Agency of the Year: Droga5 Exhibits A Painterly Touch
David Droga, founder and creative chairman, Droga5
Deft creative brush strokes grace a broad canvas in 2019

While SHOOT is recognizing Droga5 as its Agency of the Year for 2019, a piece of work unveiled two years ago perhaps best reflects the shop’s creative heart today, shedding light on a dynamic that continues to contribute substantively to a long run of stellar work. We go back to the 2018 Cannes International Festival of Creativity where that work from the year prior not only won a Cannes Film Craft Gold Lion but was the sole piece screened by David Droga, founder and creative chairman of Droga5, during a discussion titled “I’m Not Sure I’m Right But Who Is.”

Droga showed a capacity gathering at the Cannes Lions session an agency short promoting a Christie’s auction of da Vinci’s legendary, rediscovered masterpiece painting of Christ--”Salvator Mundi,” a.k.a., “The Last da Vinci.”

Rather than focus on the painting, Droga5 deployed a hidden camera to turn the perspective around and capture the emotion of those who came to see it. We see their real, most human reactions. Droga5 showed exactly how breathtaking and powerful the painting was by simply not showing it at all. 

“I am obsessed with the emotion of what makes people tick. I’m obsessed with how people feel,” said Droga at Cannes, adding  that the best advertising “touches people,” is “visceral” and “makes you feel something.” The four-minute Christie’s short captured the power of the painting through people’s responses to it, conveying awe, admiration, joy, reverence, sadness and beauty. Droga said the short “reminds me of the power of creativity” and breaking away from conventions.

In some respects, this painterly quality marked Droga5’s performance in 2019 as again the audience and what it experiences are first and foremost. For example, we are shown, and more importantly feel, the impact that journalism has on us individually and collectively in Droga5’s ongoing “The Truth Is Worth It” campaign for The New York Times

Similarly we are thrust onto the Game of Thrones’ canvas on distinctly different fronts--not only being recruited to “bleed for the Throne” in a blood donors’ drive for the American Red Cross, but also on a lighter note being taken to a joust gone bad for the Bud Light Knight in a Super Bowl spot with an unexpected twist as a beer spot turns into a promo for the final season of the iconic HBO series. (Bud Light agency Wieden+Kennedy teamed with HBO shop Droga5 on the Big Game commercial.)

Perhaps most impressive are the broad, far-ranging creative brush strokes painted by Droga5 creatives--from the dead seriousness of depicting the “Fearlessness” of The New York Times to the tongue-in-cheek humor of livening up a bland bagel emoji on behalf of Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese.

For the former, the truth doesn’t report itself. Rather, it requires journalists with bravery, perseverance and rigor--whose work is vital to our democracy. In “Fearlessness” we follow Times’ reporter Rukmini Callimachi, exploring the constant risk, fearlessness and instinct she requires to follow the truth from home soil to war zones, on the ground and in life-threatening situations, developing sources and information across the globe--all in order to give us a better understanding of global terrorism and the caliphate of the Islamic State. The films in the overall campaign feature dynamic text set on top of video clips and stills that depict the story being created and the first person process of the journalist. The evolving type technique reflects the psychology and thought process of the Times journalist--deliberately written in headline case, it changes, moves, deletes and rewrites as we mimic the reporter’s journey to chase the truth. The twists and turns of the footage and type ultimately fall into place to make up the final headline that was originally run by The New York Times.

“The Truth Is Worth It” has become the single most-awarded non-charity campaign of the last decade. The first campaign won two Black D&AD Pencils (film, copywriting), two Cannes Grand Prix honors (film, craft) plus five Gold Lions, as well as Best in Film at The One Show, two Grand Clios and Best in Show from the AICP.

A far cry from the tone and tenor of The New York Times’ work is the aforementioned cream cheese initiative. Upon Apple’s release of a series of new emojis, Droga5 was immediately struck by one for the bagel--plain and desolate. From that immediately sprung a social campaign to bring life to a wholly unappetizing, uninspiring bagel. Within days of embarking on the cream cheese campaign, Droga5 got Apple to spread a schmear of goodness over its emoji--a silly yet creatively relevant marketing mission accomplished.

Living dangerously
Tim Gordon--recently promoted to co-chief creative officer of Droga5 New York along with Felix Richter--said that much starts up top at the agency with David Droga himself. “We have a belief in the people who are here,” said Gordon, adding, “There’s a belief in giving the people here anything and everything so that they have an environment where they can do their best work. David has said he wants this to be ‘a safe place for dangerous ideas.’ We try to continue to maintain that. We take a very bullish outlook on creativity.”

Helping in that regard are diverse perspectives. Gordon noted that while he and Richter have a lot in common “when it comes to what we think this place should be,” they both at the same time “come from extremely different backgrounds. That epitomizes another part of what makes Droga5 great--many different voices...diverse ways of thinking that lead to better and brighter work.”

