Droga5

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when I saw the build­ing, it was un­be­liev­able—so now there’s this sea of plaid and fa­cial hair com­ing out of the sub­way every morn­ing.”

He’s wear­ing a slouchy blue blazer, white polo shirt, tan cor­duroys, and a pair of art­fully bat­tered work boots. An over­size black-and-white photo of Muham­mad Ali dom­i­nates the wall be­hind his desk, part of an ex­cel­lently high-low mix of ob­jects on dis­play—from big-ticket pieces by artists like Ai Wei­wei to a replica of rac­ing leg­end Ayr­ton Senna’s hel­met. Droga’s of­fice also con­tains the first piece of art he ever pur­chased. (He’s now a ma­jor col­lec­tor, with a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in Chi­nese art, and sits on the board of New York’s New Mu­seum.) It’s a small sculp­ture, set into a deep frame, de­pict­ing a pair of car­toon spi­ders gaz­ing at a web that blocks the bot­tom of a play­ground slide. A cap­tion taped to the frame reads, “If we pull this off, we’ll eat like kings.” When he was 18, Droga spent all the money he had—some­thing like $2,000—to buy the piece, which turns out to be one of a very small se­ries of three-di­men­sional Far Side comics cre­ated by the car­toon­ist Gary Lar­son. “All my friends were like, ‘What are you do­ing buy­ing that thing?’ ” he re­calls, laugh­ing. “But I was just so drawn to it.”

The anec­dote, along with the piece it­self, cap­tures a lot of what drives Droga: an at­trac­tion to sim­ple, hi­lar­i­ous ideas; a com­fort with risk; an ob­ses­sion with im­ages that move him. He grew up in ru­ral New South Wales, Aus­tralia, where his father owned and ran a ski re­sort and his mother, who is from Den­mark, was an artist. Droga was the fifth of six kids; the agency’s name comes from la­bels his mom sewed in his clothes. “My mother couldn’t give a fuck about”—he ges­tures around the of­fice—“this. I mean, she’s happy that I’m suc­cess­ful, but she judges ev­ery­thing on, ‘What are you do­ing for others?’ and ‘Are you cre­at­ing beau­ti­ful things?’ My father, on the other hand, was a clas­sic well-ed­u­cated busi­ness­man. I’m kind of like both of them: My mother grew up want­ing to save the world, and my father grew up want­ing to rule the world.”

De­spite the shots Droga likes to take at his pro­fes­sion—within a few min­utes of meet­ing him he’ll tell you that he doesn’t watch com­mer­cials

“I TOOK LESS GLEE FROM IT THAN I PROB­A­BLY SHOULD HAVE,” DROGA SAYS OF PEPSI’S DIS­AS­TROUS KENDALL JEN­NER AD. “IT JUST FELT LIKE AN­OTHER BLACK EYE FOR US AS AN IN­DUS­TRY.”

on TV and that most of ad­ver­tis­ing is just “chest-puffery” or “fire­works that dis­ap­pear the sec­ond they’re out there”—it’s all he ever re­ally wanted to do. He skipped col­lege and got a job in the mail­room of a Syd­ney agency at age 18; just four years later, he was a part­ner and cre­ative lead at an­other Aus­tralian firm. By the time he started Droga5, he had made his way, via in­creas­ingly pres­ti­gious posts at ever-larger agen­cies, from Syd­ney to Sin­ga­pore to Lon­don to New York, where he landed as the world­wide chief cre­ative of­fi­cer at Publi­cis—a job, he likes to say, that was so well com­pen­sated and in­flu­en­tial that you’d have to be crazy to quit. But Droga did leave, want­ing to es­cape the ever-con­sol­i­dat­ing, in­creas­ingly cor­po­ra­tized in­dus­try, and also to grow a busi­ness of his own.

