A man in no need of any introduction, David Droga is a member of that rare breed who have become a living advertising legend. Life is too short to work for bad people.
There is really no superlative that has not yet been bestowed upon Droga5 and the work they do. The entire industry looks up and takes notice whenever a new campaign by the agency is launched. Lürzer’s Archive first featured an interview (conducted by Hermann Vaske) with its founder, David Droga, back in 1998 when the Australian creative had just become ECD of Saatchi & Saatchi, London. Michael Weinzettl thought it was high time to reengage with someone who is arguably the most revered and relevant creative working in the ad business today.
Hi David, Lürzer’s Archive magazine interviewed you last in late 1998, when you had just become ECD of Saatchi & Saatchi, London. The title of the interview was: “I couldn’t rely on being a sweet kid.” A lot has happened in the intervening period and our readers will have been regularly kept up to date in terms of work by you featured in the magazine. Can you give us a kind of time-lapse account of what has happened over the 19 years that have gone by since then?
Wow. Well, 19 years is a long time by any measure, and it’s hard to fathom and mildly depressing to think about.
I just reread your previous interview with me and I laughed to myself, thinking how little I’ve changed in attitude but how much I have aged in person. I guess it’s easiest to say I have just been “keeping on” and working hard to stay relevant and prove that creativity and compassion are a positive force for good in our crazy industry. Overall, when I take this rare moment to reminisce, I think more of the talented people I worked with and the sweat, passion, and laughter we put into it every day.
I was very fortunate that my time in London was so productive. My four years there were such an important and validating part of my story and growth – as a leader, as a creative, and as a person. To mature in a country and business climate that expected, demanded, and appreciated strong, smart work was wonderful.
I think, as a young outsider, I really had to earn my opinion and credibility there. But even today, I look back with pride at so much of the work we produced. Yes, the industry was a lot simpler back then, but the efforts and expectations were as great. I think I just proved to myself that my sensibilities and values could flourish in tough, competitive markets.
But, as is my nature, I grew restless after three years and wanted to challenge myself again. When Publicis bought Saatchi and Maurice offered me the job of Worldwide CCO, I thought that sounded ridiculous and challenging enough to try. It also gave me an excuse to move to New York City.
But, truth be told, as much as I liked the people and the opportunity, I knew almost immediately that the role wasn’t for me. I was a traveling figurehead and not genuinely creating or affecting the work as much as I needed to.
I was in danger of becoming a corporate cheerleader or merely a pampered, overpaid ambassador. So, after only two years, I decided I had to quit one of the best jobs in the industry and put my beliefs and values to the test. Titles, salaries and power don’t inspire me. Beautiful, impactful ideas do. The only logical thing for me to do was start my own agency: “Put up or shut up.”
But I never could have contemplated that if not for the lessons and people who nurtured me throughout my previous jobs. From the tenacity and straightforward attitude you learn in Australia, and the pace and diversity of Asia, to the craft and thoughtfulness of the UK, and the scale and business acumen of a global company, each and every pit stop prepared me to do my own thing. So, in 2006, I started Droga5 at my kitchen table.
I guess the biggest change over the last 19 years is my girlfriend Marisa, who moved to Singapore with me (but is, ironically, from New York) and is now my wife. We are blessed with four delightful children.
Eleven years ago, you launched Droga5 in New York, an agency that has become one of the best – if not, as I often hear, the very best – agency in the world. What’s behind the 5 in the name?
The 5 is nothing more than a sentimental marker for me. As the fifth son of seven kids who grew up in a remote national park in Australia, I was naturally shipped off to boarding school at 10 with my older brothers.
For the sake of laundry, my mother sewed a tag on all my clothing that simply said “Droga5.” (And my brothers’ tags were labeled accordingly: 1, 2, 3 and 4.) It’s that plain and simple.
And did Droga5 take off immediately? What was the industry’s reaction back then when, after having given Publicis a creative and business renaissance, you left to set out on your own?
It has been exciting, exhausting and incredible from day one. Because every decision is, in essence, a personal one. And everything is directed toward the future. Building is always more satisfying than merely sustaining.
Some days we are sprinting forward, and others we are stumbling forward. But, either way, we are moving forward. My business plan was naive and arrogant: Do great work that matters today and you will have a tomorrow. It’s not a very sophisticated strategy, but it seemed reasonable. But, certainly, luck plays a massive part in all of my successes. You need the right opportunities to pounce on. I was lucky my first paying client was an incredible opportunity from GE (and an idea we presented that, to this day, I still wish had been made). By week three, I was also approached by a large American fashion label called Ecko Unltd. And the first thing we produced became a screaming viral success. There were just four people in the company at this stage, and we didn’t even have an office yet – just my kitchen table and a great friend at the production company, Smuggler. Funnily enough, I just found the original five-page Air Force One script the other day. A few weeks after Ecko went live, we created something called the Tap Project for UNICEF. And from there, it has just been one constant blur of opportunities and trying hard to live up to them.
We have grown up at the rate of our output and our beliefs.
When did Ted Royer join your agency and did you know him previously? Can you tell us a bit about his role at Droga5?
