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David Droga in interview before Droga5 launches in China: ‘Creatives make the world worth living in’

The most decorated creative of recent decades talks about his agency's imminent launch in China, the dramatic failure of the Australian office, how he will never sell and the origins of creativity – in a candid discussion with Mumbrella Asia’s Dean Carroll

The concept of a ‘creative chairman’ – the job title you created for yourself – is an interesting one. How does that work in practice? How much of your time do you actually spend on creative these days?

“It’s definitely a hard one to navigate and as we get bigger and bigger the forces do pull you further away from the creative. The job title wasn’t some inspired thing, it was just that I am a creative person and I didn’t want to be CEO. And chairman just sounded too stuffy and boring.

“I wanted people to know I meant business, but at the end of the day creative is in my DNA. It really started as a little joke to myself, but now that job title has become contagious and you see it all over the world now with all these serious people that have it on the back of me just making it up.

“But there is no question that my day stops and starts with thinking about the work. Sometimes that’s very hands-on and sometimes that’s a light-touch in terms of protecting it from a distance or taking care of a client. All roads lead to the work for me.”

Is it true that you were an executive creative director and partner at the tender age of 22? If so, how on earth did that happen – there must be a great story behind it?

“I was kind of thrust into the industry world very quickly and I was very fortunate to get a great start. I deferred university much to the chagrin of my parents and I started in the mailroom at Grey Advertising in Australia. I wanted to be a writer and I got poached by this start-up agency called OMON.

“It was run by these young guns in their mid-twenties and I was their first employee so in essence I was the creative department aside from the creative directors there who started it. Fortunately, the agency flourished because of the work we were doing so I grew with the agency exponentially.

“Then one of the founders left to pursue a career in other media and writing books so I was lucky that I was the next cab off the rank and I was writing a lot of the work. So I got made a joint ECD at 22, the environment I was in just fostered that. It didn’t really mean anything to me at the time.

“I didn’t think of it as ‘I’m a boss’ all of sudden, it was more like ‘well, the creative buck stops with me and that’s a great thing because it means I can do more of the work I like’. To this day it still shocks me that the first brief I got at this agency when I was just 19 was for a $1 million TV commercial for the number one radio station in Australia. I just thought from the beginning: ‘Well, this is advertising.’

“The brief they gave us was just do something that makes people go ‘holy fuck’. Those were the exact words used. The bubble was burst soon after when I realised that not every budget was like that and not every brief was like that, but you know.”

So could your story still happen today when the world is so professionalised and people are often expected to have a master’s degree, completed internships and even foreign languages just to get a job interview? It doesn’t really happen now does it?

“Well, not so much any more but I guess if someone is in a start-up and delivering then it’s possible. I remember when I got given that title, in my head it didn’t compute as me thinking I can now negotiate a great salary. I was still just this very young guy obsessed with getting work out I was proud of.

“I was working my arse off and sleeping in the office a couple of days a week. A career should move at the speed of your talent and not the number on your birth certificate. To this day, I’m still a big believer of giving someone an opportunity prematurely as opposed to too late. You can then be sure that someone is going to put extra effort in to live up to that.

“My whole career has been built upon people taking leaps of faith in me – from when I moved to Asia at the age of 26 and then to London at 29. I was always of the mindset that I wasn’t going to let anyone down and I would do whatever it took to deliver.”

Your company has its headquarters in New York with another office in London. Given that you have worked in Sydney, Singapore and London previously why did you choose NYC as a base for Droga5?

“You have to live in New York at some point in your life. It’s Rome during the Roman Empire. I really loved London, but I’ve done London. So I chose New York. When you come here you realise that it’s the place where more decisions are made that influence the world than anywhere else, at least for the time being.

“When I moved from Sydney to Singapore, I realised that this is the place where decisions are made that affect Australia. When I moved to London, I realised that this is where the decisions are made that affect Singapore. Then when I moved to New York, I realised you know this is where it all starts.”

Droga5 had an office in Sydney, Australia, for a number of years but in the end it didn’t work out and you decided to close that office. As an Australian yourself, what do you think was responsible for the lack of sustained success in that market?

“They had enormous success early in Australia and that was one of the things that hampered them. For me, there was the emotional pride for me of opening in my hometown but we opened there way before we should have in the sense that New York was only a couple of years old – so we had no business going elsewhere beyond the headquarters here.

“But, you know, people were interested in doing it and I have a soft spot for Australia. And right from the get-go, it just boomed out of the gate too much. It sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, but they won five of the top 10 biggest accounts in Australia within the first two years. I mean they had Qantas, they had Woolworths, they had Toyota. Agencies spend 20 years courting those clients normally.

“The partners we had were talented and smart, with a good reputation. I just think they got overwhelmed by it. In the first few years they did some work that was really good, but they didn’t wean their way into accounts that were that big and it paralysed them to the point where they couldn’t get their head above water.”

So it was just too much too soon then?

