Stephen Plumlee —
The R/GA Ventures Managing Partner, R/GA Global COO, and nearly twenty-year veteran of the firm on what makes his practice tick, and why football is prime for collaboration.
By Noah Davis | Image: R/GA
R/GA Ventures, the consultancy launched in 2013 by global firm R/GA, identifies and advises innovation and emerging tech investment on behalf of partners—major companies and public-sector organizations—in categories like energy, media, and blockchain. A banner 2018 saw five new “studios” kick off, one of which, Global Sports Venture Studio, is the evolution of an accelerator begun jointly with Major League Baseball’s LA Dodgers, and includes partners like MLS and UEFA.
R/GA Ventures is coming up on its five-year anniversary. What do you think has been the biggest success of the program so far?
Engaging or operating programs in multiple verticals. And choosing great companies that are really able to engage with our program partners and core business clients. We decided to launch R/GA Ventures for strategic reasons, not financial reasons. We take stakes in the company, but the investments are secondary. We’re really doing it for strategic insight into multiple verticals, keeping a finger on the pulse of innovation, across multiple disciplines and leveraging that for the benefit of our clients, our partners, and our staff. The innovations that we see globally because of what we’re doing in this venture is beneficial to our core business as well.
Why an international focus?
We also have global relationships with our core agency’s clients and partners, and being able to provide solutions from anywhere is a big advantage. We expect to expand our international footprint over the next 18 months. We’ve done programs in Berlin and London, and we are looking very actively at several programs in AsiaPac in 2019 and 2020, as well as additional programs in Europe.
How do you decide on the theme of each program? What’s the process there?
The process is really just thinking about which verticals are important to us, our partners, and our clients. We’re in constant discussions with all of them about what kind of innovations they’re looking for, and what types of strategic objectives or business objective they’re trying to address. Then we decide where we see some critical mass around those discussions, and then we’ll decide how to shape that into a program.
LA Dodgers Accelerator
R/GA Connected Commerce Accelerator
Partners: Macy’s, Shopify Plus, Walmart, Westfield Labs
LA Dodgers Accelerator (2)
R/GA Marketing Tech Venture
Partners: IPG, Snap, Inc.
Verizon Media Tech Venture Studio
IoT Venture Studio UK
Partner: Innovate UK
Global Sports Venture Studio (w/LA Dodgers)
Partners: Adidas, Dick’s Sporting Goods, E15, Fox Sports, Levy, MLB, MLS, NHL, Octagon, UEFA
Leap Venture Studio (Petcare)
Partners: Mars, Michelson Found Animals Foundation
IoT Venture Studio UK (2)
Partner: Innovate UK
Macquarie Capital Venture Studio (Energy, Infrastructure)
Oregon Blockchain Venture Studio
Partners: Intel Corp, Nike, Oregon Health and Science, State of Oregon
How do you find companies?
We break the theme down into areas of interest. Whether [in the case of Sports] it’s venue optimization or player optimization, or training, or community sports, or whatever, we just essentially drill down on the theme topic. Then we use that to map our sourcing process. We’re looking for companies that match to those areas of interest that we assess with our partners.
“Our portfolio ... is an ecosystem of solutions, our clients and program partners are an ecosystem of opportunities.”
How have you refined the model as you’ve done different programs?
When we first started out, we used a fairly traditional accelerator format. Then we realized that there were limitations to that format. It’s time-limited, it’s in one location, usually early-stage focused. For us, we realized that there were other characteristics that would be better suited for what we were trying to do strategically. We work systematically. We bring in partners. Programs are really focused around achieving the strategic objective of the partners.
What impact does that have?
That allows us to blow up the format. Our programs don’t really have time limits. We’re very focused on pilots and tests between the startups and the partners, which leads to the idea of working with more mature startups. We work with a lot of Series A, Series B, and even Series C companies because they can engage with the partners more productively than a really early stage company can. It’s very much about pilots, integration, and providing solutions for the corporations.
Global Sports Venture Studio
Areas of Focus
Future of Retail
That’s the value of the program, rather than just finding startups and then funding them. Our portfolio, which is about ninety companies right now, is an ecosystem of solutions, and our clients and program partners are an ecosystem of opportunities. What we do is kind of curate those relationships as much as possible and support it with our assets of creative capital, not just during a program, but on an ongoing basis. A three-month time frame, having all the companies in the same place, and only investing in early startups didn’t really matter as much.
What’s getting you excited about what’s going on in the soccer space?
MLS is an amazing partner, an incredibly innovative organization. It’s a really exciting time to be working with them because of the demographics of their fanbase, the growth of their fanbase, the growing popularity of the sport, the international dimension of it. They understand innovation, the understand technology, and how to leverage those things to advance their sport and advance the fan experience. So we’re extremely happy to have the opportunity to work with them.
Publisher’s note: Shortly after Kit Issue 05 went to press, R/GA announced that company founder and chairman Bob Greenberg was stepping down as CEO, a post he had held for over forty years. Sean Lyons, the firm’s president, would replace him, while Mr Plumlee was elevated to vice chairman.