Nick Law: There’s a lack of imagination in the advertising industry

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 18 May 2017

The advertising agency model is fundamentally flawed and to remain viable in the future it needs to change. Nick Law, vice chairman and global chief creative officer of R/GA, says there’s a lack of imagination from agencies on how to innovate.

Speaking to AdNews on a recent trip to Australia, New York-based Law spoke of his frustrations that the broader industry isn't really innovating or changing the way it fundamentally does business.

Law, an Australian who has been with R/GA for 15 years, is considered by many to be one of the great strategic and innovative minds in the business having led the development of the Nike+ platform and Beats Music. He drives the agency's strategic and creative vision across consulting, product design, technology and communications and since joining R/GA in 2001 the agency has grown to become one of the most awarded globally.

Lack of imagination

Law’s view on the advertising industry and its efforts to modernise the model verge towards despairing and it’s not a new perspective. Back in 2014 he told AdNews “advertising is eating itself”.

He believes the model most agencies employ is fundamentally broken but feels that while the industry seems to be constantly talking about innovating itself and pivoting for the future, it's often lip service.

“The last time teams [in creative agencies] were innovated was when art directors and copy directors came together,” he says.

R/GA’s approach - which comes from its founder Bob Greenberg - is to pivot its strategy every nine or so years at least.

“That way you never have legacy structures,” Law explains. “You never get in the position where the thing that makes the most money is the legacy piece.”

He says R/GA has a ‘Bauhaus’ model that offers lots of different ways of thinking bound by the vision of ‘connecting’ people and things. Within the business is the traditional agency, a consultancy practice, content studios, startup accelerators and more.

“We’re trying to inoculate ourselves against the things that are shrinking the advertising industry, in many cases by attacking the things that are attacking the industry, disrupting the disruptors. If the consultancies are taking the top off our industry, we're going up against them with a different model. If digital media companies like Facebook are eating the bottom, then we're getting in the accelerator game,” he says.

“There’s a lack of imagination about the model in the advertising industry. I attribute it to the fact that the predominant culture is narrative. Agencies are very good at storytelling but not good at systematic change. You might reposition an agency around the strategic process, but it's rarely ‘we're going to do a different thing’,” he observes.

“It’s surprising to us [at R/GA] that the common team is still art director and copywriter. That goes back to [DDB founder Bill] Bernbach. It was an innovation and it resulted in that beautiful VW work with incredible tension, but it's amazing that was the last time the team was innovated. We're very proud of our model of stories and systems and we think it's working.”

At the risk of sounding anti-advertising, Law says he doesn't hate advertising, just the “laziness” that he feels in ingrained into a lot of the ad industry.

“I hate the laziness of an industry that is telling stories the same way it was 50 years ago. Netflix and HBO have reinvented TV in the last five years, every teenage kid around the world is reinventing storytelling in their own voice and yet advertising is incapable of being influenced by these far more progressive advancements of the grandeur of narrative because. They are so stuck in bloated metaphors and tropes of advertising it makes me break out in hives.”

Taking on consultancies
The debate around consultancies’ encroachment on the traditional agency space has reared up again in Australia of late. Accenture’s acquisition of The Monkeys this month sent ripples through agencies, and Russel Howcroft joining PwC as chief creative officer and forming a ‘CMO council’ has shown an accelerated agenda.

It’s something Law feels particularly strongly about because R/GA’s model has a consultancy practice baked into the way it operates - unlike other agencies that merely talk about consultancy services, he says.

“Our view on consultancies is that we’re consultants that ‘make’. Our belief is that if you don't ‘make’, your theory isn't going to be any good.”

R/GA has a strong consultancy business in its 900-strong New York office and will soon bring that venture to the Sydney office as well as its venture capital and accelerator business model. He and Sydney MD Rebecca Bezzina did not offer timeframe or date but suggested it’s not far off.

In the US it also runs a number of themed accelerator programs each year where it exchanges creative and consultancy services for equity with startups.

Check out out feature Meet the team: R/GA Sydney

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