I have known Ted a very long time. He was an art director in Saatchi Singapore when I arrived. He was young, but the beauty of our relationship is that I am younger. Ha! We were fast friends. When I went to London, Ted went to some fat job in South America but, after I moved to New York, I hired him to run a few of our best accounts at Publicis. After I quit to open Droga5, he went to Wieden. But I think after about nine months of Droga5, when I could afford more people, I asked him to come to the agency as a partner and as a joint ECD with another of my favorite creatives, Duncan Marshall, from Saatchi London. I am old-school loyal. When I like and trust someone, I am all in. Ted is now CCO, and we enjoy a deep friendship that extends far beyond advertising. I am fortunate that we have a shorthand, frictionless relationship.
While I have a very strong creative opinion about what I like and want, Ted adds a different dimension and sensibility to mine, and that makes us stronger. He is also just a very good man.
But even beyond him, I am extraordinarily lucky to have a creative department stacked with such incredible thinkers and leaders. Much of our creative success also comes from our other departments and leaders. I always say that every client comes to us for our creative work, hires us because of our strategy, and stays with us because of our account service and production.
How do you go about choosing clients, who, I imagine, must be breaking down your door trying to get on your roster? What are some of the criteria they have to meet in order for you to agree to work for them?
Ha. We work in a tough and demanding industry. So nothing comes easy. But we know we aren’t for everyone. So we do say no more than we say yes. Thankfully, there are still many, many great clients out there.
We don’t choose by category or size but rather by mandates, values, and character. Life is too short to work for bad people or to sell bad products.
We are paranoid about who we work with. This is led not by arrogance but by self-preservation. I don’t mind hard categories and tough clients, as long as there are shared ambitions and a mutual level of respect.
How would you sum up what Droga5 stands for in terms of creative work?
Our goal is to build the most influential agency in the world – to produce work that matters and contributes something positive to the category and, hopefully, to the world at large. It has to work, it has to care about its audience, and it has to attempt to be right. That’s our goal, and we are always trying to live up to that. We don’t always manage it, but we have good intentions in everything we do.
What are some of your campaigns you’re proudest of?
Impossible to choose. Hopefully the next one.
What about political advertising? Your “Great Schlep” commercial starring Sarah Silverman was rightly considered to be one of the top spots of that year, as was the Hillary Clinton spot that came out last fall. Do you have a special section within the agency that concentrates on political ads? What are the main differences between this and product advertising?
Politics isn’t something I like, but you can’t always passively sit on the sidelines. We certainly don’t have any expertise in political advertising, but we understand people. So the few times we have been invited to contribute, we do so with gusto. We don’t have different teams or a division that specializes in political work. We are just motivated citizens.
We did a few things for Obama and two powerful commercials for Hillary last year. I wish we could have done more. I’m still heartbroken.
As an industry, we need to put our energies and talents toward helping more people. But this isn’t something we force anyone to do.
With politics and NGOs, it’s always whoever wants to volunteer.
Among the most stunning work of any agency in the past couple of years was the campaign you did for sportswear brand Under Armour. How long have you had this client? What can you tell us about them and their relatively quick ascent to becoming tough competitors for Nike and Adidas?
We have had Under Armour for about three years. Their founder and CEO, Kevin Plank, is an incredibly charismatic force of nature. Under Armour is a phenomenal brand and has a magnificent story. While they don’t have the money the others have, they have the brand, the will, and the courage to make it a good fight.
What would you say have been the biggest changes in advertising, as well as with consumers, over the course of your career?
Our industry has made itself less relevant by taking the consumer for granted. Technology has certainly made things more interesting and fragile. Consumers don’t like annoying things or nonrelevant relationships. Thankfully, this puts the power back into the hands of those who do the thinking and not the hands of those who have the money. It’s less about pins on a map or process. It’s about impact and authenticity. Technology has given us more canvases, but it’s no substitute for relevant ideas.
You will be the recipient of this year’s Lion of St. Mark at Cannes, an award that honors individuals who have made a significant contribution to creativity within the industry. Will this be the award that crowns your countless previous awards?
I’m not sure there is anything more flattering than this one for a creative in our business. When I think of the others who have been honored with the Lion of St. Mark, I am humbled beyond measure. They are some of my real industry heroes and role models. To even be in the same conversation as them is intimidating and rather wonderful.
You won your first Cannes Lion at the age of 19, and more than 70 Gold and 15 Grand Prix/Titanium Lions have followed since then. In the Lürzer’s Archive interview from 19 years ago, you called advertising awards a “necessary evil.” Has your perspective on this changed at all?
In regard to awards, I care less about just winning and more about what wins and why. I love that Cannes is a benchmark for clients and beyond. It pushes our industry to be better.
What are your plans for the agency? There is a London office which is doing outstanding work, especially for Uniqlo. In the future, will more countries be able to profit from advertising made by Droga5?
We will only go where we think we can contribute. Every office needs to earn its reputation, one idea at a time. I hope we have some more offices and partners one day, but I also know we don’t need to.
How does David Droga relax, unwind?
I’m a simple country boy from Australia, so it doesn’t take much for me to unwind or relax. Obviously, my family is my center of gravity, so if I’m with them I feel good. But I do have a farm upstate that is a wonderful escape from the pace of NYC. Chickens, dirt bikes, snow, bees, trees, and books are a luxury for me.
What would you tell students of advertising? Is this still a good time to go into the industry?
The very best time. There isn’t any part of society we can’t collaborate with or add value to. We are paid to daydream, and that’s remarkable.
Our ideas can grow businesses, save lives, educate, entertain and inspire. How many other careers have that sort of range and diversity?
I have no attention span, so it’s just right for me.