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David Droga. (EMILIO FLORES/NYT)
David Droga. (EMILIO FLORES/NYT)

Q&A: David Droga breaks advertising moulds in the digital age Add to ...

David Droga knows a thing or two about advertising.

A wunderkind who became a creative director in his twenties, he has gone on to a distinguished career that has landed him in the Art Directors Club Hall of Fame and the American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement, and has led the agency he founded, Droga5, to success. He is the most awarded creative at the Cannes advertising festival. But he is also a vocal critic of the industry, calling out creative laziness and praising a digital age that lets consumers ignore bad ads more easily than ever.

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Mr. Droga spoke with The Globe and Mail about advertising that works, and what’s coming next.

You were recently named chairman of the 50th International ANDY Awards. Is there actual value in award shows for advertising?

There are certainly a lot of award shows – we may rival the entertainment industry. There are generally speaking, globally, too many shows. But then, there are a handful that are very important … they’re more than just an ego stroke. It’s a way of recording how we’re moving forward, and setting benchmarks for next year and the year after. … Once something’s been awarded, it forces us to move on and be more original. It allows clients to realize there are people in the same categories as them, or in neighbouring categories, who are pushing, and setting benchmarks they may want to aspire to. The ANDYs has been around for 50 years and it’s always done that. From a judge’s perspective, I also like the fact that it’s comprehensive. Award shows have become so big now that they’re segmented into categories so much. As a creative person, you only get to see one very narrow part of the industry. You might just look at television, or cyber, or mobile. The ANDYs is comprehensive. You really get to see the ecosystem of our industry in all its glory, and how things interact. I think that’s why it’s always a treat for the people who do judge it. You get to really do a cross-section of the state of the industry, as opposed to just one dimension of it. That’s why it’s important. … You need to be motivated, and nothing motivates you like seeing great work other people have created.

As president of the new Innovation jury in Cannes this year, you said you were encouraged by the opportunity to award “ideas and thinking not necessarily limited to a single brand, moment or campaign.” Why is that important now?

We are not just creating advertising that fits into a 30-second commercial … Sometimes that manifests itself in a 30-second narrative, and sometimes it can be a new product. ... Not everything we create is a disposable advertisement. Sometimes it can be long-term product thinking, a strategic road map for the brand, or partnerships and alliances they haven’t thought about. We may have the creative hat, but we can have business boots.

Droga5 nabbed quite a few awards for its work for Prudential Insurance, which told real stories of people’s first day of retirement through photos and intimate short films. This kind of storytelling seems to be more common. Why do you think that is?

Nothing connects with people like humanity. That doesn’t mean you have to tell slice-of-life stories all the time. But you know, with so many options in technology, the consumer’s not really that interested in advertising. … They are interested in great stories. That transcends any medium. … Life insurance and financial services has been quite a patronizing category for the last 30 or 40 years. We wanted to try and humanize it … Instead of scaring [consumers] that they’re all going to retire poor or trick them into thinking they’re all going to retire with a yacht, make them realize there are people just like them going through things just like them, and make them realize that we’re on their side. There’s honesty and truth in that. ... As huge as reality TV is now in the world, look, what’s the reflex to that? Reality TV is not going anywhere but, the backlash to that has been this influx of great programming, great storytelling on all these cable channels – and you’ve got Netflix now – HBO, Showtime. Not everyone wants to skim and graze. We’re moved by emotions, and characters, and stories. We love that.

At the same time, you wrote in Esquire recently that a lot of agencies are pushing the panic button right now. How has technological change forced advertising to rethink what it is?

The fundamental principle of the industry hasn’t changed. We are there to create connections, to inspire, to educate, to sell. But how we do it has changed. The rules have changed drastically. It was an industry built on assumptions, that there was only a certain amount of media that people would consume and the disruption of advertisement – whether in a magazine or on a radio station or a television channel – consumers kind of accepted that. That was the price they paid for giving them great content or programming that they wanted. But then technology changed. You can’t necessarily just spend your way into consumers’ attention; you have to earn your way into their attention. That’s a great thing for the industry, because it stops us being so lazy. … It puts the onus back on us to be more interesting, more strategic, more relevant – back on us to just be good again. A lot of the industry is panicking because we’ve sort of backed ourselves into a corner. It was all ticking boxes. It became very formulaic. That’s why advertising had this bad reputation. I love the power of this industry, and I love some of the thinking that comes from this industry, but a huge proportion of it sort of goes through the motions.

Advertising has become fundamentally lazy?

It’s not like we don’t work hard. People work all the time, work weekends. I wrote [in Esquire]: No industry has worked harder at being lazy. We’re doing the same thing over and over. And it gets harder and harder – the consumer doesn’t want to be interrupted. I mean, I’m in advertising and I fast forward through the commercials. There are whole industries built on technologies to avoid what our industry creates. If that isn’t a wake-up call that we need to be better, and smarter, and more tactical and timely, and more in sync with the consumer, I don’t know what is. But when it’s done well, it’s second to none. There’s myriad great examples of brands that have been built on the back of great advertising; pop culture referecnes that are built on advertising. … I’m not singing from the hilltops that our industry is going to disappear. But I’m saying that it has to reinvent itself. … Our industry has some of the best, diverse thinkers. If we just point it in the right direction, we can do wonderful things. It’s not just creating effective advertisements, or new products, but also contributing to raise awareness for some of the biggest social issues.

