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David Droga on coming to Asia with Accenture and the industry’s ‘irrelevant mediocre middle’

Adland’s most awarded and celebrated creative force, David Droga, speaks to Mumbrella’s Dean Carroll – having sold his business to Accenture Interactive in order to be ‘the tail that wags that dog’ just as the industry’s ‘mediocre middle’ becomes irrelevant

Droga has joined forces with Accenture Interactive

So in 2017, you told me you were not interested in selling. What changed – you or the industry landscape? 

“Yes, I saw my quote reverberating around the internet. I meant it when I said it. Part of what makes our industry interesting is it’s about what’s ahead of you, not what’s behind you.

“My mindset then was that I wasn’t looking to do a deal and there weren’t offers that were worth considering. Anyone who knows me and what I’ve done, in terms of working at different companies around the world and then setting up this place, knows I’m not afraid of taking on new challenges.

“When we were talking [more than two years ago], I really meant that. And had the right opportunity not reared its head, I’d still be talking to you today saying ‘I’m not looking to do a deal’.

“The deal is the grubby part of the opportunity. you know what I mean. It gets all the ink and is the thing that all the lawyers and all the accountants are attracted to. But for me, it’s about what it allows and that’s what I’m into. I’ve never been looking to do a deal, I’m just looking to make a bigger deal out of what I’m looking to do.”

And did Accenture Interactive flexing its muscles in the media and marketing space and the rapid changes going on in the industry help to sway you?

“One thing is for sure, the industry is changing at such a rapid rate. What dawned on me is that I honestly think we have had it better than anyone whether through complete luck, timing or genius – or whatever it is. Still, it has gotten harder even though the opportunities are greater.

“And it’s not because we are any less relevant or talented. It’s because clients now need the full funnel and they have so many other different industries in their ear. I was seeing this in real time, not from reading about it in the trade press.

“I’ve had enough meetings to realise that we are but one piece of a bigger pie. Maybe I’m greedy person and I want to stay more relevant. Our industry is in defensive mode and I’ve never been a person that wants to play defence. I want to play in the offence.

“Instead of talking about overcoming barriers or doubling down, why not understand what these forces are that are shrinking our industry? And why not understand what the forces are that are also expanding our industry at the same time?

“I’m not going to change my core beliefs about creativity, but if I can dovetail that then great. We pitched something together with Accenture Interactive and I saw them in their natural environment and they saw me in my natural environment. I suddenly realised that they were doing something that didn’t compromise, and wasn’t in conflict with, what we were doing. They are actually complementary. 

“The client doesn’t care. They [Accenture Interactive] can help validate what I am doing even more because they have this wave of experience behind them.”

So was Accenture Interactive the only player in the game or were you looking for others too? Was that the only organisation that caught your eye?

“I didn’t look for anybody. They were the only ones. Everybody has offered to buy us. As flattering as that is, it was a distraction because I was never interested in that. 

“I was very happy in my pod. It was almost an annoying revelation to discover that there was this great option out there, having pitched with them [Accenture Interactive]. The beauty of this alliance is that neither of us had to do it, neither of us was in a position of weakness – or in awe of each other’s capabilities and ambitions. 

“I was certainly nervous about their scale because it’s ridonculous. Accenture has 500,000 people and has achieved immense growth and impact in the industry over the last few years. I did look at it thinking ‘wow, imagine having that sort of power in service of what we are doing’. This is my delirious ego. I was thinking: ‘I want to be the tail that wags that dog’.”

You talked previously about opening an office in Shanghai. Is that going to happen and are there any other plans to open a Droga5 office elsewhere in the world besides New York and London?

“Well, now that we’ve got this partnership I can get back to what I really want to do. I’ve never hidden the fact that I have an alliance and allegiance with Asia. Not just because of the practical sense – the booming economy and money – but also the energy and the culture there.

“If it makes sense, which it does because Accenture also has a big presence there, it may be good to start there with a hybrid version of what we both bring to the table. That could be amazing. Again, I’m not in an arms race to try and turn Droga5 into a franchise everywhere but Accenture Interactive does other markets very well. 

“However, I have a genuine desire to first prove out what we are doing here before I spread my attention elsewhere. I don’t want to become a global ambassador that is just cutting ribbons around the world. When the dust settles, I just want to hunker down and talk about the work; and that’s true to what I am.

“We have a lot of great ideas, but we didn’t really have the resources before to build and run these things. Meanwhile, Accenture has more engineers and coders than anybody. We are 600 or 700 people, they are like a small country.

“And clients just don’t care where you came from, they are just looking for solutions. The customer experience now touches everything. Our narratives and strategies are just part of the experience. It’s also about the customer experience in a retail environment or a loyalty scheme, for instance. They all have to be seamless.

“Instead of fighting that, it makes sense to work together and make it happen. We are talking about a united brand experience. When you catch an Uber, it’s about the convenience of the technology and the user interface as well as the type of car that turns up and the driver’s attitude. Every single thing counts.

“Yes, there is the coolness of what a brand stands for but at the end of the day there are so many chances for people to have either a positive or negative customer relationship with the brand. We can draw people’s attention to things and point them to new things, although it’s not going to negate the other stuff.”

We saw reports of redundancies at Droga5 before the acquisition. Was there any truth to any of that?

“There was, but the two things were not related. At the start of 2018, like the rest of the industry we felt the first jolt and it was the first time we’d ever felt it shrinking. That was a shock to our system, we were not conditioned to understand that.

