Creative All Star: David Droga

David Droga’s Droga5 has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to the digital space. To wit: When it was launched in 2006, the indie shop made a splash with that famous video for fashion designer Marc Ecko that fooled people into thinking Air Force One was tagged with graffiti. Remember that clip? It went viral before people even understood what it meant to go viral, and before long, Droga’s New York City-based startup was growing and competing with the established players in the advertising industry. Today, Droga5’s client roster includes the likes of Diet Coke, Spotify and Under Armour, and the agency has expanded its reach with offices in Sydney and London. Just last year, Droga sold a 49 percent stake in his company to Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor.

Droga is clearly no slouch when it comes to business, but he is a proud creative at heart as evidenced by his title — he isn’t simply chairman of Droga 5, he is the creative chairman. “The work is where I feel like I can contribute. I want to be involved, and I want to be connected, and that’s personally what I like to do,” he tells MediaPost, noting it’s the reason he gave up his post as worldwide chief creative officer of Publicis Network to start his own agency eight years ago. “I’m not pretending I’m not involved in the business, but I’m a creative person. I can’t pretend I’m anything but that.” 

That said, Droga isn’t about to take credit away from his team. He points out that he is surrounded by talented creatives at Droga5 without whom his agency couldn’t thrive and break new ground, and while, at times, he contributes ideas, sometimes he best serves his team by “getting out of the way of an idea.”

Great ideas have flowed out of Droga5 this past year, especially in the digital realm where the agency first made its mark. Notably, there was a campaign centered on talk of a Super Bowl spot for Newcastle Brown Ale that promised to be “mega huge.” There were teasers promising us as much. A focus group was convened. Anna Kendrick and Keyshawn Johnson were onboard!

And that Super Bowl commercial would have for sure been all that and more…if the brand had actually had the money to make such an epic ad.

One of Droga5’s creative highlights in 2014, the humorous campaign all about a Super Bowl spot that was never to be lived on the Newcastle Brown Ale’s self-proclaimed “mega huge” microsite, and it is a shining example of what can be done in the digital space to upend the traditional advertising model. 

Think about it: Americans were talking about British ale at Super Bowl time thanks to a campaign created by an agency founded by an Australian.

“That’s funny,” Droga muses when this revelation is presented to him.

“It’s not rocket science: The best ads tell great stories,” he wrote in an essay in Esquire last fall, simply summing up the key to his creative approach, noting, “The ingredients for great advertising haven’t changed since the Mad Men era: Brands win if their advertising is relevant and people like it.”

Actually, not everyone liked Droga5’s “This Is Wholesome” Honey Maid campaign, which played out on television and online this year, celebrating families and embracing diversity by featuring a gay couple, an interracial couple and a single dad. It was beautiful and garnered lots of praise, but homophobes and racists complained about the spot, some labeling it “disgusting.”

The ad agency and its client cleverly used the hate to share some love, responding to critics with a YouTube video in which two artists printed out the negative comments, rolled each sheet of paper into a tube and then pieced the tubes together to form the word love. To see the brand choosing to defend its lovely message rather than kowtow to haters by dropping the campaign was heartening.

Other highlights from 2014: Now in its eighth year promoting the UNICEF Tap Project, which is dedicated to bringing clean water to the nearly 800 million people around the globe who don’t have access to it, Droga5 created an anti-app that encouraged people to put their cell phones down. Every time participants were able to reach the 10-minute mark without using their phones, UNICEF sponsors donated money to make sure that a child in need would be given a full day’s worth of clean water.

By the way, Droga is no slacker when it comes to technology. He launched the Droga5 product development spin-off De-De in 2012, and the venture is behind products like the crowd-speaking platform Thunderclap and Jam, a push-notification messenger for the iPhone. 

Droga likely couldn’t have imagined any of these technological innovations back when he was started out in the advertising business nearly three decades ago at the age of 18. He was only 22 years old when he became a partner/executive creative director at OMON Sydney. From there, he went on to high-level creative posts at Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore and Saatchi & Saatchi London before heading to New York City to become worldwide chief creative officer of the Publicis Network, departing to finally do his own thing with Droga5.

MediaPost spoke to Droga for a more in-depth look at the thinking behind some of his agency’s best work this year as well as to get his thoughts on the digital space in general.

