Droga in the City

34-year-old creative star Dave Droga has worked in Australia, Singapore and London. As Publicis Groupe's new worldwide ECD, his next stop is New York.

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Droga: "With me, you're not buying a person who is just going to write an ad and weave some magic. You're buying someone who will influence culture, instigate change, get better things from existing people or, in worst cases, change people. You are buying the first domino."
The distracted waitress at New York's SoHo Grand hotel knew it. She hovered oversolicitously, filling our water glasses to the brim. The wistful woman at the next table knew it, too. She put down her apple martini to interrupt our conversation three times. As she returned to pick up the jacket she had "inadvertently" left behind, she looked Dave Droga in the eye and said flirtatiously, "I'm sorry, but you gentlemen are just so distracting."

What they knew is that whatever "it" is, the 34-year-old Droga has it in spades. The joy is that the man who has just been appointed worldwide executive creative director of Publicis does a very good impersonation of a man who isn't spoiled by his good fortune.

"He looks creative," Ms. Apple Martini had said. And, Droga, with his wiry frame (his nickname is Dave Yoga; he practices three times a week), his slightly more than a goatee beard, and his "dress-down everyday" attire, is straight from central casting for young creative directors -- that is until he opens his mouth, or you look up his resumé. Droga talks with the quiet assurance of someone who has already been a creative director for 13 years. And, with his recent New York-based appointment, he will have worked on four continents.

Grounding him is the confidence that comes of being part of a startup in his early 20s; of transforming a small Saatchi & Saatchi outpost in Singapore into the most talked about agency in Asia; and of going into the lion's den that is the London creative community and leading the Saatchi flagship back from its wilderness years to being Agency of the Year at the Cannes International Advertising Festival in 2002.

Right now, however, he is talking like a man who needs a vodka and tonic. He has flown to New York from London for a whistlestop 24 hours at Publicis/New York en route to his last Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide board meeting in Los Angeles. He met his new "suit" partner, the Publicis USA CEO Susan Giannino and as many other future colleagues and clients as was appropriate for a man who remains, for at least another month, the Saatchi/London ECD.

Droga insists that he was always going to do something new this year, despite the surprise his switch stirred, particularly in London, once D'Arcy ECD Lee Garfinkel turned down the job and the Publicis Groupe's worldwide chief executive officer Maurice Levy came calling. "Saatchi knew this would be my last year," he says, his accent still fiercely Australian despite four years in London. "I had always discussed that I wanted to do London for a certain period of time. I think this was a great year for London. I had always said when the momentum is good with the office, that's the time to step out and the momentum can keep going. I get off on the building of things, seeing a change in the personality in a place," he adds, having a momentary attack of uncharacteristic earnestness. "Last year has been the best year, I have loved it. To see all the cynics from when I arrived in London bonding behind me. I didn't know I would come to America," he continues a little unconvincingly. "As any Australian says, to succeed you have to leave the country. And, it is the biggest country in the world. But as someone from the [British] Commonwealth, I was always obsessed by England. London is a different type of challenge."

By which he is referring to the London advertising industry's obsession with the creative end product. He knows that moving to New York to hold down a global ECD role will ostensibly be entirely different. Although he repeats frequently that the Publicis job is global, he is not naive enough to pretend other than his most immediate task is to try to forge a meaningful creative force out of the disparate parts. Among others, there's the former Hal Riney agency on the West Coast, the former Bloom in New York and the former D'Arcy accounts, headed by Heineken, that the new Publicis has inherited.

It would be a major challenge for anyone, but on paper it seems a mountain to climb for a 34-year-old itinerant Australian. Where on earth does Droga get the self-belief that enables him to stare down the task head on? The answer requires a look back at his life before he joined Grey Advertising in Sydney at the ripe old age of 18. It is not like most resumés. For a start, he was born in Thredbo, an Australian ski resort (yes, they do have them!). His father was a businessman who worked for the media mogul Kerry Packer (once a great rival of Rupert Murdoch's). His mother? "A mad Danish woman, who refuses to take Australian citizenship until the country becomes a republic." One of six children, he is the youngest of five brothers. These are all "super high achievers in banks and places like that". Often alone, he says he thought he was "king of the mountains", skiing all winter and playing with wombats in the summer. He had to have an imagination, he laughs, because there was "nothing else to do." As a dispatch rider at Grey, Droga would look at the work on creatives' desks and think, "My god, I can do better than that." So, he did a course in advertising where he scored top marks, and he got a job at FCB. This lasted for all of two months. That's because he was asked by some of the biggest names in Australian advertising to join their startup, Omon. He was 18. His first desk was the pool table.

