Agency Of The Year: Droga5

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Front Left: David Droga, Ted Royer, Duncan Marshall and Andrew Essex
Front Left: David Droga, Ted Royer, Duncan Marshall and Andrew Essex Credit: Simon Harsent
Consider the selection of Droga5 as Agency of the Year recognition that new model advertising can really be more than ads. That the creative start-up circa 2007 can be the idea-centric, pan-platform, problem-solving, socially aware, multi-disciplined creature we hear so much about.

The agency's inaugural effort, 2006's audacious web film "Still Free"—wherein a mysterious figure breaches security at Andrews and defiles Air Force One with graffiti—won the Cyber Grand Prix at Cannes and an avalanche of media and audience attention. Such a first inning home run surely increased the naturally occurring pressure on a new agency. No matter. Agency founder David Droga isn't exactly a man hobbled by self doubt (a quick recap: playing with wombats at 17; agency creative at 18; rapid moves from Aussie CD to ECD of Saatchi Singapore to the hottest of hot seats, Saatchi London ECD by 32, then to New York and Publicis worldwide CD and now name on the door of a new company). In fact "Still Free" wasn't just a pace setter, it was a liberator. When the first thing you do gets the Department of Homeland Security on your case, it does something to your mindset as an agency. Something good.

That sort of "can they do that??" energy has infused much of what Droga5 has done this year. The agency's '07 output consists of a uniformly compelling and wide ranging string of ideas and initiatives.

Though the work varies enough so as not to congeal into a wearying house style, there is a bold ambitious tone that unites everything. At the end of last year, on the heels of Ecko, D5 created the Tap Project, a from-scratch charitable initiative for UNICEF and World Water Day that saw restaurant patrons shell out $1 for New York water (see sidebar for work details) and that captured a Titanium Lion at Cannes. More recently, D5 introduced another radically new creative marketing venture, Million—a brand-friendly initiative that aims to solve some of the New York school system's considerable problems by re-casting students' phones as learning tools. The shop has also done some, you know, advertising, all of which has been equally fresh and superbly executed. Work has included the "Win Nick's Life" integrated campaign for the launch of Steinlager beer; a series of funny yet affecting spots for mobile company TracFone based on some too good to be true real people victimized by Big Mobile; and a print and outdoor-heavy campaign for the just launched New Museum of Contemporary Art that cleverly employs the head turning silhouette of the museum's about-to-be iconic new building. All the while, Droga and the agency were working to bring to life a gargantuan side project, an online content channel for the younger set called Honeyshed. The recently unveiled site (see full story on Creativity Online) is a collaboration with production company Smuggler and funded by Publicis (the holding company is a backer of Honeyshed, but Droga5 itself remains an independent shop) and introduces a new (yet sort of not) dynamic to the bustling but challenging branded content arena—making entertainment out of the sell rather than burying the sell in entertainment.

From Left: Judd Merkel, Mindy Liu, Ben Nott, Scott Witt, Jennifer Candelario, Sally-Ann Dale of Droga5
From Left: Judd Merkel, Mindy Liu, Ben Nott, Scott Witt, Jennifer Candelario, Sally-Ann Dale of Droga5
Now our readers are not typically an overly critical bunch, but if they were, some of them would point out that D5's work, yes, is a touch New York-centric, and that a lot rides on the brazen, unproven Honeyshed, and well, they'd be right. But the agency proved too big a creative presence to pass by this year. D5 did what the industry has collectively been talking about for a long time—it created big ideas that are manifest across any and all areas and executed them with style, it took major risks, and it did what could now be considered a bonus, but soon may be de rigeur: it devoted a portion of its efforts to works that have a meaning beyond stimulating consumption.

Will Honeyshed reinvent branded content? Will Million make cynical kids think education is cool? It's too early to tell but these sorts of ambitious and optimistic ventures inarguably move what we now call the ad industry forward.

According to Droga, who gave himself the somewhat ironic title of creative chairman when he launched D5, the agency's ability to conceive and execute big ideas inside and outside the advertising framework doesn't owe to any magic staffing or procedural secret sauce. Droga has certainly sought diverse voices at all levels—agency president Andrew Essex hails from the publishing world, interactive types are mixed in with designers like Ji Lee; even CFO Judd Merkel is from the banking world (meanwhile Honeyshed principals like head of programming/development Kim Howitt and executive VP digital media Devrin Carlson Smith are from Nickelodeon and Microsoft, respectively). But many key D5 players are from the agency world—several of them, like ECDs Duncan Marshall and Ted Royer and head of broadcast Sally-Ann Dale, are Droga's erstwhile Saatchi and Publicis coworkers.