The essence of that is even reflected in the agency’s work for Nordstrom this year, yielding a campaign mantra, “An Open Mind Is The Best Look,” a celebration of that brand’s place in the world, where everyone is welcome, where varied people, styles and ideas crisscross, where high fashion meets low fashion, classic meets contemporary. Minds are opened, and people get to look and feel their best.”

Also in a case of where a campaign for a client imitates the place where that campaign was created, Gordon said of Droga5, “A lot of places have styles. Our house style is that there is no house style.” Inspiration instead is found in different tones, ideas and forms of execution. Not having a style leaves Droga5 wide open to far reaching possibilities--meaning that the work can be incredibly heartfelt, important, impactful or even silly and just plain entertaining. 

Yet while the range is seemingly limitless, the work no matter how different shares a bond of being smart, respecting the intelligence of consumers. And then going beyond appealing to their intelligence. The New York Times fare, for example, does more than smartly educating viewers about what goes into good journalism. At the same time, related Gordon, “each bit of the film is dialed into eliciting an emotional feeling” so that people connect on a deeper level with the importance of journalism and what it represents.

Another part of Droga5’s philosophical foundation, continued Gordon, is simply that the agency “cares a lot. We care about the process, the client and what they’re trying to convey. We care about the people trying to make the work. A huge amount of care goes into what goes out. We care about the audience. At the end of the day we’re asking for people’s attention. Our responsibility is to create something for them that is beautiful and engaging. We’re beholden to make something worthwhile and compelling.”

That extended well beyond The New York Times, HBO, Kraft Philadelphia and Nordstrom in 2019. Also resonating this year has been work for such clients as Thorne, IHOP, Dos Equis and Chase, among assorted others. For example, the Chase work shows how Droga5 builds on a campaign, creating a new yet continuing momentum. In 2018, Chase’s sponsorship of the U.S. Open tennis championship tournament ignited a conversation about motherhood as Serena Williams returned to the competition after becoming a mom for the first time. With a film and social campaign, the #ThisMama hashtag initiative encouraged others to tell their own stories of motherhood. Fast forward to 2019 and “This Mama Keeps Going” brought a new working mom dimension, showcasing the journey of motherhood from Williams’ perspective. The concept pairs videos of her daughter Olympia growing up, from ultrasound all the way through to the present day, with voiceover from Serena Williams’ interview after her very first U.S. Open win. What’s remarkable is how well her words relate to not only to her life as a tennis player, but also as a mother.  The social campaign touches on the fact that, even though it’s been 20 years since her Grand Slam,  Williams--as both a nurturing mother and a fiercely competitive player--never stops pushing, striving and playing. The campaign showcases the strength of moms everywhere, using Williams as the embodiment of that strength as she shares her experiences, being both vulnerable and candid, about motherhood.

From that relatable relevance, Droga5 ranges to charmingly absurd fun with Dos Equis’ “Hit Single,” which earned the number one ranking in SHOOT’s Top Five Tracks music chart for 2019 (see separate Best Work of the Year feature story). In the spot, Bonnie Tyler’s 1982 hit single “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is transformed into a ballad musing about the trials, tribulations and self-absorbed trauma of ordering Dos Equis and appetizers at a crowded bar. This loving tribute to all that makes summer great, including 1980s-style music jams, helps to encourage today’s party-goers and Dos Equis drinkers to make every moment “interesante.” 

Being a fountain of creatively inspired work, though, isn’t enough at Droga5. That creativity has to have a purpose and positive consequences in the marketplace at large. Beyond being “interesante,” work has to prove effective for brands. So amidst this year’s many accolades at Cannes, the AICP Show, a Super Clio win for “Joust,” Agency of the Year mantles from the D&AD and the Ciclope Fest, looming large is Droga5’s ongoing track record at the Effie Awards. Back in May, Droga5 earned distinction as Independent Effectiveness Agency of the Year for the third straight and the fourth time in five years. Additionally, Droga5 earned the 2019 crown for Overall Agency of the Year.

Constant contributors
Sally-Ann Dale, chief creation officer for Droga5, noted that there are constants that have contributed to the agency’s success. “Throughout the years, we’ve been lucky to have brave clients, and this year has been no different,” she assessed, adding, “We wouldn’t be able to do the work that we do without the collaboration of our clients, every department in the agency, our own multitude of production disciplines working together and, of course, our production partners. We are in it together.”

Dale further observed, “Our approach to production has been the same since the very beginning of Droga5, and we’ll continue to work with the same rigor and philosophy.” She noted that in 2019, “We expanded our global capabilities at scale as well as the landscape of our storytelling, all of which is truly exciting and motivating.”

Dale is also optimistic about where Droga5 is headed. “We’re coming to the end of 2019, and I’m really excited and energized about the work we have in production right now. The department is the busiest it’s been all year, so if I think about it, the best of 2019, and beyond, is yet to come.”

That also holds true in terms of Second Child, Droga5’s in-house production studio, which according to Dale “has had its busiest year to date and is already gearing up for 2020.”