“I think so. The work started to suffer and I took that very personally because the only reason for me to have an agency was to do work that I loved. For a small brand like ours, our work is our brand. It wasn’t in the end living up to what it could be.

“I can handle the bruised ego and the failure side of it. It’s the human side of it, anyone that was going to lose their job I took it to heart. And I did bring a lot of those people to New York.

“Did we have to close it? Probably not, we could have sustained it, but I’m not in the business of just having a pin in a map. I’d rather pull the Band-Aid off and focus our energies elsewhere, where we can make a difference.

“They had scaled up to nearly 200 people in the first few years, which was crazy for that market. They gorged themselves on the incoming opportunities. The halo of the brand name got them a lot of open doors, but they couldn’t keep up with demand and expectations. For better or worse, people have huge expectations about what the brand stands for and if you don’t live up to that you are scrutinised to a different degree than other people.”

Might you go back to Sydney in the future and give it another shot now that you are further along in the journey?

“Well, who knows. It’s on my radar every day emotionally and personally, and I go back every year to visit Australia. The lesson I learnt is that you have to open not just with the right people, but also at the right time – and you have to let it find its feet and its own personality. Sometimes there is as much power in saying ‘no’ as in saying ‘yes’.”

Which is why you formed your own agency anyway right?

“Exactly. The primary reason for starting Droga5 was because I wanted to be making the decisions on what we stood for and who we hired so that it’s not about course-correcting, it’s about building.

“At the end of the day, whether something is good or bad I can now look around a room and feel that we can solve it from within the group of people that we have.”

So how will those lessons translate across when you are opening new offices in the future? For example, I hear that you are coming to Asia next and opening up in Shanghai?

“Yes, it will probably be Shanghai. And absolutely, there are lots of lessons to take away. We will have to get the right people for the market and not just the people we know. And we can’t just use the halo of the brand. We have to earn the right to have those opportunities.

“New York needs to be even more supportive. Maybe we didn’t give Sydney enough time because we were still a young agency in New York.

“My ego or the business doesn’t need to have 20 offices. We already have a spectacular business in New York that has grown 40 per cent in the last 10 years. But I am excited by the market of Asia and what we can do to help them, and they can do to help us. And by getting new talents in the global management team with different points of view.”

So can you tell us more about the Asia office and any other international expansion plans?

“Name a country and someone has asked us to open an office there. We have to resist the flattery of that and ask ourselves what would be the reason for going there, what would we add to the market, what would be our point of difference.

“We’ve done primary investigations in India, Brazil, Germany and Sweden. But there is no question about the importance of Asia and the focus on China. You know, I have a slight obsession with China. I even collect Chinese contemporary art.

“China is just a different and exciting place. I’m not just going where the money is, I’m going where the thinkers are and the influencers are. And there’s no question that the influence from China is becoming bigger and bigger.”

And do you already have a client in China, which you are going to build the office around?

“We have clients who have wanted us to be there for a while, but that’s not a reason to do it. That’s just an extra benefit. Our industry has been ruined by agencies opening just because clients wanted them to be there. That’s why you suddenly had networks that were 200 offices because they were just an extension of a client. We are doing it at the pace of what is right for us.”

So you would never sell then? Or is there an exit plan? I believe you previously received major investment from William Morris Endeavor so a precedent has been set already hasn’t it?

“I’m not interested in selling. Every man, cat and his dog has tried to buy us. I wasn’t trying to build something to sell. I do feel great that we sold a minority share because they {William Morris Endeavor} added a different arm, access and influence. And it allowed all my partners to buy houses and that sort of stuff so it took the worry away that they had to sacrifice anything.

“But we love our independence. We call our own shots. We are at the mercy of our own genius or stupidity, not some boardroom we have no influence on or a stock price. That’s powerful and motivating. It ensures we make decisions based on our ethos and not an annual report. Hopefully, people see that in our work. It is no coincidence that independent agencies do better work.

“I’m not saying every independent is great and every multinational is terrible. When I worked at other companies before Droga5, no matter how high I got in the food chain I always felt puppet strings above me. You know mate, I’m a control freak. I like my own thing.”

Changing topic, I read that you are one of six children, with four older brothers. Do you think that helped or hindered your creative skills when growing up?

“It helped, it was a direct response to being so far down the totem pole as the youngest boy. It meant that to get any play whatsoever I had to be creative and lateral.

“The environment where I grew up helped too. I grew up living in a national park in Australia. There was one television station so entertainment was what you created.”

Your mother is an artist and your father a businessman. Is that why you have this mix of creativity and commerciality running through your work?

“Yeah definitely. And when I set up Droga5 I thought the way to validate what I believe in is to build a substantial business, not a disposable hiccup. Often great agencies get so stubborn and precious, they forget they are in business.

“We certainly don’t take on accounts just for the sake of it and we certainly wouldn’t just do anything for a buck, we have principles. That pays dividends for us. Your business has to be as smart as it is creative. And you also can’t fall victim to a house style or buying your own bullshit either. We have three or four clients that spend over a billion dollars a year so with that comes scale.”

