James Temple and Rodrigo Sobral, joint ECDs of R/GA London, were always going to work together. Their dynamic, complementary partnership – Temple is more techy and Sobral more versed in narrative comms – seems to have come from “a perfect alignment of the planets”.

Though they’ve been a team for just three years, their meeting of minds has transformed the agency’s fortunes with a host of daring digital campaigns and products. They tell Selena Schleh about their shared goals and fixations, and a Malbec-fuelled Miami meet-up that cemented their partnership

James Temple and Rodrigo Sobral, executive creative directors of R/GA London, are so in tune, apparently, they’ve turned up to their interview in the same outfit: white T-shirt, black jeans. It’s a level of coordination that suggests a decades-long history, but in fact the pair have only worked together, jointly overseeing the agency’s creative output, since 2013.

Nonetheless, that partnership has proved infinitely more fruitful than many more long-standing industry relationships, and under their ‘shared brain’ stewardship the shop has doubled in size, propelled itself out of the shadow of its New York overlord, and transformed into a multi-award-winning, full-service integrated agency that counts the likes of Google, Nike, McDonald’s and Beats among its client list.

“He challenges me and I challenge him, but it’s always in a good way because we know what our vision is,” is how Sobral describes their at-times volatile relationship, which has at its heart the joint goal of moving culture forward and improving lives through work that encompasses blockbuster commercials (Beats’ gold Lion-winning The Game Before The Game), ongoing outdoor activations (Google Outside) and apps that eschew gimmickry for innovative solutions to real problems, be that a serious medical condition (Turkcell’s Instagram-led diabetes management tool, healthmetre) or simply a bad case of FOMO (Heineken’s social media-integrated nightlife planner, @wherenext).


From Dreamweaver to digital supremacy

Temple and Sobral share more than a similar taste in clothes and a mutual appreciation for a bottle of Malbec (more of which later): they both learned their digital trade back in the days when Dreamweaver was the only weapon in a web developer’s arsenal and are mutually “obsessed” with product and service design. But the partnership owes its success as much to their differences as their similarities. “We both have a deep knowledge of, and skill in digital interactive experiences and the different creative application of those,” explains Temple. “So there’s a lot of overlap, a lot of consistency, but a complete sort of independence too.”

Temple, who oversees the systematic side of the agency, has a more techy background than Sobral, who leads creative communications. Having studied visual communications at university (where he delivered all his projects in code), UK-born Temple worked as an interface design consultant for various R&D companies, including Electronic Ink, hopping between Canada, the UK and the US before joining R/GA New York. In 2006, he co-founded the London office. With just an account man and an art director in tow, he was determined to create something “with its own reputation, clients and calibre of work… more than just an offshoot doing local work”.

Brazilian native Sobral, meanwhile, started young in the industry: aged 16, he was making “horrible” car ads in São Paulo (which at least taught him “the importance of effective messaging”), and put himself through university with the proceeds of his geeky hobby, coding. After getting into web design and setting up his own digital production company, he moved to London to take up the role of creative director at UNIT9. A stint on the Nike account at AKQA followed, creating lauded platforms such as Write The Future and Nike+ Supersonic, and in 2010 he co-founded The Mill Digital.  

Around this time, the pair met over drinks with a mutual pal, Lucio Rufo, of R/GA London’s Brazilian contingent. It was a classic case of being “introduced by friends and ended up getting married sort of thing”, laughs Sobral. And like the best marriages, there was instant respect on both sides. “I knew [about] the challenges of starting an outpost of one of the best digital agencies, and having to carry that weight on your back,” says Sobral. “AKQA was this impenetrable fortress in Europe… so anyone coming out of there, especially from the Nike team, is clearly not a chump,” chimes in Temple, “and what Rod had achieved at The Mill, in such a short time frame, was incredible.”



It wasn’t until 2013, however, that their friendship matured into a professional partnership, sparked by Temple’s growing ambition to turn R/GA London into a full-service, end-to-end agency. “There were a couple of pivotal moments, when I thought, ‘I could really do with a partner to grow this vision,’” he remembers. One was an agency of record pitch for O2: R/GA won the innovation brief, developing the Priority Moments platform, while the communications segment of the business went to VCCP. The resulting campaign, Be More Dog, was certainly a bold creative statement, but Temple felt frustrated by the disparity in direction. “We’d created a platform that people were using multiple times a day, and then it went to comms and suddenly we had a cat and a dog! It’s like, why can’t you just show the thing you created? I thought, there’s got to be a way we can take control of this. If we’re creating the invention, why can’t we create the communication?”

