Agency of the Year: Droga5 New York

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From left: David Droga, founder and creative chairman; Nik Studzinski, execute creative director; Andrew Essex, CEO; Ted Royer, executive creative director; Jonny Bauer, head of strategy; Sarah Thompson, president; Sally-Ann Dale, head of integrated production
From left: David Droga, founder and creative chairman; Nik Studzinski, execute creative director; Andrew Essex, CEO; Ted Royer, executive creative director; Jonny Bauer, head of strategy; Sarah Thompson, president; Sally-Ann Dale, head of integrated production

A survey of the work that has emerged from the doors of Droga5, New York, since its 2006 founding reveals a pattern of bold, audacious moves.

The agency attempted to change the world (and did) with the Tap Project, staged a high-profile hoax for Ecko, and promoted Bing and Jay-Z by plastering the pages of the music impresario's book in the unlikeliest of places, including the floor of a Miami pool and the lining of a Gucci jacket. In 2010, it defined a whole new category of athlete--the night owl, for Puma--and poked a little fun at itself with a press release stating that one of its biggest competitors (McGarryBowen) swiped Droga5's own holiday-card business. All the while, it enjoyed some of the highest creative accolades in recent history. This past summer the shop set a Cannes record for Grand Prix nods in a single year (three, for Puma and Bing/Jay-Z).

Beyond the big moves and holiday high jinks, however, the agency's work in 2011 presents a surprising new dimension. As Droga5 founder and Creative Chairman David Droga himself put it: "Last year we had fewer, higher peaks. But I feel like we had bigger degrees of difficulty and we did better."

Overall the work was smart but a lot less showy, ultimately proving that even with quieter clients, Droga5 can still move the most massive mountains, which is why it deserves this year's title as Creativity Agency of the Year.

In 2010, the agency won the Prudential Financial account, piquing industry curiosity about what this once-scrappy shop could do with a very serious and grown-up piece of business. June saw the debut of "Sunrise," a gorgeous montage of shots that it turns out were scenes of the same emerging sun shot from 100 different points of view across the country. Without the right strategy behind it, the work could be viewed as creative gimmickry. Instead, it set the stage for a startlingly emotional campaign that followed.

The multiplatform "Day One" campaign featured a series of online films and spots that documented retirees' first days out of the workforce. The films leave the viewer with various emotions: assured, hopeful--or perhaps petrified, depending on how much you've done to prepare for life after the job. But that's the campaign's finest achievement: It makes you think, feel and really give a damn about your retirement plan, which is a lot more than you can say for the rest of the category. And that sunrise? It's quietly integrated into the films and website, percolating that sense of hope introduced in the original spot.

The Prudential campaign proves that the agency known for doing daring work for equally daring clients also flexes some serious muscle when it comes to mature brands that pose a higher degree of difficulty.

"We don't have one agency style," said Mr. Droga. "I feel like that's where we're at our best. My ambitions for Prudential and Puma are the same, but I have to treat them all very differently and be respectful of their business needs."

Whatever the client, the agency's approach starts from the same place. Rather than looking at the brief itself, "we really like to go back and go up to the original mission of the company," said Executive Creative Director Ted Royer. "Sometimes a client will come to an agency and say, 'We need a TV campaign, we need a digital campaign.' And we say, 'Wait a minute, what are you trying to do before that? … We do like to dig back and ask tough questions and get access to the right people, because sometimes companies don't even know what their mission is, or what they want to say."

In the case of Prudential, Droga found "this soul," said Mr. Royer. "Retirement is a scary thing. And if we face it with real, stark honesty and not sugarcoat it by showing people on sailboats sailing off into the sunset--fake images that they couldn't live up to--I think we can get a lot more done. … They really think they're doing something great for the world, helping people retire. It just had to be framed in a truly honest, conversational way."

And then there's the hummus. In March, Droga5 earned a place at Kraft's table on the Athenos account--a Greek-food brand that has been around since the '80s but had never done TV ads. It was also seeking to make inroads with the young-adult female market. The prime directive was to "blow us away," said Dana Anderson, Kraft's senior VP-marketing strategy and communications. And the agency did, tackling the brief in a way that was creatively bold and strategically sound.

The agency created "Vision Labs," a panel of food, film, art and journalism experts, to reflect on what they most cared about and where Greek culture was heading, and to share their thoughts about how it related to the Athenos brand. "It showed how [Droga5] can be creative in their problem solving," Ms. Anderson said.