Droga5’s very first work es­tab­lished its in­flu­en­tial sen­si­bil­ity. In 2006, back when the agency had just a few em­ploy­ees, it cre­ated a dig­i­tal spot for streetwear brand Ecko Unltd in the form of a highly con­vinc­ing lo-fi video that ap­peared to show founder (and graf­fiti artist) Marc Ecko break­ing into An­drews Air Force Base and tag­ging Air Force One. The clip be­came an early vi­ral smash. A se­ries of much-dis­cussed cam­paigns fol­lowed: In 2008’s “The Great Sch­lep,” Sarah Sil­ver­man en­cour­aged Jew­ish grand­par­ents to vote for Barack Obama; 2014’s “If We Made It” had the beer brand New­cas­tle de­scrib­ing the Su­per Bowl ad it would have made, if it only had the bud­get.

In 2013, Droga sold 49% of his agency to the Hol­ly­wood pow­er­house WME, for a re­ported $225 mil­lion. The move has cre­ated some in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, not least of which was the pos­si­bil­ity of tak­ing on Hol­ly­wood stars as clients. There are now four or five of these deals, in­clud­ing one with Dwayne “The Rock” John­son. Droga5 helped John­son team with Un­der Ar­mour (an­other Droga client) for a line of pop­u­lar shoes and ath­letic wear, and the agency pro­moted the star’s lat­est movie, a Bay­watch re­make, by con­coct­ing a vi­ral stunt that in­volved hun­dreds of peo­ple jog­ging through L.A. in slo-mo, in a nod to the Bay­watch TV se­ries’ cheesy beach-run­ning se­quences.

This sort of broader think­ing is now at the cen­ter of Droga5’s busi­ness. Its strat­egy team— which has grown in im­por­tance over the years to be­come a pil­lar of the agency—of­fers clients help with prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, so­cial me­dia plan­ning, web­site de­sign, PR tac­tics, and brand­ing. “Last year, our agenda was, How do we achieve the type of Droga5 work we’re known for and scale?” says Droga5 global CEO Sarah Thomp­son. “This year is very much about, How do we af­fect our clients at a more busi­ness-trans­for­ma­tion level?”

Jonny Bauer, Droga5’s global chief strat­egy of­fi­cer, kicks

back on a sofa in his of­fice be­neath a large neon sign that reads WITH FULL Con­sent—cre­ated by his wife, the con­cep­tual artist Jill Magid. A nearby side­board is stocked with bot­tles of co­gnac, whiskey, and cham­pagne (Droga5’s cre­denza bud­get can’t be in­sub­stan­tial, as vir­tu­ally every of­fice is equipped with a vin­tage teak cab­i­net). To Bauer, the ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­try has reached an in­flec­tion point that Droga5 is uniquely po­si­tioned to ex­ploit. “The big­gest ques­tion is around de­sign and what role that plays,” he says, in an ac­cent tinged with his na­tive Aus­tralia. “We’ve al­ways been a non­tra­di­tional, in­te­grated ad­ver­tis­ing agency that will do more than just TV ads. But our

THESE DAYS, DROGA5 IS THINK­ING ABOUT CAM­PAIGNS AS BROAD MUL­TI­ME­DIA EVENTS THAT GO FAR BE­YOND THE USUAL TV, ON­LINE, AND MO­BILE CON­TENT.

fo­cus now is bring­ing de­sign think­ing into the de­vel­op­ment process to in­form the ex­pe­ri­ence: What is the prod­uct, what is the web pres­ence, what in­no­va­tion should they be cre­at­ing, what is the busi­ness case around those in­no­va­tions?”

When the agency takes on a new client, Bauer’s team be­gins a deep-dive re­search mis­sion—sift­ing through fi­nan­cials, launch­ing ethno­graphic re­search on cus­tomer be­hav­ior, em­bed­ding with var­i­ous parts of the busi­ness. The goal is to un­earth the client’s pur­pose (a word you hear con­stantly at Droga), which is the idea from which ev­ery­thing else will emerge. In Bauer’s view, it’s this process that gives the agency its big­gest edge.