The second real turning point was the 2012 Olympics, when a hitherto under-the-radar headphones brand, backed by a certain hip-hop mogul, went stratospheric. Up until then, R/GA’s work for Beats had been fairly small-fry pop-ups and the like, but thanks to an audacious marketing stunt in which athletes were sent – and then papped in – custom headphones (thereby sidestepping strict sponsorship rules), the candy-coloured cans were suddenly on every hipster’s wish list. “It was like a pebble dropped and all the ripples spread out,” recalls Temple.


Two worlds collide in a teary, tipsy union

With Beats blowing up, the agency needed to expand not only geographically – opening an LA office to service the account – but also in its scope of work, moving beyond products and services into narrative communications. For Temple, it was uncharted territory. “Let’s face it, you’re never going to come to me to write a TV spot,” he admits. “I might have some interesting thoughts, but I’m never going to be ‘that’ guy.”

With his passion for storytelling and strong campaigns experience, ‘that’ guy was, of course, Sobral, who’d recently left The Mill. The opportunity was “a perfect alignment of the planets”, he says, and offered a very simple challenge: “If [R/GA] is doing some of the best digital work in the world and we want to get into communications, it needs to be as good as the work coming out of any top agency.”

While the challenge might have been straightforward, the pair cheerfully admit that those early days were anything but. Sobral joined in the midst of a perfect storm: as well as creating a campaign for Beats’ portable speakers, Pill+ (“Essentially launching a product in a category which didn’t really exist yet,”) Temple was tied up with launching a new streaming service, Beats Music (now Apple Music), and setting up R/GA’s Los Angeles unit, Hustle. Working across two time zones for the best part of a year – Sobral in the States and Temple in London – plus the 24/7 demands of a music industry client was “ferocious” and Temple’s control issues didn’t help. Having built the agency from the ground up, he admits he found it “very hard…. [to] let one of the babies go and be brought up by someone else.”   


Beats Music


After almost a year of communicating by phone, the two caught up in Miami to present what Temple calls “one of the nicest pieces of work that will never see the light of day”. The client might not have bought the work, but it was a fortuitous trip nonetheless. “Over dinner, Rod said, ‘Look dude, you’ve got to let me go and do what I know I can do,’” remembers Temple, “and I was like, ‘OK, but first you need to hear these things that are going to make me cry if I don’t say them.’” Two bottles of Malbec later and “a bit drunk”, they realised they’d had a common goal all along: to do the best work both in digital and in communications.

“It was the realisation that yes, we have these overlaps but that’s actually a good thing – they keep us on our toes,” says Sobral. An in vino veritas moment indeed. From that point, the partnership went from strength to strength. “Clients like Google and Beats… started coming to us more and more with comms briefings. It all came from this experiment of James and I learning to work together, merging the two worlds, and having clients that allowed us to explore that,” explains Sobral.


Standing shoulder-to-shoulder at Shoreditch desks

Off the back of a successful few years, the pair are now set to push the boundaries even further, bringing their melange of experience design and storytelling into the context of “connected spaces”, i.e. tech-enabled architecture and interior design. Hot on the heels of the fully-connected New York office, R/GA London’s new Shoreditch digs will function as a showroom and testing ground.  

As well as overseeing the agency’s creative output, Temple and Sobral have joint responsibility for talent recruitment and retention, something they take very seriously. It’s one of the drivers for the European Accelerator programme they launched last year in Berlin, helping fledgling businesses get off the ground while giving R/GA’s creatives the chance to experience the cut-and-thrust of the start-up world without quitting agency life.

With onerous travel demands that frequently place them on opposite sides of the world, how on earth do they keep the partnership going? Telepathy? Teleporting? “[The set-up] works pretty well,” insists Sobral, who’s flown into London for the day and is heroically battling jetlag. When they’re both in London, they share an office equipped with modish standing desks; they host weekly creative reviews there with their teams and “Being in the same room together helps a lot,” says Temple.
Naturally, with seamless digital connections between every R/GA office in the world, there’s no excuse for not keeping in touch.

Teleporting might well be an option in the tech-enabled spaces of the future, but for the time being, they rely on good old WhatsApp to stay connected. But with that shared brain, we reckon there’s some telepathy involved too…

powered by Source

Unlock this information and more with a Source membership.