MediaPost: You made Newcastle Brown Ale a part of the Super Bowl ad discussion without your client actually having to shell out the outrageous amounts of money advertisers have to pay to be seen during the game. Why do you think the “If We Made It” campaign was so successful?

Droga: There was a lot of groundwork laid for that campaign. A lot of creatives and a lot of strategists worked hard in the years previous to establish a tone of voice that was unique and honored Newcastle, and the campaign came out of a strategy that was very faithful to the tone of voice that would come from a northern English brand of ale. It’s a point of view that can manifest itself across the board. 

This was also one of those things where there is no question that sometimes obstacles make for great outcomes. The Super Bowl is the biggest showcase of beer advertising in America, and it’s dominated by one brand. It’s so preposterous, and we were poking fun at the ridiculousness. It needed to be lanced, right? Someone had to sort of take a poke at the extremities of the whole Super Bowl event.

The way the campaign was laid out with the teasers and everything offers a great example of the kinds of stories you can tell in the digital space. Do your digital campaigns always start with a story, or do projects ever begin with a desire to harness a particular technology?

It actually never starts with trying to harness a technology. It usually starts with an outcome--what is the desired outcome we want to get and with whom. We almost work backwards from there, finding the desired outcome, then finding the best channels and canvases for that. There’s no question the digital space lends itself to multiple opportunities. 

When you’re telling a story as comprehensive as the one we told with Newcastle, particularly with the Super Bowl campaign, digital was all about serving this story. Being online really gave it a three-dimensional canvas, and we just assumed that the narrative was timely enough and interesting enough and relevant enough that it could exploit and ride the wave of consumer opinion — they would pretty much push it, so we didn’t really have to push it. They would pull it and such.

Can you talk about the strategy you employed in rolling out the campaign?

We sort of tried to mirror what was going on with all the big spenders [who had ads running during the Super Bowl]. When they were launching teases, we would launch teases. We would launch everything in sync with that, and we exploited the fact that everybody pre-releases [their ads], and we even did versions of everyone else’s ads in style of the Newcastle ad. There was a real roadmap to it even though it looked like we were just having fun.

I consider the Honey Maid “This Is Wholesome” campaign one of your digital successes, though it played out via traditional media and digital media. Am I correct in viewing it this way?

Yeah, definitely. We don’t have a digital department as such. We have many, many fantastic and capable digital people, but we don’t break it up to that degree. Again, we start with the outcome, where you want it to go. The launching strategy is the thing that leads you to the appropriate canvases. It’s about just finding what’s valuable. Technology is not a solution or an answer.

So your creatives work on every element of a campaign, whether it’s a TV commercial, a print ad, an app, a website, whatever it might be.

Everybody works on everything. There are people who have the capacity and the background to build digital things, but we don’t have digital creative and traditional creative. 

That makes sense. As a writer, I can write a cover story for a print magazine, but I can also write blog posts for a website.

Exactly. You write to the audience. The three most important things in our industry are content, which is the storytelling, then there’s the canvas where it runs, and then there’s a context in which people consume it. You write things and create things thinking of those three things. We’d like to think that we’re authentic across the board. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with a campaign that’s only traditional if that’s the right board. You go where it’s going to serve the purpose and the client.

The Honey Maid “This Is Wholesome” campaign was groundbreaking in that it depicted families we don’t always see celebrated in advertising, including a family headed by a gay couple, an interracial family and a single dad raising his kid. Why was it important for Honey Maid to create such an inclusive campaign, and why should brands in general take a stand and go beyond selling product and become a voice when it comes to social issues and causes?

Brands are not just citizens of a shelf or your pantry or your wardrobe or your garage. Brands are part of the world. They have to live amongst you. They have to have a point of view if they expect to be valued amongst us. People want the body language of the brand to match what it says. Honey Maid is a very old brand. It’s old school, and it’s wholesome, and we wanted to showcase that and say, “Let’s acknowledge the real world. What is wholesome in the real world?” 

No one had taken a stand. A wholesome family isn’t just based on a look or a stereotype, which the industry sometimes gets a little bit cookie cutter about. We thought this is something that needed to be said. This is something that a brand like this can stack up to the ceiling. It’s not just a tactic to get press or anything like that. If you want to own wholesome then you really, really own wholesome and all the goodness that comes with that. 

