Droga's new horizons

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David Droga, whom we last saw stepping down from his post as worldwide creative director of Publicis, has re-emerged in New York with his new venture, Droga5. In August, he had announced that he was leaving his job to start his own creative enterprise that would tap the amorphous region beyond traditional advertising. And now, after a long period of organization, he's working-with some trepidation and plenty of excitement-to make good on his promise, with his first client on board and a content venture in the works. In January, after a few weeks of uncharacteristic respite in his native Australia, Droga spent seven days hobnobbing with world leaders and billion-dollar business bigwigs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he made his first official appearance speaking at various panels under the working title of "Creative Chairman of Droga5." In mid-February, he'll be packing his bags for Beijing, where he'll brief design guru Philippe Starck, who has signed a contract with the new company to collaborate on its first gig-a huge China-based assignment for General Electric.

Droga won't divulge all the details of the job, but this high-level conceptual project-that-cannot-be-named will be documented by Murderball director Henry-Alex Rubin, and it sets the tone for the sort of creative engineering that the 37-year-old creative extraordinaire has set out to do. "I've become obsessed with producing work that doesn't necessarily start with a given template," he says. "I love traditional advertising and have built my career on it. However I think that is one option, not the only option. If some of it ends up in that space, fine so long as it does so because it's relevant to the desired outcome. However more and more ideas are three-dimensional and experiential and don't just circle the fringes of pop culture, but rather create or influence it." Where, then, will this new company will figure on the advertising map? "I'm not going to go after accounts from other agencies," he explains. "My objective is to get in earlier in the food chain of where clients' decisions are made so I can actually get into their other budgets like R&D. Companies can either retrench their way to higher profits or think their way to higher profits," he continues. "McKinsey is out there, and gets paid half a million dollars a week to go into companies and come back with a dozen rational solutions to building a stronger, better business. Why can't someone go in there and come in with illogical, creative solutions?"

So what ultimately inspired Droga to take this next step? He'd been quite the Midas of the traditional agency world: as ECD of Saatchi/London, he steered the flagship to its Agency of the Year title at Cannes in 2002, and during his two-year tenure at Publicis, the network danced through the awards circuit, earning more Cannes Lions than it did in the decade prior to his arrival, and landing twice in the top ten list of most decorated networks in Creativity's annual Awards Report. "I loved having my role and the potential within it and I felt I was making a difference, but there's no question I was becoming much more of a roving ambassador," he explains. "I'd spent a huge amount of time on planes in and out of offices, whereas the times when I've been happiest were when I'd been very, very hands on. I really enjoyed it, but I was missing something. Also, I was always asked to give talks and write pieces about the state of the industry, and the future of the industry. Whenever I did, I really believed what I was saying but I was not doing as much about it as I'd wanted to."

"I'm not saying the end is nigh for advertising," he adds. "I just think the networks need to reinvent themselves a little bit. Why spend ten years trying to work against it from within any network? I mean any network-I'm not talking about Publicis at all. Why not step outside it? Then you can have an honest perspective of it. Beyond taking time out on holiday, I've spent the last couple months sitting in a room with people far smarter than me in countless different industries-software, entertainment, film, television-asking dumb questions, just to find out what's happening out there. I saw in my head a way to join several of these dots in a practical, real way, not just because it would be interesting, but because I saw there would be a need. That's what I'm trying to do. "

The company's shingle, Droga5, seems to suggest anything from a sci-fi villain to a superhero collective or-the more logical multi-partnered outfit. There will be partners indeed, but only three others besides himself, he says, withholding any names. The moniker's origins, frankly, are nothing but cuddly. He had attended boarding school for nine years with his six siblings in Australia, four of whom were brothers. "My mother had to label all our clothing. As the youngest boy, all my tags read Droga5, so that's where it comes from. The funny thing is, two of my brothers who own their own business are now considering changing their company names to Droga3 and Droga2, but in the true spirit of annoying my siblings, I registered one through seven."

