David Droga: a great writer, creative director and businessman
David Droga has had one of the most remarkable careers in advertising. He’s a kid from a small ski-resort town in NSW Australia who holds the record for the most Lions won at Cannes, but has also been a remarkably successful advertising industry entrepreneur. He has built and sold world-renowned agencies and enriched himself to a remarkable degree.
It all began with a 12-week night course in creative run by the advertising industry in Australia. I’m friends with a creative who was in the Australian industry at the time. The portfolio of work David Droga produced in that 12-week course was of such a high standard that it was passed around creative departments. Established writers and art directors asked themselves ‘who the hell is this kid?’. A kid of just 19.
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Starting out in the industry
He applied for the dispatch department, working in the mailroom of an agency. He got the job because he told the person interviewing a joke and made them laugh hysterically.
Working at Grey was a stroke of luck for David Droga. It was helmed by another wunderkind Creative Director, Siimon Reynolds, who himself had been made a creative director early in his twenties.
At night, David studied at AWARD School, a 12-week course focused on creative advertising run by the Advertising Industry in Australia.
No College. No portfolio school. That was it.
Siimon soon left to start his own agency. The now forgotten, but at the time incredibly influential agency known as OMON. He brought David Droga with him.
David was known for the huge amount of concepts he’d generate for each brief. He’d always have more than a hundred ideas written down. Every time.
He cemented a formidable reputation at OMON, which quickly became the hottest agency in the country – if not the entire Asia / Pacific region. The first ad he made, see below, won a Cannes Silver Lion. By the age of 23, he was made a partner in the agency and creative director.
Saatchi Singapore: the first big move.
Droga was recruited by Saatchi & Saatchi to head the creative department in Singapore.
His experiments paid off. In one year of his tenure, every single creative in his department won a Lion at Cannes. He developed a reputation for creating an excellent work culture, inspiring his department as well as the wider agency, as well as an erudite and intelligent champion of the creative idea in client meetings.
By the age of 29, he’d led the agency to be named AdAge International Agency of the Year award.
And it wasn’t just lions. During his tenure, agency billings went up 35%.
He’d quickly become the golden boy of the Saatchi Network. Both creative and good for business. The combination was irresistible.
How to make an immediate difference to the agency
Not only did Droga guide and nurture the brilliant creative work coming out of the department, he also experimented with ways of keeping the creative department fresh.
He notoriously banned the use of headlines in the department for a month, forcing his creatives to step out of their safety zones. He also set up a system of ‘floating art directors’ where teams would split up, work with other creatives for a project or two.
David Droga wasn’t afraid to make big changes.
He says: “I looked at everyone’s books in the Singapore office just to get a perspective of the talent I had in the building, what they were about, and the guy I fired had the best book, which sounds really weird. He was actually English and had quite an impressive book and he’d been in the agency for five years and nothing in his book was from Asia. Everything in his book was from home. I just said to him “You’re the one person in this creative department who has tasted greatness. You’re not here for that. You haven’t come to Asia for that. There’s nothing in your book from the past five years. You have a different agenda. You can go and do that elsewhere. All the other people would kill to have your opportunities.
The power of resentment
He says: “My biggest goal, when I was there (Saatchi Singpore) became quite obvious when I was there. I thought Saatchi London was so arrogant and full of sh*t and the work wasn’t that good, so my day to day motivation was “We’re going to annoy Saatchi London in everything we do. We’re going to be this tiny little pimple on their ass that just outdoes them in everything.”
Saatchi London: into the Big Leagues
When the creative department of Saatchi London found out David Droga was coming to take over, there was an outcry. There were four or five Creative Directors all fighting for the Executive Creative Director job because there had only ever been two before.
When he first arrived they were shocked. The English are a proud advertising nation. He was 29 and the first foreign Creative Director in London. They were thinking, “Who is this guy? We don’t know where he’s from, we don’t know anything about him.” The tension was intense.
He immediately called a meeting with the creative department. He knew he had to win their trust. He asked “what’s the toughest client in the building? What is the client no one wants to touch?”
So, he managed to get that client to buy something good. A really nice TV ad. In a moment, every excuse about not being able to deliver good work was gone.
He also set the floorplan up so it wasn’t just creatives in the creative department. The head planner sat close by as well as some key account people.
Global Chief Creative Officer of Publicis
This is a role normally given to creatives at the end of a long and storied career. Not to a 35 year old. The role is prestigious and very, very well paid. But it can also be dull.
A Global CCO’s worth is often judged by their success with major entire-network new business efforts for mega clients such as Coca-Cola or Microsoft. Which can be torturously long processes.
The other role is making sure Creative Directors in all global offices are performing. Which means a Global CCO spends an enormous amount of time in a plane and away from their families.
As much as he liked the people and the opportunity, David Droga knew almost immediately that the role wasn’t for him. He was a traveling figurehead and not genuinely creating or affecting the work. It was time to move on to something much more his own.
Droga5: Putting the name on the door
Droga5 has had an enormous impact in the industry since 2006.
