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.
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."