As for where he'll post the "5" nameplate, Droga is deciding that right now. A week before he flies off to China, he's hijacked a friend's midtown office in New York, where he's dealing with the nitty gritty that goes into starting a company. By the company's fuzzy March launch date, he hopes to have settled on a bricks-and-mortar address in Manhattan and recruited a staff of anywhere between 14 to 45 people from spheres of all sorts. There will be a few creatives from advertising and graphic design, including Duncan Marshall, who had worked with him at Saatchi/London and most recently, at Publicis/N.Y. as EVP/ECD. The majority of the teams, however, will be comprised of software engineers and programmers, as well as product designers, strategic planners and a healthy number of producers-slash-account people "because producers make things happen," he says. By March Droga says he hopes to have finalized a backing deal with the Publicis network. "Long before the notion of me starting a new venture came up, Maurice [Levy, Publicis Chairman and CEO] had gone out of his way to take an interest in my career," he says. "So when this idea became an itch worth scratching, I was very open and transparent with him, and from the get go, Maurice made it clear he wanted the Publicis Groupe to back or partner this new venture. It looks like it's going to be backed by Publicis but controlled by Droga and partners. I have a very high regard for Maurice and I'd be crazy not to utilize his good will. At the same time, it's not going to be an entity within the group that works as one of the cards in the group. Such is my belief in the idea and the potential that I think it will be relevant to all clients and all brands."

Additionally, a fluid architecture will be a key characteristic of the new company. Ultimately, "Droga5 is not intended to be the name on the door of the agency," Droga explains. It will be the umbrella under which he plans to nurture a mix of creative projects and partnerships, allowing him to dip his finger into any sort of creative pudding worth tasting-and work only with people he chooses. In fact, smart, creative alliances will be a cornerstone to the new venture. One of these is a joint venture with production company Smuggler, an online content project involving director Brian Beletic. "It's content and branded entertainment, but we think we have a completely different spin on it," Droga notes. "Everyone is talking about 'content is king, but it is only king if it's relevant and it's watched. So our big issue is not only how are you going to make it relevant, but how are you going to get it in front of as many people as possible."

"The main thing is about designing some sort of viable way to engage and interact with a substantially bigger audience for certain brands," adds Smuggler EP Patrick Milling Smith. "It's building an idea and building the way it's going to be consumed and seeing how it all can interact. There are so many different ways right now for people to consume media. This is trying to take that step forward in what we do and find other ways of owning an audience."

Given the nature of what he wants to achieve, Droga says it's also imperative that his company be global, and he's currently working out other strategic hook-ups around the world. "There are certain people throughout my career I've earmarked as smart people I would like to work with," he says. "And I'm not just talking about advertising people. Some of those people I've approached or haven't approached yet. So much of this is just exciting intent, working out what's feasible, what's not. My theory is very simple. If I just get into bed with the right people, we'll work our way through it, because there isn't one definitive solution for everything moving forward. We're dealing with a very subjective world."

The Bono of Advertising

Droga's experience in Davos had left the big fish in the advertising sea feeling like "the equivalent of a junior DM writer from Belarus at Cannes," he says. But it was also an eye-opening validation for his mission. For one, it further emboldened him to make good on his intentions for Droga5 to dedicate a day a week to non-profit environmental and social issues and "build a company that can be measured by much more than just the bottom line," he says. "Literally since coming back I thought I should change the whole structure of the company to be a philanthropic company because I've made verbal agreements to help three or four different environmental and social companies, from Human Rights Watch to huge environmental organizations. I sort of said I'll do what I can to help them. And I'm not saying that to be glib," he insists. "My mother's a huge environmental activist and finally I might be able to do something that makes her proud."

More significantly, he notes the telling banner under which the conference was held-"The Creative Imperative." "That sums up the whole thing," he says. "They're talking about the economics, the future of the world, social and economic issues. But it wasn't just black and white dollars and sense. They were very much saying, 'We need ideas. Ideas are solutions. Ideas are what's going to push industry and the world further into a better place.' The majority of advertising agency creatives are creative people, but we've just disciplined ourselves to think within traditional formats. I want to change that."

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