The agency's creative flexibility and vigor stem from will, combined with that thing that has driven success for agencies like Goodby and Crispin—a buck-stopping creative leader who drives the company's culture. Droga acknowledges the importance of his senior creative leaders but also the roster of "eclectic creatives," the creative director of media and the digital types who work together on every project. "We try and have a common thread with everyone in every briefing session," says Droga. "Nothing pops out of a pipe; everyone is a father or mother along the way."

On the initial plan for the agency Droga says, "To say that I had a locked down vision for the place is giving me too much credit. I wanted to make stuff. I wanted the agency to be defined by the people we bring together—not just how we're going to occupy the digital space or this or that space. We didn't start and say, 'Oh, we have to push the boundaries.' We just wanted to be able to go into a room and present what we think is the right solution for a brand, as agency of record or in terms of big projects."

Honeyshed itself was also a catalyst for the creation of D5. Droga and the Smuggler contingent had begun talking about the project while Droga was at Publicis and getting that long simmering project off the ground provided his initial impetus to light out for entrepreneurial territories. The site launched in beta in October, with the consumer launch early this month, and now Droga and company are working on refining content and formats, casting and focusing on bringing advertisers on board. "It's consumed so much of my time but it's been fantastic," says Droga of Honeyshed. "There's a robustness and permanence to it. Usually when you finish something you let it out the door and it's done. This one is constantly evolving. We're constantly talking about taking the content to the next level." The HS site may also evolve in media terms—among the original ideas for what is now HS was to launch a broadcast channel and that's still one possible future scenario. "We have plans for different phases," Droga says, "but how consumers react will dictate how that happens."

So the agency was launched, in May 2006, with Honeyshed already a going concern. After "Still Free" for client Marc Ecko the shop undertook Tap Project while adding project work for a small handful of clients and AOR duties on TracFone. More recently D5 added the New Museum, Real Networks and its Rhapsody music service (a major campaign is due out in the new year) and airline Maxjet as AOR clients and is working on projects with Esquire, Microsoft, ESPN, Diageo and others. In the last 12 months, the agency has grown from seven to 40 people and recently moved to its permanent home on Lafayette St. in New York. With the rapid pace of growth and addition of bigger clients, Droga says he just added the shop's first account people. He's also a big fan of producers. "Producers get stuff done," he says. "Our office needs to be filled with doers, not process people." The shop has also expanded geographically—with the announcement of a new Sydney outpost with ex-Saatchi Australia CD David "Nobby" Nobay in the lead role.

Notwithstanding the built-in aptitude for bigger picture ideas, Droga doesn't quibble about the nature of his work. "I'm absolutely an advertising man," he says. "I'd love to think I'm an artist. But the essence of what I do is creativity wrapped around commerce. That's something I love. Technology changes and media and definitions of things change but what I do is the same." He also gives credit to the ad agencies that have continually set new creative standards. "I think Goodby and Wieden are amazing," says Droga. "To be able to build something with a creative culture; they are serious entities, not boutiques. They've improved as they've grown and not backed themselves in a corner." That constant evolution is what Droga says has driven the creation of the new agency and the wide ranging creative endeavors. "It's one of the things that came out of working in all those different markets; I'm restless. I realized I wanted to step up and keep evolving." Perhaps the biggest evolutionary advance for the industry now, he says, is the opportunity for the creative ad person to have a greater business impact. "We want to create things that are little less disposable. We're not going to make every decision with the client but I'd like to feel that our voice can make a difference not just on the fall campaign, but where the category is going, what the challenges and opportunities are. We only have our imaginations and ideas to offer—we want to stretch the parameters of how they can be applied."

The Work: A peek at D5's '07 highlights

Tap Project

Droga5's second creative milestone, an eventual Cannes Titanium Lion winner, sprang from what could have been an exercise in self love. When Esquire profiled Droga for its "Best and Brightest" issue, the magazine challenged the adman to give a little demonstration of all this purported creativity. Instead of a funny ad, D5 created a fresh, viable charity initiative. Restaurant patrons in New York could opt to add $1 to their checks for their table's tap water on March 22, World Water Day, with proceeds going to UNICEF and its clean water efforts worldwide. The initiative was supported by print and outdoor ads (including an enormous Times Square billboard and essays on water from significant authors like Douglas Coupland and George Saunders), a web site, a bold faced assortment of chefs and New York celebrities (like UNICEF spokesperson Sarah Jessica Parker), and hundreds of New York restaurants. The project was covered in media outlets from The New York Times to Extra and is projected, according to UNICEF, to raise $5.5 million (with U.S. rollout) and fund 1.7 million days of water provided to those in need. Next year, Tap will roll out to 30 cities in North America and in 2009, 100 cities around the world—supported by a who's who of U.S. and global creative agencies.