What are some of your favourite ads recently?

Old Spice took a dying brand and just contemporized it immediately. That became as much pop culture as it was a success in the boardroom. … What Dove did about “Real Beauty” is really interesting. … Dos Equis, the most interesting man in the world. The winners, now … it isn’t the person who spends the most. That’s what it used to be. There’s so much advertising on television that I find just lazy, just so lazy, I’m like why are they doing that? ‘People like cute kids, let’s just put cute kids in ads.’ There’s nothing discerning, or interesting, or ownable, or sincere, or authentic. Some people still go through the motions. Those that don’t, win over the consumer.

You mention Dove, but with social media there is now so much more conversation around brands, people calling them out. Every time Dove does a “real beauty” ad, consumers complain – more loudly than ever, it seems – that Dove’s parent company also makes Axe. Do you worry about people’s perceptions of advertising for being hypocritical, or lying?

There’s no question, everything’s transparent now. ... A brand that owns a portfolio, not every brand can stand for the same thing. … Each consumer has the power of their wallet and their voice. They can exercise that. If they think the positive messages of Dove should be erased because Unilever also sells Axe, what’s the winning strategy there? They shouldn’t take that positive messaging?

With 2013 drawing to a close, what do you think the next year holds in store for this industry?

I wish I did have that crystal ball. ... We’re getting back to the basics of great storytelling, more transparency, more social good – the body language of a brand has to match what’s coming out of the mouth, more and more, and that’s a good thing. … It’s going to be hard for some of the generic agencies. It’s going to be easier and better for some of the premium ones. I’m not saying all big agencies are bad and all small agencies are good, it doesn’t work that way. It’s the quality of the work, the leadership, and the intentions. But I feel it’s going to be less glitz and more strategic rigour in the work. That’s something that’s imperative.

What’s the question you wish people would ask you more often?

Why aren’t more clients demanding better work? That’s one. A lot of [chief marketing officers] are in a transient job – they’re only doing it for 18 months so their biggest objective is just not to screw it up as opposed to trying to be distinctive. … I always find it really fascinating, where a category can go along unnoticed and looky-likey all the same, and then one brand in a category has the courage to step out and do something that elevates it above everyone else, and then suddenly everyone follows suit. So car insurance will be boring and terrible and someone does something interesting and everyone thinks they have to do a gecko, like what’s their thing? There’s always one leader and so many followers. In every category. It’s amazing. It always pays dividends for the first to do it, but very few want to be the first. It’s crazy. I always find that a shame.

This interview has been condensed and edited

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Droga’s career highlights

1992: At age 22, becomes partner and creative director of OMON Sydney.

1997: Named executive creative director at Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore at age 27. The following year, the shop is named Advertising Age’s Agency of the Year. 1998

1999: Becomes Saatchi & Saatchi’s executive creative director based in London and in 2002 the firm is named the Cannes Global Agency of the Year.

2003-2006: Worldwide Creative Director at Publicis.

2006: Founded Droga5 in New York. Droga5 is named to Advertising Age ‘s agency A-List in 2010, 2011 and 2012; Adweek agency of the year in 2012; Creativity Magazine’s agency of the year in 2007 and 2011; and is on Fast Company’s list of the “world’s most innovative companies” for 2013.

Among his awards: 2012 Art Directors Club Hall of Fame 2005 American Advertising Federation Hall of Achievement

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David Droga’s work is awarded both at industry shows and by the clients who he says pay a premium for his agency’s services. Here are some campaigns that stand out (see links to the video above):

Monster.co.uk

A classic campaign from Droga’s time at Saatchi & Saatchi in London, that played on a very relatable insight: that people can’t always trust themselves when they are trying to make big career moves. The “beware the voices” campaign used dark humour about people making bad decisions and encouraged them instead to seek out some solid career advice.

Puma

Droga5 has done a lot of good work for Puma, and some – like this one from 2011 – show off the artistry and craft that can go into an ad. The strategy was to market the brand to “after hours athletes.”

Ecko

Why take out an ad when a news hoax will get your message out online, on television, and all over – for free? That’s what Droga5 proved in 2006 when it mocked up a plane to look just like Air Force One and made a video that looked like security footage capturing graffiti artists painting the words “still free” on President Bush’s ride. It was the perfect fit for the brand created by designer and graffiti artist Marc Ecko. The story racked up more than 100 television news appearances, coverage from 17,000 news outlets, and 23-million visitors to stillfree.com in its first two weeks alone.

Prudential

Insurance and financial services advertising, in Droga’s eyes, was “patronizing.” Retirement planning ads either fooled consumers into thinking they could retire like kings in tropical climes, or used fear-mongering to make them worry about not having enough money for old age. In 2012, Droga5 decided instead to tell real people’s stories on “day one” of retirement. The agency received more than 5,000 photographs from people cataloging that day, and went on to make touching, intimate short films about how they were facing this new stage of life.

UNICEF

More than a billion people in the world don’t have access to clean, safe drinking water. So the Tap Project sought to actually brand something that nobody owns: tap water. It enlisted restaurants in New York City to invite customers to pay a dollar for the tap water that is normally free, all going to UNICEF. The project attracted media coverage on World Water Day, and raised about $100,000 from restaurant diners. Following the first campaign in New York, it spread around the world. UNICEF said this was its most successful campaign in 56 years.

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