The secret habits of an innovation agency

Sean Lyons, the CEO of digital innovation agency R/GA, on why he uses Dunbar’s number to create teams, how to step into a founder’s shoes and why nothing the agency does is ever truly finished.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2023

Look at some of the most creative digital work that has taken place over the past few years. There’s a good chance that digital innovation agency R/GA has been behind it.

Sean Lyons has been global CEO of the Interpublic-owned business since 2019, when he succeeded the iconic founder Bob Greenberg (now executive chairman).

Known for its cutting-edge work and exploration of new technologies (the agency worked with Management Today on its metaverse experiment last year), R/GA knows a thing or two about ensuring a business remains forward-facing. The agency forces itself to change every nine years, to ensure it adapts to the ever-changing business landscape (new tech used to take a decade to adopt – Lyons thinks the pace has quickened now).

R/GA's latest restructure began last year, a reaction mainly to the rapidly shifting world of work and and perhaps the macro economic challenges, particularly in the digital space (it saw a drop in income following the recent crypto crash and, like others in the tech space, was forced to make some redundancies).

In December, R/GA became one of the first big marcoms businesses to close its “cavern-like” flagship office in New York and its large-scale San Francisco office, because the spaces no longer fit with how the business operates. Only 40 people used the New York office on a daily basis by the end – R/GA has more than 2,000 staff across the world.

Lyons says nearly half of the agency's US employees live far from its offices, and 80% of its projects use talent from more than one location. To support what he calls this new "distributed creativity" model, he will open a smaller New York office and may open other smaller physical spaces in locations near staff or clients.

He is also increasing investment in travel to bring staff together. He wrote in an email to staff: “A bar bill in Atlanta is a better use of the budget than an empty room at Hudson Yards.”

As leaders deal with the looming threat of a recession, how to innovate and adapt is also on many minds. Are there lessons in how an innovation specialist operates? Management Today caught up with Lyons to find out.

MT: As a global chief executive, how are you responding to the changing nature of work across the countries in which you operate?

SL: Being a global company has been very helpful, because we've been able to see different models applied in different countries and learn from that. The office should be a tool, an environment, not a container for people.

Hybrid work provides an incredible opportunity to build a new relationship with your employees. I run a management meeting every Thursday with the top 50 people in the company. When we were in the office, 20 would be in New York, with everyone else on screens. Now, I do the meeting remotely and everybody has an equal-sized square. It’s broken down the hierarchy of the headquarters and brought us closer together. That’s the gift of technology.

I've also learned that you can’t always be top down, you have to be a leader who listens. It doesn't always come with the territory of a job like mine, because you often are expected to make decisions and be decisive.

You have talked about the importance of Dunbar’s number – the idea that you can only have a cohesive social group of up to 150 people. Can you explain how you use this?

We’re a creative company and scale isn't the biggest friend of creativity - it can be stifling. You have to break down your teams to make sure they're working in smaller groups - that's where the innovation happens and ideas come from.

Something we talk about a lot is: how big do you get before you get bad? We ask that because while scale is a benefit to a business, it can also be a detriment to the exchange of information, creativity and innovation.

I use Dunbar’s number as a guideline, not a rule. Years ago, we reorganised the New York office because it was too big and tried to stop teams of more than 150 people. This helps prevent scale that gets in the way. The business leaders who are running a client team know best how to develop the strategy for the client and which team to bring in. The closer you are to the actual work, the better decisions you're going to make.

R/GA says its work is only ever 80% complete. How does that thinking affect how you work?

When you have a powerful principle like we’re only 80% finished, it allows people to make the leap into that next thing. So really, that principle is just an invitation to change. It allows us to get something started and not try to plan ourselves to perfection.

Perfection is impossible, we have to create momentum by doing things. The first time we do something may not be the best time, but we started it, we can evolve it and make it better.

It’s also what we advise our clients to do. You have to put things out into the world to learn, whether it's advertising or software. That's the way you understand the impact your product is having and how you might need to change it. It’s practice before theory.

Our model is developed through the work we make, it’s not done in a strategic session. That’s the key to our success over the entire history of the company.

How do you cultivate innovation?

You have to be able to learn new things and unlearn other things. That is a tremendously important skill set for people who are innovating because you're going to be humbled every day of the week. You must consistently retest your beliefs and hypotheses, how you work and interact with people.

We talk about innovation happening at the intersections of things - different disciplines or types of work for example. We’ve found we can generate more innovation when we almost engineer some of that conflict between two different disciplines in a positive conflict domain, and so we work hard at enabling that.

In 2019, you took over from Bob Greenberg, who is an industry icon and the founder of the business. What advice do you have for leaders that are stepping into big shoes?

I still have the benefit of working with Bob, who is our executive chairman. But I think you have to be your own leader - it's a cliche but it's absolutely 100% true. You can't go into something to be someone else. Build your own habits, your own routines. 

It’s essential to have inside and outside advisors. I found that a lot of people who take over a company from a founder experienced the same things I experienced. Having those conversations enables me to be more confident in my own leadership style and the things that I do.

A problem that a lot of new leaders have is they think they have to figure everything out on their own. They don’t. Communicate with your people, tell them what you're thinking about, make sure you're actually sharing. Your job is not to have every answer.

How do you balance your work/life responsibilities?

I don't look for balance, I'm just deliberate about whatever I need to do. If I need to meet a team on the weekend because they are working through something, I’ll do it. If I need to take my kid to buy Halloween decorations during the week, I’ll find the time to do it. A key benefit of the pandemic is that I’ve travelled a lot less so I’ve been more available for my family. That’s been helpful. So it’s just taking a flexible approach.

What advice would you have for leaders to make sure they’re able to spot the new trends on the horizon?

A lot of innovation is driven by technological trends or individual technologies, but you have to look at them creatively and from a human perspective, not just for efficiency. How do you look at technology in a way that can serve people's needs? It's easy to say that, but what does that really mean if you're a large telco, or a bank?

People might dismiss new technologies like the metaverse or the volumetric capture space that we’re working on now, because they're not scaled yet. But if you don't get the practice in experimenting and working in those environments, you can be expert on it intellectually, but not the expert on actually doing it.

An essential part of any innovation is that you have to put things into practice. So look at new technologies creatively. It's enormously fun to figure out what's possible because you get to create the habits and patterns, as opposed to just waiting to do it.

Once you have curiosity about technology in your blood, you're able to see what might be coming next.