Steinlager

The U.S. launch of beloved Australasian beer Steinlager was such a big deal to New Zealand Breweries that the company was prepared to send its marketing director over here to personally oversee the effort. That real world tidbit inspired a campaign based on the idea of sending a beer-loving American to New Zealand to slide into the life of a spectacularly average employee of NZB. The integrated "Win Nick's Life" campaign enticed viewers to vie for the privilege of taking over the fictional kiwi's life.

An episodic, character-driven series of web films and spots, directed by Smuggler's Randy Krallman, introduced us to Nick's family, friends, lady and work mates, and, not coincidentally, to some of the splendors of New Zealand.

Net 10 / TracFone

For mega prepaid mobile provider TracFone's Net10, Droga5 dropped the gloves and went after the big branded cell companies, calling them what everyone knows deep down they really are: pure evil. In a brilliant series of spots directed by Park's Joaquin Baca-Asay, your "typical" cell company is painted, variously, as helper of bacteria, hater of dogs and screwer of grandmothers. The spots feature real life—but very special—cell customers, like Bill, "who spends his days and nights finding homes for greyhound dogs who've run their last race," or Marlene, a volunteer for the foster grandparents, who rides a bus to school to help tutor kids, or Dr. Bonnie, who's devoted her life to fighting infectious diseases. Each spot draws you into the life of a genuinely compelling individual and then twists the benevolence of each into a weapon aimed at cell companies and their $39-a-month chicanery. If cell companies routinely bilk good folk like these, goes the campaign's central theme, imagine where you stand. A just-breaking round of animated spots for Net 10 revolves around the "League of Evil," a collection of misfit miscreants who themselves are vexed by the villainy of their cell providers.

The New Museum

Set amid the restaurant supply stores of New York's Bowery, the new New Museum of Contemporary Art is an instant gotham landmark. Designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa of Tokyo's SANAA, the structure resembles a set of precariously stacked boxes, all sheathed in a silver mesh. D5 creatives harnessed the building's striking silhouette in brand identity and communications work—the asymmetrical stacked box shape appears in an array of executions, usually as negative space, making art out of whatever intentional or incidental background that shows through the graphic logo.

Honeyshed

Where is today's discerning young shopper going to turn for a one-stop virtual mall of must-have products showcased with a most sexy swagger and a self-aware wink at the notion of home shopping? Droga's answer to the question that nobody had asked yet is Honeyshed, the long gestating branded content-meets-shopping channel that launched earlier this month. The channel consists of a steady stream of product and category-specific mini-shows hosted by a coterie of videogenic presenters who put an entertaining spin on selling everything from Wii accessories to slippers. "We're in the business of selling," says Droga. "So why can't we be overt about it if it's done authentically?" Droga and partners set up a studio in L.A. where the channel's many and varied shows are produced (to date most of the content has been directed by Smuggler's Brian Beletic). The trick now is to get a critical mass of marketers signed on for their own shows. To date, Sephora, TracFone and a few others are on board.

Million

After you've giggled nostalgically through your millionth anti-drug PSA, you've probably wondered to yourself: is making commercials telling kids to do or not to do something really the most effective way to change their behavior? In an effort to address the monumental problemof getting kids to actually learn in public schools, D5 turned instead to one of a teacher's worst enemies—the mobile telecommunications device—and transformed it into the ultimate education carrot. Through the Million project, New York public school kids (who number just over a million, obviously) will receive a free, specially branded phone. During school hours the phone functions as a pure education machine, with class assignments, reference resources and the odd motivational salute from aspirational celebrity types—no disruptive calling or texting. When school's out, it's a fully functioning phone with all sorts of perks tied to how much students use the device for school purposes—the more learnin', the more free airtime, songs and stuff. The Million project was born from a meeting between Droga and Dr. Roland Fryer, a Harvard economist and New York Department of Education chief equality officer, who had earlier backed a plan to financially reward kids for academic performance and was looking for a big idea to make education as big a priority as acquisition for kids. D5's Million project was embraced by Fryer and approved by New York City in November of this year.