Fortunately, Honey Maid believed in it. They thought it was something that needed to be said and was right for them to play their part in it. When a brand has a purpose, it gives you places to go.

You did a panel with BBH founder John Hegarty at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity, and you spoke at length about how on a personal level you love that brands are interested in doing good these days and find personal fulfillment in working with them. 

There’s no question. It’s such a privilege to be in a creative industry. We like to think of the social contribution of what we do as well. That operates on two levels: Let’s start with the basic, which is, let’s not create annoying advertising. Just approaching it from that level, you’re contributing something positive. But then you take it a level further, which is, we want to work with clients that have something positive to say and positive to contribute. That’s not to say that we’re Mother Teresa. I’m happy to sell beer. But I like really thinking about the value of what we contribute. That’s part of our culture in our agency. We talk about intent, and we mean that in a sincere way. We like working with brands that have something to contribute to society.

Honey Maid didn’t back down from its stance after it received hate mail for depicting gay and interracial families as wholesome. You crafted an incredibly touching response when you made that video of the two artists making that love paper sculpture out of the hateful backlash the campaign received. Can you talk about why it was so important for the brand to stand up to the haters rather than back down?

It was more than just trying to own wholesome, and it was not just a tactic. It wasn’t just a short-term, “Oh, this will get us some press.” There was a real belief throughout the companies [Honey Maid and Droga5] that this was a great thing that we believed in, and, you know, whenever you take a point of view, generally, that there is going to be some counter opinion to that. To Honey Maid’s credit, they were all in. When we presented the campaign, we had all those conversations knowing what could happen when you stir the pot. We had to be prepared to stand our ground.

Well, it was done in such a lovely and original way using art like you did.

That was a credit to particularly the main creative on that side, [executive creative director] Kevin [Brady]. It was like, what better way to stand your ground than use kindness and beauty as opposed to being adamant or being too defensive or being too on the offensive. The beautiful thing about that video is it also illustrated the fact that, yeah, in so many factors of life there are going to be negative, negative, negative opinions and pushback and pretty sad and hateful things said. The flip side of that is there was so much positivity [in response to the campaign] that overwhelmed the negativity. It made you think, “We are doing the right thing.” Your audience helps you. They become the advocates. 

If the Honey Maid “This Is Wholesome” spot had run in say, 1992, you wouldn’t have been able to respond so quickly in that way that you did. Do you ever marvel at the things the Internet allows you to do these days?

I think we’re storytellers, and that’s a generic word, but back in the day before the Internet was so prevalent we were storytellers. We would put a neat package out in the world with a beginning, middle and end. Nowadays, we can instigate the story but we can let it flourish, and we can nudge it along the way.

Can you talk more about this subject? I’m wondering if all of the possibilities created in the digital space in the last 20 years have had a major impact on the way you do you job as a creative person.

I think the fundamentals haven’t changed. Fundamentally, you have to do something that people want to engage in. There are two parts to it. I think on some levels it can be overwhelming in the sense that you feel like some people or clients sort of feel like they have to chase the latest and try new things, and that can be dangerous. But I think, if anything, it has put even more pressure on us to be better. That’s the one thing I like about the changing landscape is that consumers don’t have to endure what we create anymore. Creatives have to create work consumers want to engage in. 

You recently hired Niklas Lindstrom as the new head of interactive production at Droga5. Did you give him a mandate when he took the job? What are you looking for him to bring to that position?

Niklas has an impressive track record, and I think we do as well, so we’re thinking together we can do even more exciting things. I mean, I feel like we’ve grown a great deal. We’re privileged to have some amazing clients. Our canvases are getting bigger and bigger, and we want to grow without compromise, and the more great brains you bring in, the better really. The mandate wasn’t sort of like we suddenly want to push into places we haven’t been — we just want to be better and better at what we do. It’s weird because if you broke down what amount of work we do that’s traditional and what’s digital, I wouldn't even know anymore. We don’t really have these conversations in the office at all. 

It seems like those of us outside of the agencies are obsessing about that while those of you inside the agencies appear to be simply thinking about coming up with great ideas.

One hundred percent, and it’s only a great idea if it works, and it gets out there. Gone are the days where you just create something in an artificial environment like a boardroom, where you present it, and then you just put it out in the world, and that’s it. It’s much more about what the idea is and where it’s going to go and what we want the ramifications to be, and so you really need to think about the whole system.

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