Droga5 maintains its creative edge—made sharper with Accenture
“I told you Accenture underpaid.”
David Droga is joking—sort of. Two years ago, when the founder of Droga5 inked a deal for his agency to be acquired by Accenture Interactive, the industry reacted with skepticism bordering on derision. The agency would lose its edge, it was said. Droga5 would become a dry, unimaginative cog in a consulting company wheel.
It’s now two years later, and Droga has gotten the last laugh. The agency posted the winningest year in its 15-year history despite a pandemic that ravaged many of its peers. The shop topped both R3 and Comvergence’s new business rankings, notching 20 new clients, including Petco, Maserati, Paramount+ and Allstate—the last breaking a 60-year streak with Leo Burnett. Droga5’s total revenue swelled 17% in 2020, including 25% organic growth among existing clients. And while it was forced to lay off 7% of staff in the early days of the pandemic, the agency closed out the year with 122 new hires—many of whom have never set foot in its Wall Street office.
And just last month, it was announced that Droga5 would be opening an office in Tokyo, with additional outposts planned for China and Brazil.
“I don’t want to say we proved everyone wrong, because that is not why we did it,” says Droga of the sale. “But it is great to prove everyone wrong.”
The timing was prescient, given that COVID forced a rethinking among marketers seeking business transformation solutions as the world went into lockdown. “It was a moment when you stopped worrying so much about ‘Oh gosh, how do I defend the fee?’ and started thinking ‘What do we have to work together to help?’” says Susie Nam, Droga5 chief operating officer. Retail businesses “were pummeled,” while other clients “weren’t sure what stand they should be taking in the world,” she adds. So the agency focused on “just rolling up our sleeves and saying, ‘OK, client X is going to move to more digital transformation three years earlier than expected, what does that look like?”
“Accenture was a big part of that,” she adds. “We know only so much. They made us better and smarter.”
“Clients—or at least a lot of clients—suddenly have a greater appreciation for really creative lateral and smart strategy” coming out of the pandemic, says Droga. “That’s also why we attracted so many new clients. Because actually, under duress [of the pandemic], we value creativity and strategy more than we ever did.”
Both those came into play with its win of Kimberly-Clark’s Huggies in late 2019, which culminated in a new global platform for the brand beginning with its first spot, “Welcome to the world, baby.” Alison Lewis, chief growth officer of Kimberly-Clark, says “Droga5 brought to us this fresh approach linked to the consumer that allows us to speak with a different voice,” in a category where ads are often “a sea of sameness.”
“We were looking for a network partner, not an agency,” says Lewis, noting that Droga5 brought the power of creativity and Accenture the data and resources to enable “a journey-based approach” for parents from newborn diapers to training pants and beyond. “That is where you get the beautiful marriage.”
The effort broke with a Super Bowl spot that showed babies born the day it aired. That ambitious feat was showcased on advertising’s biggest playing field, but the selection of the Big Game to launch the effort was almost beside the point. “There will always be a place for the Super Bowl ad, and we will continue to do Super Bowl ads,” says Brian Whipple, CEO of Accenture Interactive. “But we are always going to do them in the context of the broader experience and that is the difference.”
Anyone who knows him will tell you that what matters to David Droga most is the quality of the creative, and so a key achievement for him was the ability to keep that up amid the chaos and unprecedented challenges of the last year. “It was the one thing we could rally behind,” he says. “The whole world is imploding, and we are still putting these things out into the universe of which we are exceptionally proud. Not with a caveat of ‘proud under the circumstances.’ This is work that in any year I’d say ‘We should be so proud we made that.’”
That includes an effort for Facebook called “Never Lost” that pointed people to the social media giant’s Community Help Pages offering COVID-19 support. Produced in only seven days, it used footage shot only 24 hours before its release and drove 205 million page views and boosted social sentiment by 95%. During a period when many campaigns leaned on tropes like “we’re with you in these uncertain times,” the campaign and its follow-up, “Born in Quarantine,” which interviewed survivors of the 1918 influenza pandemic, stood out as a breath of fresh air. The shop also created efforts for Facebook urging people to vote.
Droga5 also built on its heavily decorated New York Times campaign with "The Truth is Essential” in March 2020, which disproved misinformation about the coronavirus with facts from the paper’s reporting. That birthed “Life Needs Truth,” which illustrated how indispensable the Times reporting is for everyday life beyond simply news. “The film work is a poem about life crafted from the Times journalism and structured over five verses,” Droga5 says in its entry. “Built with words lifted from New York Times reporting, the headlines come together to rhythmically tell the story of the time we are living in.”