WHAT ABOUT 1 THROUGH 4 AND 6 THROUGH 40?

The Droga5 Team

Ji Lee, Art Director
Stats: Born in Seoul, Korea, raised in São Paulo, Brazil, lives and works in New York. A former Saatchi & Saatchi, NY staffer, Lee freelanced at agencies like Wieden & Kennedy and BBDO before arriving at D5. Also teaches design at School of Visual Arts.
Highlights: Tap Project, New Museum Previous/personal: The Bubble Project, in which Lee created thought bubble stickers and placed them on ads and posters in public spaces, to humorously subversive effect.
My job at Droga5 is: Art Director, designer, self-appointed office DJ.
Why I'm working here: Because it's fun, people are really nice (we hang out regularly outside the office) and I get to do cool projects that actually get produced without having to go through the focus group.
A typical day: There's no such thing as a typical day. There's something atypical every day.

Scott Witt, Creative Director of Media
Stats: Along with CD media job at D5, has concurrent tenure at Publicis advertising futures agency Denuo. Previously VP group director at MediaVest. Previously WPP/OgilvyOne Fellow
Highlights: UNICEF Tap Project, New Museum, Diageo, Million
My job is: I bring a media sensibility to the creative process. This is a grown-up way of saying "building messaging to the way consumers actually experience media, rather than the way we pretend they do." My role is a directorial goulash of creative, media, digital, and strategy. I have no direct reports, and probably couldn't write a functional job description. But if required it would say "be in charge of all the creative stuff that's changing our world" – and then listing it all in the pages to follow.
Why I'm working here: Clients come to Droga5 to solve a different type of creative problem—so it should naturally follow we may throw a different cluster of talent behind it. I am here because I am someone else's experiment—being a fully embedded resource from Denuo. People say "the future is networked"—well we're actually doing it.
A typical day: The only thing typical about my day is that it will start with egg whites on rye toast. The 9am to 10am mental on-ramp is the only hour that's truly mine, and I use it to consume everything I'll be expected to know in the 10 to follow. My days tend to embody the most elastic interpretation of multi-tasking: from creative strategy to digital flash production, message and media design, and PowerPoint decks to voiceovers. And fuck, do I regret publicly revealing I knew PowerPoint.

January Vernon, Copywriter and Scott Ginsberg, Art Director
Stats: Two years at DDB New York before joining D5 in the fall of 2006.
Highlights: The Steinlager campaign. Not only was it the best shoot we'll ever go on (in the spirit of NZ extreme sports we) jumped off a lot of shit, but we had an amazing cast, a great collaborator in Randy Krallman, and a ton of creative freedom to get the spots and the site exactly how we wanted.
At DDB: ShaveEverywhere.com for the Philips Bodygroom. For most, it takes many years before getting to do an ad about scrotal grooming. For us it happened almost immediately.

Ginsberg:
Why I'm working here: I am surrounded by mentors and role models. Everyone at D5 has incredible taste and a tremendously high standard for their lives and their work. I get to learn from it, and be a part of it.
My inspiration: My favorite writer: Ghostface Killah. Ghost (aka Pretty Toney) is the smartest, most clever and gifted storyteller in the game. I hope to one day be the Ghostface Killah of advertising.

Vernon:
Why I'm working here: I'm at Droga5 for the opportunity to do work I am proud of, but more importantly, I am here to surround myself with people and ideas I really admire.
A typical day: In a typical day I do a lot of laughing, sometimes at myself, but mostly at the expense of others.



Eric Fensler, Broadcast/Creative
Stats: Was freelance Editor, worked for Adult Swim's SEALAB 2021
Highlights: Tap Project for UNICEF, "with its sheer simplicity and impact."
Previous: Writer for Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Show, directed music videos for numerous artists, developed an audience for a collection of pre-YouTube era G.I. JOE PSAs.
My job is: I am becoming more and more involved in the creative process at Droga5. I also have worked closely with Honeyshed in the past two months, helping create a tone and feel through the postproduction end, editing product shows and a handful of promos.
Why I'm working here: To learn and exercise my creative energy everyday. I love writing and thinking of new ideas. I want to direct more, and I feel this is a good way to get in touch with each phase of the process. I am blessed to work with great people, all hard working and extremely intelligent. I work with people like Sally-Ann Dale, one of best producers I have ever met.