Jesse Brihn, director of film production at Droga5, noted that Second Child, under the aegis of Scott Chinn, produces notable work while also enabling the agency to explore proof of concepts, helping to bring other campaigns to fruition at the agency. Brihn noted that being able to tap into Second Child “allows us to express and explore opportunities beyond just the theoretical--to express to a client or test for yourself the validity of an idea, to try it out.” Brihn added that Second Child has a major innovation arm that has yielded ambitious work in its own right.

A prime example would be “The Frontier Within” for Thorne, a health-solutions provider offering a portfolio of premium supplements and at-home diagnostic test kits. Established among healthcare practitioners, Thorne wanted to become a household name in the luxury space, moving into direct-to-consumer sales. Toward that end, Droga5 introduced audiences to the next frontier of human progress--the human body. “The Frontier Within” came to life as film and social assets that take viewers on a journey to a mysterious, vast frontier before revealing that the frontier is the viewer’s own body. All touchpoints started a conversation with the consumer about his or her body and its unique needs, leading to a tailored, integrated solution from Thorne. 

An immersive installation and website were created that brought people face to face with their own bodies. Biometric sensors captured respiratory, circulatory and neurological biodata, which was turned into a living, breathing inner portrait on a 21-foot screen and revealed the awe-inspiring frontier within every one of us. That portrait was then turned into an Inner Selfie to be shared on social media. An interactive web experience let everyone who couldn’t attend the installation create their own Inner Selfie as well. Droga5 and Second Child partnered with U.K. digital artists Marshmallow Laser Feast and web studio Active Theory on “The Frontier Within,” delivering a truly collaborative, nontraditional, integrated campaign.

Brihn’s film department dovetails and collaborates with Droga5’s interactive production operation headed by Tasha Cronin and Justin Durazzo, as well as Second Child, and print services and art production groups--all overseen by Dale--to help realize creative visions. “We all share an office together. We’re able to leverage each other’s skills and passions,” said Brihn, adding that they seek out the partnerships within and outside the agency that offer the best opportunity to succeed.”

Brihn continued, “Everything we do tells some sort of human truth regardless of what the brand is and what the message is.” Thus there’s a deep sense of purpose to the work, which intensifies the spirit of collaboration within production operations and with agency creatives, as well as outside vendors including production and post houses, VFX, animation and music studios.

On the production side, affirmed Brihn, “Craft is foremost in everything we do. It’s always been about story and the level of storytelling. I came here as an executive producer (in early 2015) and seen our group grow from the ground up.” During that time he’s seen innovation expand and curiosity grow at the shop, with boundaries being pushed regarding what’s possible.

Future vision
Droga5’s eye on the future was evident in 2019--on high and low-profile fronts. On the former score, it was announced in April that Accenture had acquired Droga5. The 13-year-old ad agency thus became part of Accenture Interactive. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed but the dollar amount was reported to be the largest in Accenture Interactive’s 10-year history. 

The landmark acquisition was designed to bring together Droga5’s brand building prowess with Accenture Interactive’s penchant for delivering great brand experiences. “Accenture will allow us to realize work in ways we couldn’t have previously,” said Brihn, noting that 2020 figures to be a year when those possibilities--fueled in part by having access to Accenture Interactive’s technology tools--will be more fully explored and realized. 

That potential has already been reflected with last month’s news that Kimberly-Clark Corp. had named Accenture Interactive as the lead creative agency for its baby and child-care products. This marked Accenture Interactive’s first big win pitching in tandem with Droga5.

Gordon said that Accenture Interactive “has opened up new, exciting avenues” for Droga5, “ensuring we have everything at our disposal to do what we do--and to do it even better.”

Meanwhile the future is also being facilitated at a less conspicuous but still vital level by the D5in10 Academy, Droga5’s free 10-week program, now in its second year, which aims to broaden the industry pipeline for “nontraditional” talent. Droga5 itself has tapped into the program to bring talent into the agency fold. D5in10 is designed to teach creators of all disciplines the essence of advertising concepting, building campaigns, art direction, copywriting and more. The initiative looks to find people with a creative spark who hadn’t necessarily yet figured out where to apply their talents, lacked the opportunity to build a portfolio in advertising school or were unable to get a foot in the door at an agency in some capacity. Now they can get a start in advertising by gaining direct hands-on instruction from Droga5 employees. 

D5in10 Academy students have a greater sense of confidence and structure in how they approach their creative work, whether or not they choose to pursue a job in advertising. They garner an understanding of strategy, ideation and execution.

Since its launch in 2017, nearly 50 individuals have completed the program, and 25 percent of the first contingent landed roles within the ad biz. 

Gordon affirmed that this “bootcamp” for young creatives who might not otherwise consider an advertising career marks a cultivation of diversity at a grass-roots level--not just for Droga5 but for the industry at large, which is of paramount importance for the future.

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