After three years at Omon one of the principals left, and he was asked to become creative director. He was 21. The agency grew to almost 200 people, including a New York office. Then, the other partners decided they wanted to sell, eventually to Clemenger BBDO. Droga, "being young and single," decided that he would give up his share of the swag rather than serve his earnout.

Throughout this time, Droga says, the Saatchi Worldwide ECD, Bob Isherwood, would proposition him with a job a year. Now, Isherwood offered the 26-year-old the regional ECD job of Saatchi Asia, based in Singapore, previously the type of place expats went to retire. Droga went just as the as the South East Asian tiger economies were taking off. "You know, a couple of years in Asia is like 10 in Europe," he recalls fondly. "For me, it was a great time. I had been so selfish. I had to do it all. I didn't even work with a partner. I discovered I liked building more than writing.

"Saatchi/Singapore was off the Saatchi radar, so we did pretty much what we liked," Droga continues. "I thought Saatchi/London was a bit arrogant. It just took off. We won more awards than them at every awards show. And then Ad Age International made us their Agency of the Year." Work for Hewlett-Packard, Toyota, Burger King and, in particular, the Singapore Navy, got the agency noticed internationally. This included television work, too, in a country noted for print advertising.

After two and a half years, Droga was restless. He fielded job offers and interest from the New York agencies of Fallon, TBWAChiatDay and DDB. Then Saatchi/London came calling. "I was certainly aware of the reputation of Charlotte Street [Saatchi London's address, by which the agency is known]," Droga recalls. "In Australia, that was the agency that everyone grew up thinking about." Saatchi was still trying to recover from the trauma of its founders' ousting from the network, and the ensuing loss of key personnel and accounts like British Airways. In an attempt to move away from the cult of personality, there were six creative directors at the time. Nevertheless, it was still one of the biggest advertising jobs in London, a city where overseas creative directors had been chewed up and spat out with a regularity that makes New York seem a picnic by comparison. "It was an unbelievable challenge. I was really nervous about going. In Singapore, I had seven teams; in London, 35 to 40. I really had to see if I had the strength of character to do it," admits Droga with his customary candor. "When I first arrived there, I got so cold a reception that it actually made me laugh!" Droga called a staff meeting and said, "Look, I know that every person in this room is judging me, and that's fine. I want you to judge me. Anyone that's political can leave now. Anyone that's loyal, I will be loyal to you. And I work hard."

Most of the antipathy toward Droga came not from the 40 teams but more from the six creative directors, most of whom did not last too much longer. But where does the extraordinary self-possession that an unknown (to London creatives) twentysomething Australian must have to behave like that on the other side of the world in the agency he had most respected? "I think my mother instilled confidence in me," says Droga, settling into a second vodka and tonic. "Also, one of the things that makes you a leader is a desire to conquer insecurities. You know, I lie awake at night thinking about work in minute details. I wish I didn't, but … Really, I love taking it personally. Part of me is jealous of people who don't give a shit, and I think life would be so much simpler if I was that sort of person. But at the end of the day I would rather be someone who wants to test the limits."

In London, he plunged into a nurses recruitment campaign that had to be finished in under a week. Then he moved on to the agency's showpiece Army account. The two gave him confidence in his judgment there. Droga set about taking out all the creative department hierarchy, mixing up teams and groups, stressing there would be no star teams or ghettoes. "If everyone in a department thinks they have an opportunity, they will work hard for you," Droga says. "And then you just need a CEO who is backing you up." Droga found himself with two: Adam Crozier, who was soon to leave to become CEO of the Football Association, and Tamara Ingram, with whom he did not always see eye to eye. It was no real surprise when she was moved up to chairman, and in came the former CEO of Saatchi/Wellington in New Zealand, James Hall.

