DAVID DROGA IS THE BOLDEST THINKER IN A TROUBLED INDUSTRY. CAN HIS VISION OF A NEW KIND OF AGENCY LEAD THE AD WORLD OUT OF THE DARKNESS?
In the spot, the disembodied voices of cable-news pundits chatter away as various statements flash in black letters on a plain white screen:
The truth is our nation is more divided than ever.
The truth is alternative facts are lies.
The truth is women’s rights are human rights.
The truth is we have to protect our borders.
It concludes with a tagline: “The truth is more important now than ever.”
The commercial went viral, racking up more than 15 million Youtube views. Stephen Colbert made a parody version, publications across the country covered it as a news story of its own, and the president himself turned his Sauron-like eye on the campaign via his favorite channel of unfiltered communication, Twitter: “For first time the failing @nytimes will take an ad (a bad one) to help save its failing reputation. Try reporting accurately & fairly!”
For ad-industry watchers, it was this repetition and amplification of the original message across so many channels that was most impressive. In fact, it’s one of the signatures of the New York–based agency that created it, Droga5. From its founding in 2006, the company has looked for novel ways to feed its messages into the larger media and pop-culture machine, dramatically increasing reach and impact. The strategy doesn’t always work, but when it does—as with the New York Times campaign—the effect is significant. “Just knowing you’re putting something out there that could take on a greater life, that’s our sweet spot,” says David Droga, the agency’s Australia-born founder and creative chairman. “That’s what we try to do.”
Droga—who has a reputation for being outspoken, edgy, and critical of his industry—is one of the ad business’s key thinkers at a moment of major uncertainty. Last year, digital marketing in the United States exceeded television advertising for the first time, with $72.5 billion spent online versus $71.3 billion paid for TV spots, according to a Pricewaterhousecoopers report. With 30second TV spots increasingly being replaced by programmatic advertising on Facebook and Google, the creative work done by traditional agencies matters far less than data analytics and targeting.
Yet despite these industry-wide challenges, Droga5 is thriving. As an early master of virality and shareability in the Facebook–youtube era, Droga has learned how to cut through the clutter. His company won $65 million in new business in 2016, and total revenue was up from $126 million in 2015 to $170 million last year. The agency is as comfortable with social media strategy as it is with big-dollar TV spots, which has attracted a wildly diverse roster of clients, from Chase (for which it helped a New York bakery create a viral sensation around a giant doughnut as part of a credit-card campaign) to deep-pocketed athletic-wear brands such as Under Armour (celebrity-stoked ads starring Michael Phelps and the ballerina Misty Copeland) and tech firms like Mailchimp (a surrealist, multipronged effort designed to increase brand awareness). Last year, Droga5 even did a few ads for the Hillary Clinton
Just over a month after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, The New York Times launched its first major ad campaign in recent memory. At its center was a powerful, minimalist TV commercial that debuted during the February 26 Academy Awards broadcast.
campaign, including a widely shared spot that depicted kids watching some of Trump’s most notorious statements. “I look at the strategy and what happened, and secretly I wish we spent more time building her up, rather than attacking Trump,” Droga now says. “We were so emotionally invested in that idea [of going after Trump].”
As Droga’s approach has gone mainstream, competition has increased significantly. Several of the planet’s biggest management consultancies, including Accenture and Deloitte, are creeping onto Droga5’s turf by buying up smaller ad firms and folding them into their portfolio of services, and virtually every major brand, from Boeing to Pepsi, has launched in-house ad divisions, cutting out independent agencies with years of messaging expertise. And within the agency world, shops both small and large are embracing data and technology as part of the trend known as “Agency 3.0.”
Like the rest of us, Droga generally finds advertising invasive and annoying. As he notes, “We work in an industry where people invent technology to avoid what we create.” Which is why he’s relentlessly focused on crafting campaigns that consumers receive willingly, because of their humor or pathos or just by virtue of being really interesting. “Droga has incredible range,” says David Rubin, The New York Times’s head of brand. “They have the ability to tell stories in lots of different emotions, and that’s really important.” Droga himself has a simple take on what his agency does best. “It’s crude, but the essence, whether we’re talking to a billion-dollar client or a startup, is: Why would anyone give a shit about what we’re making?” he says. “Not, Do we think it’s cool or clever or funny or worthy? It’s, Why is this relevant?”
Droga is sitting in his corner office at the company’s Wall
Street headquarters. The agency moved to the handsome prewar tower in 2014, and it recently expanded from five floors to eight. “At first, I was like, ‘No fucking way am I moving to Wall Street,’ ” says Droga, whose firm was previously housed in a loftlike space in the hipster-friendly zone of Noho (there is also an office in London). “But
Sarah Thompson, Droga5’s global CEO, is steering the agency toward a strategy that goes far beyond traditional marketing.