It was if the Titanium Lion was created especially for the type of work they became best known for. The concept of ‘earned media’ was virtually unknown in 2006, but Droga5 made the industry see the power of great ideas coupled with PR initiatives that put their clients brands in the news.
After all, the goal is to make your clients famous. And if you can do that with a sparse media budget – so much the better.
Incredible initiatives like ‘The Tap Project’, ‘Millions’, ‘Challenge Lab’, “Dundee”, have all taken away the Titanium Lion. That’s just a few of them. Droga5 has been behind dozens of Titanium Lions.
That’s not to say they can’t make a great traditional campaign either. Their film work has always been exceptional. David Droga has been much more than a figurehead. He is an owner in the mould of John Hegarty. Intimately involved in the creative product and very visible in important client meetings.
That’s why the agency has grown, and clients have been unusually loyal. Droga5 has received countless plaudits. All of them deserved.
The piece of work below kicked it all off. It might be difficult for a junior creative to really understand the significance of this piece of work. It was truly one of the very first things to be made made specifically for the internet. No media budget. It was incredibly daring, and wildly successful.
Not selling out. Muscling up.
We are in a very interesting era when it comes to the business of advertising. The path of David Droga in the last few years is an informative way to look at it.
At first, a large chunk of Droga5 was sold to William Morris talent agency. Since the rise of social media, the power of celebrity has never been so potent. Observers noted the synergies between the business of talent management and agencies in this environment. The sale didn’t just bring money. It made the agency stronger.
Soon after though, Accenture, a behemoth consulting company, came knocking. The Droga5 agencies were all sold to them for an undisclosed amount in 2019.
The partnership gave David Droga the power to set a new standard for how creative thinking can transform businesses, far beyond anything resembling an ad.
Droga is quoted saying “we said ‘yes’ because it’ll blast us forward into the future. If you have to do it all yourself, it will all take much longer – and perhaps too long in the long run. Now we are, just like that, an experience agency that can serve all touch points for brands, at the highest level. Plus, I am not afraid to collaborate. In short, the opportunity was too big not to do it.”
David Droga is CEO of the entire network, now renamed Accenture Song.
Lessons to take from his career
Read widely and consistently
David Droga reads widely. Often about business, but more likely a biography of Da Vinci or anything else that strikes his fancy. He also reads for pleasure. He likes to hire people with curiosity about more than just advertising. It’s an attribute he shares.
Relevance means happiness
Perhaps this is why the CCO role for Publicis didn’t suit him. Here’s what he said in a previous interview:
“Living off past glories annoys me. I want to know that what I’m doing is right now – not living off the good fortune of what’s come before this. I can respect the past, yes. But isn’t one of the missions of life to be relevant now? To be able to contribute to any conversation around you, to add something meaningful to interactions. That’s real wealth. I’d rather add value in a boardroom, a project, or a conversation than be sitting around exceptionally wealthy in a room looking at awards.”
Being influential is more important than being celebrated.
David Droga has said several times in interviews that his goal is not to build the biggest agency in the world or the most creative or the one with the most offices.
He wants to create the most influential agency in the world. To be influential you have to be effective. You have to have scale, you have to have creativity. But you also have to operate in real-world places and contribute to the real world, not just on and off shelf.
Hiring is everything.
“I try and hire pretty smart and really restless people interested in the industry but who aren’t obsessed by the industry, they are obsessed by what is going on in the world.”
He’s not looking for people with an extreme knowledge of the industry, he wants people with a love of it who are also cynical enough to keep looking forward. He looks for talented people, but not one-dimensional people. He looks for people who are in sync with what is happening. People who live in the ‘real world’, who love our industry, but not only our industry.
One of the benefits of having had a lot of success is that you manage to attract a lot of great people. David Droga always say that the one thing that unites Droga5 is that no one has to be here, everyone is talented enough to get a job anywhere else.”
It is a tough and demanding industry. So nothing comes easy. But Droga has the luxury of being able to say no more than they say yes to new clients.
His philosophy is not to choose by category or size but rather by mandates, values, and character. Life is too short to work for bad people or to sell bad products. This is led not by arrogance but by self-preservation. He says “I don’t mind hard categories and tough clients, as long as there are shared ambitions and a mutual level of respect.”
Technology is not an answer but rather an option or canvas.
“I love all the options at our fingertips but it completely depends on how and when they are used. Just because you can do something, it doesn’t mean you need to – restraint is something I admire. At the end of the day, it is still a battle between good vs crap.”
Technology has certainly made things more interesting and fragile. Technology has given us more canvases, but it’s no substitute for relevant ideas.
Taking career risks
“I’m not scared of failure,” says David Droga. “I’m scared of repetition.
If you’re nervous and excited about an opportunity, you are forced to step up and deliver. When you look at his career, he likes to move forward at a high speed, and doesn’t always make the most obvious decision.