Much of the agency’s work from the year was reflective of the pandemic but not defined by it. For Harley-Davidson, it celebrated the liberating feeling of riding in “Breathe,” a universal message that took on new meaning for people trapped in their homes. For Allstate, it moved away from the insurer’s calamitous Mayhem toward the more soothing messages of protection, pitch-perfect for the pandemic.
Then there’s Petco. Droga5 made a run for the account in late 2018 and lost in the late stages. But Chief Marketing Officer Tariq Hassan never forgot that pitch, and in fall 2020, with an initial public offering approaching and a critical repositioning looming, he began reconsidering the company’s initial choice: “I could not afford for it not to go right,” says Hassan.
Droga5 “knew our business and I knew David’s conviction from not getting it the first time that they were going to understand what we needed to do,” recalls Hassan. “We didn’t even go to a second RFP, I just picked up the phone and said, ‘Are you guys ready to do this?’”
They were. Droga5 put together a team and within two months—over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays—came up with Petco’s “It’s what we’d want if we were pets” campaign. “From day one,” says Hassan, “there is not a shadow in my mind that we made the right decision.” The campaign depicts animals as people talking about Petco as their preferred health and wellness destination.
The pandemic did not slow down Droga5’s purposeful efforts, a core tenet of the agency since the Tap Project days of its founding. The shop’s work for the REFORM Alliance shone a light on the unjustly incarcerated who were in heightened danger as COVID tore through the country’s prisons. Using 23 unscripted phone calls from prisoners, the effort urged citizens to “Answer Their Call”—and it was answered by powerful public figures who amplified the message, from Kim Kardashian and Common to Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg. The result was 200 million impressions and a 35% rise in visitors to the cause’s website.
But it wasn’t a year without controversy for Droga5. Its appointment to the roster of industry group ADCOLOR drew substantial social heat by those who felt not hiring a multicultural-led and owned agency was—to put it mildly, a miss. “Everything’s charged, right?” says Droga Global CEO Sarah Thompson. “And that’s OK. As part of our journey as a company, we’re much more comfortable. If you were afraid of conflict, of getting it wrong sometimes, or people disagreeing, you wouldn’t do anything. And our belief is that we are going to really try and become a diverse and inclusive company and do work that reflects the world we live in with a lens of understanding of diversity and race. We’d rather take some of those charged conversations and do what we really believe in.”
Droga5, in fact, is upfront with its diversity stats in an industry that has often proved resistant to making them public: In 2020 in the U.S., it has hired a talent pool comprised of 49% Caucasian, 19% Black, 13% Asian, 12% LatinX, 3% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander and 1% two-plus races, all of which it has broken down by senior management, director and junior. The agency is 53% female, 46% male and 1% nonbinary.
While the agency had a standout year in 2020, there have recently been two head-turning departures from its ranks: Jonny Bauer, its 13-year strategy chief, who is leaving to join Blackstone Group, and creative powerhouse Neil Heymann, who left Droga5 in February bound for David Droga’s former employer, Publicis Groupe.
The agency did not directly replace either post. Instead it speedily moved up existing executives, drawing from its bench strength. “One of the remits from the very start, even when we were a small organization was—whoever was in leadership roles—your primary task is to lead the department to make a quality grade. But your secondary task was to build a team so that you have people below you that can take over for you,” says Droga. “I say it to my creative leads, and I’ve said it for a long time—if you are not planning to overthrow me, you’re not the creatives I thought you were.”
It doesn’t appear that David Droga is due to be overthrown anytime soon, though it’s never been clear if he has an earn-out deal with Accenture or, as is rumored, is eyeing an exit back to his native Australia. He declines to comment on those rumors.
Which brings us back to the acquisition. It was estimated Accenture paid $475 million for the agency (in a podcast with Ad Age, David Droga pegged the price as “north of that.”) So did the consultancy actually underpay?
“I said that as a joke,” says Droga, before hastily adding: “Maybe I didn’t.”
He pauses. “Let me rephrase that. Do I feel we made a bad deal? Not at all. I think we did a great deal for everyone involved.”
When asked about overpaying, Whipple responds: “Financially, legally, that is not true at all, but from our perspective our teaming is extraordinarily strong. I would say it is almost priceless. So from that perspective, yeah David, you are right.”