quick adaptation and structural changes of others: “R/GA is a unique place with one of the most robust offerings in the industry,” she says. 

“The range of creative types will increasingly become more complicated to categorise,” says Tiffany, who sits down with LBB to discuss agency tensions, what skills companies should be investing in, and how expertise is being disrupted as the industry enters a new reality, and how perhaps now, the industry is moving towards having more ‘empathetic’ leaders. 

“Let’s look at what the last two years have brought us: a global health crisis, political uprisings, social justice movements. And let’s look at employees as a whole: the ‘Great Resignation' which is now being called the Great Reassessment. Everyone is examining what they do, who they do it for, and how they do it,” she says. 

Navigating the tension around the future of agencies

Now perhaps more than ever before, the industry is looking inward and trying to navigate how agencies are shaped, and what their purpose is. “How we do our work is one of the biggest shifts agencies are making in order to meet the challenges and expectations of the modern workforce,” Tiffany says and adds how R/GA is navigating this shift: “At R/GA we’re looking through the lens of our purpose, ‘Designing businesses and brands for a more human future’.” 

But she acknowledges the ‘tension’ between ‘human’ and ‘future’: “It’s inherent, and that’s intentional. Technology sits at the core of our company, but we believe it’s critical to look at it through a more human lens.” 

Technology has long been disrupting advertising. Now, with everything from cookie phaseouts to adtech and changing consumer habits, agencies are in a potential scrambling moment. As Business Insider recently reported: “While the established holding companies scramble to adapt to the digital shift, new ad companies focused on digital specialities and armed with new private-equity funding threaten to take their place.” 

R/GA has always been technology-led and digitally focused - but never at the sacrifice of human nature, and the way people work together. The technology challenge now? “Today, we also have to embrace the tension in how technology is effective where we work,” says Tiffany. 

“Finding ways to build trust and human connection with a team is harder over our current digital platforms. So we’re working on finding new ways to connect virtually to enable greater connection, such as building a virtual R/GA office we can all come together in. But even as we continue to push the edges of technological possibility, we recognise that from a human standpoint there’s never a substitute for good ‘ol real-life meet-ups. Grabbing coffee with a co-worker will always be a thing,” she adds. 

Alongside changes to the way agencies work, the way clients operate is also in flux. “Client needs are changing, which is changing how we work. The industry needs to break out of the past norms of creative team structures and skillsets,” says Tiffany. What does that mean in practice? 

“For example, we moved media into the creative department, because for us it is a creative discipline. We need to understand the behaviours on the platforms upstream--they should guide the kind of creative work we do for clients so they show up in an authentic way. So we’re starting to build teams in new ways: a media person and a content creator vs. the traditional art and copy team. Our in-house director partners with one of our largest client’s ECD because the account is so driven by nimble video production. This puts as little time as possible between thinking and making.” 

Tiffany points out that creativity is “always talked about as important or critical to a brand’s success” but “the challenge is that brands --and agencies-- have a very hard time creating the environment for great work to happen.”

“Misalignment around briefs, rounds of revisions, miscast teams, pitching for every project, and fear of taking risks all continually get in the way.”

R/GA and Reddit's award-winning 2021 Super Bowl spot: Superb Owl 

Disruption to expertise as we move into a new reality 

What agencies need from their staff is changing as we enter a new world of working. Where cultures have shifted, staff are leaving for lucrative opportunities in the freelance world, and digital expertise across areas such as AI and the Metaverse is becoming more valuable. 

“We’re seeing expertise being disrupted as we move into new mediums and realities,” says Tiffany. “I spent two hours earlier getting schooled by one of our most junior strategists on the differences in the ecosystems and business models of ‘metaverse’ platforms. So some of this new expertise and skillsets are in some cases not even created yet.”

While advertising has traditionally stuck to labels when it comes to its roles, that too is becoming trickier, according to Tiffany who suggests the range of ‘creative types’ is going to become more “complicated to categorise”. 

“Experience designers who are technologists or AI experts, creative makers, creatives who are curators, designers who build worlds, not just brands. This will get more and more complicated as we shape experiences across more and more platforms and realities. We can’t just put creative people into neat categories and labels.”
But what skill areas should companies be investing in, and where are the potential underinvestments? “I consistently feel companies don’t have the balance right between the ones doing the work and the ones managing the work,” says Tiffany. 

“Part of that is having to mirror or match the client’s structure. And also as more work is project-based, every hour has to be managed. This over management of time can get in the way of exploration. Certainly, we have to manage the business, especially in a more project-based world, but we need to find ways for it to run simply behind the scenes so it doesn’t create barriers to creativity in teams and add difficulty to our relationships with clients.” 

In-housing has made agencies more top-heavy 

The debate around in-housing rages on - Does it increase transparency? Are brands able to be more of the moment? - and along with the debate is an increased focus on how agencies are working in response, and in many cases, with the in-house departments.

“I think in-housing has slowly made agency structures more top-heavy,” says Tiffany. “Most of the work today that agencies get is solving more strategic challenges and setting the vision for a bigger creative platform or building an MVP when it comes to product and service work. When it comes to maintaining a campaign or social, or ultimately building out the full vision of an experience platform, a lot of times that happens in house-- executing it with more junior teams where there can be cost savings for the clients.”

Creative talent differs from creative to creative; for R/GA, the company has brought in a program to help develop its staff to help curate teams: “Getting this right helps us cast projects with the most engaged talent, and even discover hidden talent we never knew our creatives had,” she says. 

“It’s not just getting past the good briefs because you’re buddies with the creative director.” 

Tiffany has previously questioned the onus the industry puts on awards, rather than management skills, for those being promoted to managerial positions. LBB wonders whether the industry has a problem with managing talent? “Yes, the industry has had a problem managing talent,” she says. “Most senior talent hadn’t been trained on how to lead and guide young talent. This has been changing for the better over the last few years and it feels as if agencies are finally placing more value in empathetic leaders.” 

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