A quote from Bob Isherwood, who hired David Droga as CD for Saatchi Singapore: “When I put him into Singapore, David had already run his own agency. I offered him one of two jobs: Creative Director of New Zealand and the other was Regional Creative Director for Asia. David said, “I think I’ve done the New Zealand job before. I’ve never done Asia. Asia is the bigger risk, I’d rather do that.”
You always have to test yourself. If you want to do things that leave a mark, you don’t want to be the guy that goes into ‘x’ agency and it’s already great and just does the next, 15th great Levi’s ad.
You only get that by taking the risk of taking the jobs that most people wouldn’t do
“I prefer to work for brands with a higher purpose, but I am not Mother Theresa. I also sell pizza or clothing, I like what I’m doing, but I think it is very important that they are aware of their social responsibility – especially now that the earth needs us.
It starts to slide if I would have to sell products that I would rather not give my children, like soft drinks with tons of sugar.”
Getting to the core of the problem
There’s nothing complicated or circuitous about how to tackle a problem.
Finding the answers to the essential questions is the key. What is this brand or product about, at its very core? Why should anybody care? How do we want people to feel and what do we want them to do?
Figuring out the fundamental problem to be solved is a critical first step, but what distinguishes the most creative agencies is the ability to then solve that problem in an imaginative, original way that connects with people and is in sync with their lives. This can involve creating memorable characters, telling rich stories, engineering clever stunts, using media in fresh new ways—Droga5 does all of this, sometimes simultaneously.
Which is why strategy is vital
Strategy is the path to affecting clients at a more business-transformation level. If you have ambitions toward creative leadership, understanding strategy is the foundation of your career. It helps you create work with consideration, thought, and respect. Truly understanding that the consumer isn’t an idiot or a moron is a great starting place.
Sheathing strategy in authenticity has become one of the hallmarks of David Droga’s career.
“A title makes you a boss, but that doesn’t make you a leader.”
Leadership is bringing people along on a journey or a mission that is going to be difficult but rewarding. Creatively, you have to fuel the excitement of what the potential of that job can be, while being realistic enough to get things done. Leadership comes with a lot of responsibility but as long as you stay true to who you are and be the consistent version of the best of you, you’ll be able to make the most of the opportunities that comes with it.
Don’t have a style
Look at every video on this page and try to find stylistic similarities. Honestly, there are none. And that is deliberate on the part of David Droga.
You got to give each client what’s appropriate for them. You don’t want to be pigeonholed into one style of advertising. Find the right tone of voice for each client, and explore that in as many unique ways as possible.
Agency success is all about the people
Politics and corporate bullsh*t tries to chip away at you, but it’s about the people – there’s nothing more important than the environment you’re in and work with people that you will get on with during the bad times.
Lots of people work in an environment where it’s fantastic when things are all going well. But the real question is whether you want to work with these people if it all goes horribly pear-shaped.
Always go to work with people that are better than you, or funnier than you. This will make the tough times so much more bearable.
Don’t make decisions based on money
“Trust me, when I’m negotiating I’m the shrewdest, hardest *ss in the world, but my decision before I get to the negotiation has got nothing to do with money.
I remember when I was at Omon I was making like 35 grand a year, and I think I was offered like 150 grand to be Creative Director of Y&R. Because to me that was more money that I could ever believe. But I just knew that it would be death of my career. I would quickly become an irrelevant person in this industry.”
If you do the work, the money follows. Because there just aren’t enough people who give a sh*t about the work. And agencies will try to hang onto the people that actually deliver.
The 20 minute meeting
David Droga has a 20 minute meeting rule. Everyone in the room is forced to cut to the chase. No waffling.
People spend more time working instead of sitting in meeting rooms yawning at endless presentation decks.
It forces the room to quickly define the big questions. What are the expectations? What is going to mark success? Is this true to the client?
The need to be loved
“And at the end of the day I don’t want to be the guy that sits at the end of the corridor with his door closed that everyone is scared of, but I don’t want to be Mr. Popular either, I’m not stupid, I don’t want people to like me because I’m the boss.”
You gotta be straight with people. If you want people to be straight and loyal to you, you’ve gotta be straight and loyal to them. He has high expectations of people that work at his agencies.
If you tell someone to work a weekend, or expect them to work through the night, they need to know you’re working your ass off too. They should see you sweating things. They should see you taking things personally.
Giving and receiving feedback
Be decisive. It doesn’t help anyone to hum and hah around things or to not give someone an answer and say, “Well I’m not sure, let’s do some more work.” That just throws people into a spin.
It takes three years to turn an agency around
The first year is about people and there’s certain good will that clients give you because you’re new in there. The second year is always the bumpiest year because that’s when you can see if people are with you or not. Some clients may freak out as well.
The third year is always when it starts to gel.
Don’t take your success too seriously
Always constantly try to do something that’s better and improve. Live up to your own expectations and don’t be a dick.
You have to be ruthless about things, as long as you give justification for your opinion.
People appreciate when you don’t bullsh*t them. As a leader, if you don’t like something don’t dance around it. But always try and explain why you like something or why you don’t like something so they leave the room knowing if it’s approved or its not.
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