If you want to see this in ac­tion, the best place to go is the spir­i­tual cen­ter of Droga HQ: a glass­walled con­fer­ence room that floats above a grand stair­case-slash-am­phithe­ater con­nect­ing the agency’s 10th- and 11th-floor spa­ces. It’s called the Cre­ative Box, and it’s where the Droga teams of­ten con­fer with clients. One early May after­noon, the agency is host­ing a strat­egy meet­ing with ex­ec­u­tives from new client Mat­tress Firm, the top re­tailer in an in­dus­try that’s found it­self chal­lenged by nim­ble bed-in-a-box play­ers like Casper and Leesa. The meet­ing ex­plores every in­ter­ac­tion a cus­tomer might po­ten­tially have with the brand, from an ini­tial Google search to post-pur­chase en­gage­ment. “All the bed-in-a-box guys are play­ing in that post-pur­chase space,” notes Droga strate­gist Dan Neu­mann. “With sheets, with pil­lows . . .” A col­league in­ter­jects, “With dog beds!”

When Droga5 started work­ing with Mat­tress Firm, the strat­egy group had iden­ti­fied sleep tech—ev­ery­thing from cool­ing mat­tress pads to ad­justable bed­room light­ing—as an area ripe for the com­pany to ex­plore. To­day’s meet­ing comes as Mat­tress Firm is pre­par­ing to roll out the first re­sult of this plan: a new tech-in­fused prod­uct, the Beau­tyrest Black Hy­brid mat­tress, which claims to use “mul­ti­touch” mem­ory foam in a new way. A few weeks later, it will be re­vealed with an Ap­ple-style key­note, hosted by Steve Woz­niak, that Droga5 con­cocted. The agency also came up with a tagline for an en­tirely new cat­e­gory of Mat­tress Firm prod­ucts: “Tech­nol­ogy to Power Off.”

This big-pic­ture ap­proach is where Bauer en­vi­sions the most op­por­tu­nity for the agency go­ing for­ward: us­ing the kind of think­ing the com­pany orig­i­nally de­vel­oped to help in­form the mes­sag­ing, but ap­ply­ing it to deeper lev­els of prob­lem solv­ing. Droga5 is do­ing this type of work—de­vel­op­ing new prod­ucts, re­fin­ing cus­tomer ser­vice, stream­lin­ing the shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence—for a whole range of clients, from Sprint to Pizza Hut to Chase. “It’s about in­te­grat­ing the brand and the ex­pe­ri­ence to­gether,” says Bauer. “We’re hav­ing the core con­ver­sa­tions about how they build their busi­ness.”

The way Bauer sees it, even the ad world’s most no­to­ri­ous re­cent de­ba­cle—pepsi’s epi­cally tone-deaf spot in which Kendall Jen­ner at­tends a Black Lives Mat­ter–style protest and of­fers a po­lice of­fi­cer a bev­er­age—was more of a strate­gic fail­ure than a cre­ative one. Which is to say, a kind of fail­ure that Droga5 is strongly in­oc­u­lated against. “What role does Pepsi have in the world?” Bauer asks. “Key peace­keeper through prod­uct sip­ping? That doesn’t seem like a cred­i­ble strat­egy. No mat­ter how beau­ti­ful the model or how po­etic the mu­sic or how cin­e­mat­i­cally it was shot, no one asked the fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: What is the right thing for this brand to be do­ing in this world? And we spend a lot of time get­ting to the heart of what that is.”

Not in­signif­i­cantly, that Jen­ner spot was made by Pep­sico’s re­cently cre­ated in-house agency, which has in­creas­ingly been tak­ing over mes­sag­ing ef­forts from the brand’s var­i­ous mar­ket­ing part­ners. As a re­sult, some in­dus­try watch­ers point to it as a prime ex­am­ple of the dan­gers of for­go­ing the per­spec­tive and ex­per­tise of out­side shops such as Droga5. “I ac­tu­ally took less glee from it than I prob­a­bly should have,” says Droga. “It just felt like an­other black eye for us as an in­dus­try. But what makes me op­ti­mistic is there’s work out there made with con­sid­er­a­tion, thought, and re­spect. Just think­ing that the con­sumer isn’t an id­iot or a mo­ron is a great start­ing place.”