BEING D5
droga5's creative brain trust on the agency's m.o.

Duncan Marshall ECD

Describe what you do every day.
Everything at Droga5 revolves around keeping Mindy, David's assistant, happy. As soon as the kitchen is tidy and decisions on the boardroom furniture have been resolved, the work can start. From a creative director's point of view I am lucky in that everyone here is very self-motivated and original creatively, so as it's really just a case of spotting the best ideas and making sure they are championed and crafted all the way. Thinking broadly around a simple unique truth is what it's always been about. As my tutor at Watford College, Tony Cullingham, always said, "as long as you revolve around logic you can go as nuts as you choose." Basically I've been working to that advice every day since.

What do you think the agency does especially well?
We work well as a collective, where everyone is genuinely interested in the success of the person next to them. It sounds like so much rhetoric, but it's true, and extremely productive. We also work efficiently, with as small a team as possible on projects. Clients seem to like concise meetings—we never won an account by the size of our croissant platter.

How has the agency been able to do such a range of different kinds of work—from a procedural or structural or cultural point of view?
We can only do what we know best, which is coming up with fancy new ways to get a message across. One minute it's virals, which had people banging on the door for a while. The next it's symbiotic projects like The Million where client and consumer benefit equally. But the approach is always to find the most appropriate solution to the clients brief. It has meant we have to reinvent our working model from time to time and as a model it might not win prizes at Harvard business school, but it always produces surprising results.

Andrew Essex, CEO

Describe what you do every day.
I think the quick answer is I do air-traffic control. But this is a tricky one since the question implies that there's a ritual to what I do, which couldn't be further from the truth. I tend to take a juggler's perspective and look at the whole picture rather than the individual balls in the air. On any given day that might range from propitiating a client's mood swings to organizing a panel on the epistemological implications of a DRM-free planet.

What were your expectations when you joined the agency? How has the reality differed?
When I joined, Droga5 consisted of four people sitting around a kitchen table, and I reckoned that the table probably wouldn't make it. That turned out to be true.

How has the agency been able to do such a range of different kinds of work —from a procedural or structural or cultural point of view?
I'd attribute this to the fact that the agency itself is comprised of people with such disparate backgrounds. The one thing we all have in common, though, is a masochistic work ethic and a shared unwillingness to bring old solutions to new problems. That said, we've been extremely fortunate to have such an incredibly diverse set of challenges come our way.

Ted Royer, ECD

Describe what you do every day.
What do I do every day? Run around putting out fires. We're so busy here it's amazing. But mostly I meet with teams and hash out whatever we're working on at the moment.

What were your expectations when you joined the agency? How has the reality differed?
My expectations were that we'd be a great little shop that grew steadily. The reality has been that we've grown much, much faster than that. And next year looks to be even heavier. But it's been just as much fun as I knew it would be. I knew as soon as we had control over our own shop the whole business would be more fun, fast-paced, and exciting. And it is. Now we have no excuses, it's all up to us to succeed or fail.

What do you think the agency does especially well?
We feel extremely free to approach a client's problems with wide open eyes. We have no pre-conceived notions, no departments that handle different media or types of creatives to pacify. We're all in the same room thinking as big as we can. Everyone talks about being "media-agnostic" (wouldn't that mean you're not sure that media exists, by the way?) but we don't have times for labels or ruminations about that, we just get down to the work, putting up the most interesting things that solve the clients problems in the best ways, without having to address these "360 degree branding" type justifications.

How has the agency been able to do such a range of different kinds of work?
Again, we don't think in terms of print, internet, etc. We just look for the best idea and then think of the best ways to execute that idea. Period. We don't have silos to support and people to justify.

Sally-Ann Dale, Director of Broadcast

Describe what you do every day.
Produce everything, anything and everybody.

What were your expectations when you joined the agency? How has the reality differed?
I've worked for David for ten years—I know how he likes to work so I knew whatever the outcome, it would be a pleasurable process. I've also been fortunate to be able to build a department from different disciplines.

What do you think the agency does especially well?
We are all one team and every department builds close relationships with our Clients. Therefore we all have ownership of our projects.

How has the agency been able to do such a range of different kinds of work?
We think less about where we want to start but about where we want to end up. This means that no matter what medium we are playing with we are always ending up in the appropriate place for our clients. To discuss this article, visit the Creativity Forums.
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