“We grew 30% every year before that and we assumed that would continue, we took that for granted. It was the only time we’ve ever let a cluster of people go. It was very painful and I hated it because of the emotional toll. It was not our natural state and it was on me and the partners to get us back to where we are now.

“In the second half of the year, we picked up again and won nine or 10 pitches in a row. So we got our natural momentum back and this year we started with a bang as well, separate to the Accenture thing. Right now, we have 50 open hires. It was a glitch that meant that, for all our successes, we didn’t buy our own bullshit.

“We still won awards. Our work didn’t suffer one iota. We proved to ourselves that we are not victims in any shape or form. All the issues were solved within our four walls. We are completely back on the front foot again.”

What is it about the new offering from you and Accenture Interactive that is so different to everyone else and how are those early days of working together going?

“Well, although there are parallels with the holding companies, Accenture Interactive extends far beyond our industry. And they are not held hostage by the highs and lows of the industry. 

“First and foremost, it very much helps that I like them as people. Brian [Whipple] and I have become very good friends.

“They have the ear of CEOs and CTOs and they can actually make stuff whereas we are an industry of fireworks. They do solid practical things. I want to toggle between both.”

And how long is your earn-out and how long will you stay at the company?

“I’m here for as long as I’m engaged and excited. Clearly, the narrative is always going to be ‘Droga wanted to retire’. I’ve had enough success in enough places that I could’ve retired years ago, if I was about cashing out. 

“But I am definitely drawn to bigger challenges. I do need to feel that I am not stagnant, that I have bigger challenges and bigger things to prove. Maybe this goes back to being the schleppy little brother or whatever it is. Who knows? I’m driven by that and I hope I’m here for a long time.”

But how will you stay motivated and engaged, when you’ve really achieved everything there is to do in the industry?

“I haven’t done this. This model. These resources. These opportunities. These ideas. And these brands.”

So where do you see the industry going in the future?

“There is no question that the industry is shape-shifting and the mediocre middle is becoming irrelevant. However, there is always going to be a need for strong ideas, strong communication, an understanding of culture and originality. That is always going to be necessary.

“How it manifests itself may change. Not everything is going to become targeted ads though. I’m not saying I have the answers. What I am saying is that I have the chutzpah to give it a shot.”

And on that note, who would get your vote for the agency of the decade in both the Asian and Australian markets?

“It would be unfair to give an answer with authority because I haven’t been immersed in either place recently. But in Australia, as an observer, it’s either got to be The Monkeys or Clemenger.

“In Asia, I just don’t know. That’s a really tough one. I honestly don’t know enough about the great work in Japan, India or Singapore to say. It’s not to say I don’t think there is great work coming out of Asia, I just don’t know the names of the agencies creating that great work.

“Great ideas can come from anywhere, nobody has a monopoly on them. Building a body of work over time with consistency is really difficult. And here, that’s the thing I’m proudest of more than anything. 

“Real wealth is relevance right. That’s what we are all striving for, new ideas and conversations that aren’t living on past glories. I’m an old man so maybe I can’t talk about music anymore and I’ve lost that narrative, but I want to be able to talk about literature and politics – for example.”

Indeed, and you once told me: “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.” Do you still believe that and, if so, which camp do your new partners at Accenture fall into? 

“I still believe that 100 per cent. Clearly, I am in the camp of the creative thinkers and the storytellers. That said, we want the world to still spin. 

“I think it’s funny because Accenture definitely makes the world work and operate, but they are not robots. They make things that have impact.

“So it’s now a marriage between the two. I think they look at what we are doing and appreciate it, they see the value in it.”

You are now a global citizen and have worked around the world. When you eventually do retire, where will it be – back in your native Australia or somewhere else?

“I love being Australian and I love Australia. You can’t take that out of me. I also really really love New York. It’s edgy, you’ve got ambition and bravado. You know, I have four children who are 49 per cent American, and I actually tell them that too.

“My fantasy – if I ever do retire – would be to live in New York for four months of the year, spend a couple of months a year in Australia and a couple of months a year in Europe, and then travel around Asia with whatever’s left. I know it’s greedy, but why not?

“If the fruit of your labour is that you can do that and, at the same time, you are being charitable to others with your good fortune then why not have a great life? But the reality will probably end up being wherever my kids are.”

If and when you do retire, who do you see as the Dave Droga of tomorrow? And are you mentoring anyone in the ad industry?

“We have to mentor, of course. And I have pound-for-pound the most exceptional people in the business. Interestingly, the only people we do lose now are going to places like Apple.

“Some of my most successful senior people here started as interns. My thing about the next generation is – do they have the attention span to stick to something when it gets hard? It’s not just about talent, but sweat and toil. If you’ve got the big picture in your mind, you will always get there.

“There is definitely enough talent though. That said, it’s also about whether those people get a platform to rise up and become a star in an industry that is moving towards perpetuating the non-creative people. Look at the agencies that had the biggest impact in the last 50 years; all the good ones were led by opinionated creatives. 

“It’s a question of whether the system allows the new generation of creatives to flourish so that they are not marginalised by efficiencies. The most successful creatives have sharp edges and don’t always conform to the consensus. Is the industry turning into a consensus culture? I don’t know.

“In other industries though, there’s a plethora of rising creative stars. Look at the tech industry in terms of product design, for example. Creativity can still be, I think, the thing that will protect us and our careers.”

Finally to end, the media reports about the size of the deal with Accenture Interactive. The figure of half a billion dollars has been quoted. Anywhere close?

“I will be in trouble whatever I say here. So all I’ll say is, it was the biggest deal in their history and so it should be.”

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