You have always done well at Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, winning lots of awards, but in recent years the show has been tainted by scam work. What’s your take on those who indulge in scam?

“It’s a road to nowhere. There are two Cannes. I am a huge fan of Cannes and what it represents because it is a celebration of what we do and moves our industry forwards. But there is another Cannes too. For me, it’s not what you win, it’s what you win for.

“There are certain countries where just bringing home some shiny trophy matters more than anything. But they know the truth and everyone else knows. That’s the whole joke right. That’s the sad reality. I’d say though that more and more people are on the good side of the ledger.”

And do you think the processes at Cannes are robust enough to weed out scam work now?

“I think they probably are. It’s hard for them because people find loopholes. It’s pretty bloody obvious when it’s scam work though. The average person knows.”

A bit of a curveball for you. Do you ever get sick of seeing your name everywhere? I see that even your employees are known as ‘Drogans’. It must feel a bit surreal sometimes.

“It’s pretty funny. I hear people talking about what Droga stands for sometimes and it’s quite surreal, I just think ‘that’s my name’.

“We have a spectacular office down in Wall Street and we have 11 floors of a big building so as a primary tenant we have this huge brass plaque outside that says Droga5 and a Droga5 flag. I’ve got two sons, who are 12 and 16, and they came into the office one day. They looked at the plaque and the flag and their chests swelled and then they smiled at me and I could see they were thinking ‘yeah Droga’.

“Jumpcut to a couple of weeks later and my eldest daughter, who is 10, came into the office. She saw the plaque and the flag, and then said to me: ‘It’s a bit braggy dad, tone it down.’ That shows the difference between boys and girls.

“The Droga5 name was actually something I had at boarding school for years. Because I was at the same boarding school as my brothers, my mother had sewed on my clothes the laundry tag ‘Droga5’ and my older brothers were four, three, two and one; so that we didn’t get each other’s clothes mixed up. So I used it to name the agency because it made me laugh and it’s baked into who I am.”

I see that The New York Times is a client. So what is your strategy now for taking on Trump and the whole fake news bandwagon?

“We’re not on an anti-Trump crusade, we are on a pro-truth campaign. The New York Times stands for something that is more important now than ever. That’s quality journalism, research, fact-checking, intelligence, being objective and all those things that hold society together. It’s a great client to have.”

And you’ve actually said before that you wanted to be a journalist when you were growing up before you were drawn in by the immediacy of writing in the advertising world. Had you taken that different path, where you certainly wouldn’t be as well paid as you are now, what sort of hack would you have made – cerebral, tabloid or what?

“As much as my ego would like to think I’d have been some hard-hitting investigative journalist on a broadsheet, I think I have a quirky sting in me that would skew towards the entertainment side of things. I’d like to have written for Vanity Fair and The New York Times, that sort of thing.”

And how does it feel to live in Trump’s America, even though New York might be somewhat of a metropolitan bubble – does it feel like a big change?

“It’s a seismic change, but it’s what the country voted for. As disheartening as that is, it’s also democracy so you’ve got to abide by it. As an agency, we just have to stand for the right things and put more positivity out there in the world. I’m not going to sit on the sidelines with my head in my hands.”

Moving to that great American institution: The Super Bowl. Do you rate any of the Super Bowl ads in recent memory and do you think it is a worthwhile exercise for brands and agencies to participate in?

“For 5 per cent it’s spectacular and for the others it’s just an ego exercise. There’s a whole ecosystem around where every ad is teased and talked about. It’s a little bit like the lottery in that everyone is looking to win it. It probably does wonders for those that get the attention. The others are left scratching their head thinking they’ll never do the Super Bowl again.

“But you can’t discount the fact that 150 million people are watching it and talking about it. Although I’m always shocked by how bad some of the ads are.”

More generally, the grandiose ads of yesteryear are becoming irrelevant aren’t they? Young people don’t watch linear TV anymore.

“To think about anything as just a TV ad now is so foolish. That doesn’t mean TV doesn’t have a place, the best stuff still plays really well.

“My kids don’t watch live TV ever aside from sports, but that’s not to say they are not aware of TV programmes or really good ads. But the ads find them. You can’t assume you will have a captive audience just by using television anymore. That’s shortsighted.”

But has the pendulum swung too far.  Are we starting to focus on the wrong things, as in the quality of the distribution channel rather than the quality of the content itself?

“I am not anti-technology, but there is a huge waste of money where people are buying into the bullshit of programmatic. And I’m not anti-programmatic, when it’s done well. The trouble is a lot of time it’s best practices executed by the worst practitioners.”

To end, what is creativity for you?

“It’s about being lateral and original. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle and that’s why I love it so much. Creative allows you to bend the rules of logic. It’s an icebreaker. An emotional beacon.

“All I can say is thank goodness for creatives. Logistics and practical people make the world go around, but creative people make the world worth living in. You can’t engineer greatness or find efficiencies to get to greatness. You can’t undermine or undercut to get to greatness.”

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