Every so of­ten, Droga gath­ers the en­tire cre­ative depart­ment at the of­fice’s cen­tral stair­case and runs through what’s hap­pen­ing with the agency. At one such re­cent meet­ing, he starts by an­nounc­ing a slew of new awards the team has won. (Since it launched, the com­pany has racked up more than 100 Cannes Lions, the in­dus­try’s most pres­ti­gious recog­ni­tion.) Next, he shifts to new busi­ness. Un­der Ar­mour has signed the rap­per A$AP Rocky, and it turns out he is a ma­jor Droga5 fan. Droga tells the team about a re­cent phone call be­tween the two of them. “He asked, ‘Do you guys do mu­sic videos?’ I said, ‘Not re­ally.’ And he said, ‘Well, you guys are do­ing my next mu­sic video.’ ” Ev­ery­body laughs. When Droga asks for vol­un­teers to work on the project, a few dozen hands shoot up.

These are the kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties that are of­ten com­ing Droga5’s way—projects that lever­age the com­pany’s skill set in en­tirely new ways. The New York of­fice’s sec­ond floor now houses the agency’s new pro­duc­tion com­pany, Sec­ond Child. There’s a vast photo stu­dio, bank af­ter bank of edit­ing suites, even pod­cast fa­cil­i­ties. The idea is that Sec­ond Child can speed up the turnaround of work gen­er­ated up­stairs, as in the case of some re­cent New York Times ads that were cre­ated in the fa­cil­ity. It can also take on projects un­re­lated to agency busi­ness.

One re­cent suc­cess was Tree, a vir­tual-re­al­ity short film that was pro­duced by Droga5 and ap­peared at the Sun­dance and Tribeca film fes­ti­vals. Us­ing an Ocu­lus Rift head­set and a mul­ti­sen­sory ar­ray of scent ma­chines, fans, and por­ta­ble heaters, the film turns the viewer into a tree in the Ama­zon rain for­est—ex­pe­ri­enc­ing its en­tire life, from seed to even­tual death by clear-cut­ting. There’s no client to bill, or re­ally any money to be made from the project, but to Droga it’s been well worth the in­vest­ment be­cause it adds to the agency’s un­der­stand­ing of a cru­cial new medium.

These days, Droga5 is think­ing about cam­paigns as broad mul­ti­me­dia events that go far be­yond the usual TV, on­line, and mo­bile con­tent and into more un­ex­pected forms of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Its re­cent Mailchimp work, for ex­am­ple, was a hy­per­am­bi­tious nine-cam­paigns-in-one mega-ad that tested every skill a mod­ern agency needs to thrive to­day. To raise aware­ness of the email-mar­ket­ing ser­vice, Droga5 cre­ated a whole range of wacky in­ter­con­nected con­tent that hinted at the brand’s name, from a le­git­i­mately pop­u­lar song (by a new band called Veil­hymn, which in­cluded in­die star Dev Hynes) to a se­ries of sur­real short films to a line of snacks (Fail Chips), which were dis­trib­uted na­tion­wide. In­ter­est­ingly, the cam­paign gave vir­tu­ally no in­di­ca­tion of what Mailchimp does—be­cause Droga5 was con­fi­dent that po­ten­tial cus­tomers would find the con­tent in­trigu­ing enough to take that next step them­selves.

But no mat­ter how am­bi­tious and com­plex his com­pany’s work gets, Droga still mea­sures suc­cess by one pri­mary met­ric: im­pact. “It’s not about be­ing the big­gest or the place with the most pins in a map,” he says. “We want to be the most in­flu­en­tial. We talk about try­ing to build the most in­flu­en­tial agency in the world.”

Global chief strat­egy of­fi­cer Jonny Bauer is in­ject­ing de­sign think­ing into Droga5’s cre­ative process.

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