Insights from the panel helped shape the thinking behind Athenos' "Yiaya" campaign, an edgy multiplatform effort starring a fault-finding Greek granny who goes from calling her granddaughter a prostitute to praising her selection of the more "authentic" Athenos brand. "Yiaya" was a hit. The campaign drew 3 million YouTube views, doubled the brand's Facebook fans to 200,000 (and growing at a rate of 1,000 a week), and brand awareness overall rose 12%. Sales of Athenos hummus jumped 10% in markets exposed to the campaign.

Then, there are the legacy clients such as Puma, for which Droga5 continues to make a mark. Following the Film Craft Grand Prix-winning anthem spot, "After-Hours Athlete," the agency launched the festive "Pump Up," with night owls singing a familiar sports warm-up tune. And now the brand has taken its Puma Social effort global and is creating new merchandise--even video games.

And what about those world-changing ideas that the agency was first out of the gate with? In its fifth year, Tap Project is still going strong. It has generated $3 million to help provide water to children worldwide, and last year the agency launched Celebrity Tap, an extension that allowed fans a chance to win the bottled tap water from the homes of celebrities such as Rihanna, Selena Gomez, Robin Williams and Adrian Grenier for a $5 donation.

Droga5's latest world-changer: working with Danish wind-turbine manufacturer Vestas, the agency launched a trustmark, "WindMade," a global renewable-energy label. It will appear on the packaging of products that source at least 25% of their manufacturing power from wind. Morten Albaek, Vestas senior VP-CMO for global marketing, communications and customer insight, presented the agency with a lofty goal: to "change the world" and drive consumer demand for wind power.

"We said advertising is not going to be the answer, but the advertising brands are going to get you there," said Mr. Droga. "We're a society obsessed with ingredients. Everyone reads the labels, but nobody thinks about the energy that makes the ingredients. Imagine if we can be the first people to turn the energy that makes something into an ingredient." Since its launch, WindMade earned the $1.5 million first-place honor from Zayed Future Energy Prize at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, and 15 companies have signed on to support it, including Lego, Bloomberg, Motorola, Method and Deutsche Bank. "It's a slow burn, but such a big, big idea," Mr. Droga said.

"Where I see Droga5 standing out is as an agency of change that incubates dimensions into their creative concepts that serve the top and bottom line and the world at large," Mr. Albaek said. Creating these big, ambitious ideas takes a special kind of culture.

Cultural Consciousness
"We talked early on about how a lot of agencies have that friction between account people and creative," said Mr. Royer. "We made a very conscious decision early on to have a place that didn't have that automatic go-to friction between those departments. It's just a giant waste of time. " The same thinking reflects the way the agency interacts with clients. "Droga5 is refreshingly open and transparent," said Kraft's Ms. Anderson. "They are on your side and make you feel like that the whole way through. You don't feel as if you are two forces on opposite sides of the fence trying to achieve one objective."

The Rest of the Team
The Rest of the Team

Six years in, hovering at 150 staffers in New York and 220 worldwide, including Australia and New Zealand, Droga5 is tackling more big assignments. It was named AOR for Heineken's Amstel Light brand in December and is now working on the launch of Kraft's new "big bet" product MilkBites--and facing the challenge of maintaining that culture that made it so special to begin with. "That's what keeps me awake," said Mr. Droga. "I don't have the answer, but I have to be relentless and unreasonable in the right ways to push for that. The agency's talent will be key to keeping things in check--and Mr. Droga calls believes the principals have "a strange and wonderful alchemy." Mr. Royer, who has been at Droga5 since its launch, leads the creative department alongside fellow Executive Creative Director Nik Studzinski, who joined in 2010 after serving in London at Mother, Publicis and Saatchi. He filled the post vacated by Duncan Marshall, now executive creative director at Droga5, Sydney.

The agency continues to aspire to an even bigger sort of thinking--beyond changing the world and doing good by its own people and clients. Mr. Droga likes to refer to his agency as "one of the good guys."That is, "I also care about our contribution to our industry," he explained. "Certainly the quality and effectiveness of our thinking is our primary concern, but I also want us to help move our industry forward. Advertising is an industry under duress. People compromise for a buck and take short cuts for short term gains. In fact I would say no industry has worked harder at being lazy. But we believe our industry is far better and more important than it is given credit for. I am not implying that Droga5 is a knight in shining armor, but I do believe we care far beyond what any scope reflects. And for better or worse, I don't just care about what we produce, but who we work with. What are the short term and long term ramifications of what we do? Are we contributing something positive to our clients business and to society? These are the questions we ask ourselves."

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