The work followed: the Army, Monster.com, turning around the previously disappointing Toyota account, the NSPCC anti-child abuse charity, Procter & Gamble's Pampers, and the controversial Cannes Print Grand Prix-winning Club 18-30, among others. There were failures, too, most notably the Lloyds TSB bank, where Droga says he "let the domineering client bully the agency into doing crap work. I used to cringe when I saw it on television." Then there was the Norwich Union insurance group, where he clashed with the client so frequently that it was requested he no longer attend meetings. Both clients were to leave - although Saatchi was to win another bank, RBS, in December 2002. Another failure was Sony, a pan-European account he was instrumental in winning when he first arrived in London, and which left recently for Fallon. There he failed to get past the dozen-country approval process.

Droga knows Publicis will be different. He insists he does not want to "spout too much about what I want to do, I want to do it first." That's partly because the agency itself in the U.S. is not fully formed yet, and partly because he is still at Saatchi. He is "nervous in a different way" from when he went to London. "London is London, you know," he says uncontroversially. "It's intimidating, but at least there I knew that whatever happened it was a controllable environment - there are always four walls you know. This one is less tangible." Clearly, he has ideas. He will focus on the group's largest clients and agencies, believing the trickle-down effect will make the biggest impact. He will spend the next couple of months focusing on Publicis in London and Paris, while he moves his family to New York. His wife is a New York Puerto Rican. She would rather have moved to Paris!

Droga will be reunited with Hewlett-Packard, but he must also now acquaint himself with the likes of Nestle and Renault. But, much as he states a dozen times in our interview that the job is not just about the USA, he is businessman enough to know he really has to fix the USA fast. "I'm not more political after London, but I understand the corporate game," he says. He smiles when we move on to the subject of how Club 18-30 appealed to everyone but the Americans in Cannes. "In Australia, advertising is just advertising. In the U.K., I realized that the general public actually likes advertising. There's a higher tolerance for different work in the U.K. But in the U.S., I give credit to Nike and Goodby, Silverstein. I'm a realist here."

And, it is exactly this mix of obsession with the best possible work, and cosmopolitan maturity that attracted the Publicis Groupe's worldwide CEO, Maurice Levy, to Droga. Levy purrs like a cat that's got the cream when we discuss Droga. "He is a superb talent, a unique combination of being 1) a superstar, 2) a real international person with Australia, Asia, the U.K., and a lot of cultures in his background, and 3) he is a simple, straightforward man. He looks at things without that big ego so many creatives have," says Levy, a little ruefully. "He is in tune with today," he continues. "He is fearless, When you are older, you are more political. Better him than someone who is tired, who doesn't want to travel. For me, his age is an advantage."

Droga clearly has Levy's total support. He will need it, particularly in the U.S., where he is an unknown quantity, and where some of his new colleagues do not have his track record of great creative work. There is sure to be some pain ahead. Having said that, he does inspire extraordinary loyalty and respect from those who have worked with him. "At the end of the day, all I care about is the work," he says emphatically. "Whatever it takes to get the best work, that's what I want to do. Because of my age, I have not just taken this job to retire. My loyalty is 100 percent to the creative product -- not necessarily the creative department. It's not only about the creative department getting work out.

"With me, you're not buying a person who is just going to write an ad and weave some magic," he adds. "You're buying someone who will influence culture, instigate change, get better things from existing people or, in worst cases, change people. You are buying the first domino. But judge me on the work."

Watch this Australian in New York. He is an intriguing mix of enthusiasm and worldliness. He has always been the most self-assured and focused of young creatives. And his youth is irrelevant by contrast with his experience. But, has all his traveling softened his national characteristics? Has he become a world citizen? Droga laughs out loud. "I am so Aussie, it's ridiculous -- more so since London. I'm the most patriotic person. When I leave advertising, I'm going to work for the Australian Tourist Board."

And with that, we turn off the tape and the Aussie orders another round of vodkas.

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