Droga5 New York has drummed up plenty of noise for daring clients -- from Jay-Z to Marc Ecko to the New Museum. But what happened when it needed to shine light on what Chief Creative Officer Ted Royer described as "that lumpy box on the shelf you grab when you're out of Oreos?" Turns out, a lot.
For Mondelez's Honey Maid, the agency created one of the year's most talked-about campaigns -- in the real world, and not just the industry. In a spot that's earned 8 million-plus YouTube views the agency updated the idea of a "wholesome" family for the 21st century with images of mixed race clans and gay parents. It then put haters in their place with a response film that transformed all the negative feedback into a sculpture of "Love," surrounded by a sea of positive comments.
But that was just one of the agency's many creative home runs in 2014. For clients big, small, old and new, Droga5 New York created work that once again made the industry re-think what it means to be "innovative" -- easily earning the honor of Creativity Agency of the Year.
As 2014 began and advertisers swung away at the the advertising pinata that is the Super Bowl, the agency stole the show with an ambush campaign for Newcastle Brown Ale that amplified the brand's "No Bollocks" premise with cheeky films, including one starring actress Anna Kendrick imagining what would have happened had she appeared in the brand's big game ad that never ran.
The agency continued to draw its clients into the spotlight throughout the year with more groundbreaking ideas, many of which became part of the cultural conversation: Under Armour's "I Will What I Want" women's campaign revealed supermodel Gisele and ballet dancer Misty Copeland as badasses; a Prudential effort showed how productive retirees could be in late life -- by recruiting them to create the campaign; an app for Tap Project that allowed people to contribute to UNICEF's clean water effort by abstaining from their cellphones -- a model meant to conjure what it's like to go without even something inessential; a heartwarming holiday film that showed how scent can conjure a sense of home for a military dad, for Airwick.
"I feel like the diversity of our work is one of our best and truest assets," said Creative Chairman and Founder David Droga. "We don't have any accounts that we're not trying to move forward or that we're not proud of."
"Droga5 gets that 'if you get in the news, you get the views," said Quinn Kilbury, Senior Brand Director at Heineken and former Newcastle brand director. "Doing what you did yesterday won't get where you need to be tomorrow. They understand the value of smart disruption."
Breaking through the clutter is just part of the Droga5 M.O. Solid strategy supports all of the agency's work -- something Mr. Droga said that for him, has not necessarily always been the case. "There's no question in my younger days, I'd think you could just blink and creative would solve everything. But now it has to be creative on strategy. What's hard is trying to be responsibly creative, versus just creative."
While the Newcastle work, for example, feels as ballsy as some of the agency's early high-profile stunts -- such as the 2006 film for Marc Ecko that showed a tagger spray painting Air Force One -- it's rooted in solid brand insight. Mr. Royer said that the "No Bollocks" tag came straight from the no-B.S. character of the people of the U.K.'s North East "Geordie" region, home of the Newcastle headquarters. That's also where a local told Droga5 staffers, upon learning they were from the U.S., "I fucking hate Americans!" said Mr. Royer.
In the case of Honey Maid's "This is Wholesome" campaign, the agency revived a brand truth that was always there. "Wholesome" has been on their ads from 100 years ago, so we didn't ask them to do anything that wasn't them," Mr. Royer said. "We just said to them, today, what is wholesome is actually a fierce debate. Why don't we enter this debate on a side we think is the right side?"
Being on the "right side" is another thing Droga5 remains fiercely passionate about -- whether it pertains to advertising, or the world in general. "We don't have any accounts that we don't have good intentions on, that we're not trying to move forward," Mr. Droga said. "We're proud of every client."
"The last thing we want is to tell one group, 'You guys handle this over here, while we do the fun stuff over there,'" added Mr. Royer. "I think that's why we left big agencies, to escape things like that."
Speaking of big agencies, Droga5 is no longer the little upstart it once was. In 2014 alone, the agency added 150 new staffers and now numbers at more than 370 people (full-time freelancers included), including 100 in the creative department. And with around 50 open positions, it's poised to grow even more.
Contrary to the industry's general belief, Mr. Droga insists size isn't an obstacle to doing good work. "Size doesn't dictate quality so much as belief and leadership do," he said. "If you grow at any cost and with anyone who is willing to pay you, regardless of their mandate, product or behavior, then you are already compromised. Thankfully, there are enough like-minded clients out there, of all sizes, [that can help us] grow and be consistent."
It helps that the agency makes it easy to collaborate, said Mondelez Sr. Director of Global Communications Jill Baskin, who worked with the agency on Honey-Maid and before that, Athenos. "There are no layers at Droga. I can talk to David or my account person and I feel like it's the same. They set the expectation that if I were to pick up the phone and call Kevin (Brady, ECD), it would not be a black mark on the account person. It's an open, free-flowing relationship."
Going into 2015, the agency looks forward to launching a new album for a top recording artist along with its partner WME, which bought a stake in the shop in 2013, and it's already started to generate more buzz with Newcastle. This time, instead of imagining the beer made it to the Super Bowl, the brand is "crashing" its way in by spoofing Doritos' annual user-generated ad contest and recruiting other advertisers to pitch in for a local spot to run during the game.
Outside of the work, Mr. Droga and Mr. Royer are both proud of the creative leadership the agency has nurtured, including ECDs Kevin Brady and Neil Heymann, who brings smarts, but also a calming, stabiliizing force to the high energy of the agency. "We don't pretend that it's not a very ambitious and fast-moving place," said Mr. Droga. "There are huge expectations on everyone here. But it's also pretty important that people know the management has their back. It's not a sweatshop. People work very hard and we reward that. It's not joyless success."
"We always say we succeed when we do good work and people have a fun time doing it," said Mr. Royer.