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For an agency named after a label, Droga5 is hard to label. OK, let’s back up and explain that statement, starting with the first part: Yes, that quirky agency name—which, if you’ve been paying attention to advertising the past few years, you’ve been hearing a lot—originally derives from a label, specifically one that founder David Droga’s mother used to sew inside his clothes when he was a boy (David happened to be the fifth of six Droga kids; ergo, his duds were tagged “Droga5” for easy identification).

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Decades later, Droga decided to attach that name to his startup company—an enterprise that, as it turns out, defies any sort of easy classification. Droga5 burst on the scene in 2006 by creating an immense viral hoax—which could easily have resulted in the startup being pegged as a down-and-dirty “guerrilla marketing” specialist. But about a year later, the agency devised an elegantly simple way to help provide water to people in need, all around the world—so did this mean Droga5 was a social entrepreneur?

Meanwhile, the agency was doing some of its best early work in the digital space—but before anyone could pigeonhole Droga5 as a new-media shop, it also started producing emotionally-resonant TV commercials for some of the biggest clients around. Today, as Droga5 veers between working for hip-hop artist Jay-Z and taking meetings with execs at Kraft, it’s hard to know how to think of this shape-shifting ad agency. (And by the way, does the term “ad agency” really apply? Because these guys are doing a lot of things that certainly don’t look or feel like ads.)

In any case, clients don’t seem to have a problem with any of this: As long as Droga5’s work can be labeled “effective,” marketers will likely keep knocking on the nondescript door at its downtown New York headquarters. The agency’s been growing by 30 percent a year and just had its most productive new-business stretch ever, bringing in high-profile clients that include not only Kraft but also Prudential insurance, the Hennessy liquor brands and a couple of Heineken’s beer brands. Meanwhile, Droga5 has been sweeping up prestigious awards and various “agency of the year” honors. And it is adding people so fast (currently at 110 in New York, but on its way to 140) that it had to take over a second floor of the building.

In trying to account for and explain the rapid success of Droga5, one must begin with the agency's namesake. David Droga has been something of a wunderkind in the ad world ever since he first emerged as a red-hot creative director in his native Australia while still in his early twenties. By his late twenties, he was heading up the stellar creative efforts of Saatchi & Saatchi in London. And by his early 30s, he’d been ushered into a cushy Madison Avenue post as the worldwide creative director of Publicis. 

Then, in his mid-30s, Droga decided to change course. “Instead of building up other people’s agencies, I decided to build my own,” he says. This required him to walk away from a plum job that was, in his view, a little too comfortable. “I didn't want to be a figurehead,” Droga says. “I need to be doing and making—I’m a competitive, restless guy.” (While explaining this, Droga, sitting in his office on a Friday afternoon, is in perpetual motion as he tosses a football from hand to hand.)

Droga decided to start a co-venture with Publicis—an online shopping channel called Honeyshed; think MTV-meets-QVC for the YouTube set. Droga and his original partners (Andrew Essex and Duncan Marshall, joined a few months later by Ted Royer) also set up a small companion operation, called Droga5, designed to help with Honeyshed’s creative/production needs. But the Honeyshed network never really got traction and was eventually shut down. As for the Droga5 sideline operation? It was a hit, right out of the gate.

I’m not scared of failure, I’m scared of repetition.”

Contributing to that fast start was an audacious stunt conceived by Droga on behalf of his first client, hip fashion designer Marc Ecko. Ecko came to Droga in hopes of finding a way to boost his “street cred.” Droga decided to play off Ecko’s background as a graffiti artist, in a truly subversive way. Employing a combination of super-realistic props and slick film production sleight-of-hand, he created a video that made it appear as if a couple of graffiti artists had managed to scale fences and sneak through security in order to spray paint Ecko’s mantra (“Still Free”) on the president’s Air Force One plane. The film footage was then released, went viral, was all over the news—and even got the attention of the White House, which had to issue statements that no one had actually tagged their plane. The result: Ecko got his street cred and Droga5 got on the radar.

Having proved he could prank the world, Droga’s next challenge involved an equally bold endeavor to help save it. Partnering with UNICEF, Droga5 launched The Tap Project. The idea was to get restaurant patrons in New York to actually pay a buck for every glass of tap water they were served—with the money going toward UNICEF efforts to provide fresh water in areas of need. Pay for something that's free? New Yorkers might easily have said, “Fuhgeddaboutit,” but Droga5 presented the case well enough to get widespread buy-in—and The Tap Project was then expanded to other cities around the country. It’s still going strong.

If that opening salvo for Ecko suggested that Droga5 was going to be an unconventional agency, The Tap Project confirmed it. The only question, early on, was whether Droga5 could apply its non-traditional thinking to more traditional marketing challenges. Could it sell shoes and soft drinks? Could it sell (gag) insurance?
Yes it could, and did. For the athletic shoe brand PUMA, Droga5 demonstrated that it could hold its own on a playing field that included marketing giants Nike and adidas, and their respective esteemed agencies, Wieden+Kennedy and TBWA. As Droga5 executive creative director Nik Studzinski points out, “We're never going to outspend these guys—Nike and adidas—so we had to out-think them.” Droga’s angle: While Nike and adidas presented sports as serious business, akin to going to war in some ads, PUMA would play up the joy of sports, speaking more to the more casual, recreational athlete. One particularly effective campaign paid tribute to the “after hours athlete”—the night owls who play pool or toss darts (and the occasional empty beer can).

For Kraft’s Athenos brand of hummus, Droga5 showed it could inject life into what otherwise might have been a banal positioning statement. Working with the client, the agency determined that this Greek hummus was prepared “the right way, the Greek way” with care and love and simplicity (which may all be true but, by itself, sounds like fairly standard “marketing-speak”). The key was that the agency found an original, edgy character to embody those values—a Greek grandmother figure known as “Yiayia.” In one ad, Yiayia’s so old-school she carries a bundle of sticks on her back. And she pulls no punches when it comes to castigating modern ways (for instance, she approves of a young woman serving Athenos to guests, but can't help observing that the woman dresses “like a prostitute”). Depictions of this gruff Greek granny (played by several actresses) attracted millions of views on YouTube, where a special “YiaTube” channel was set up.

Perhaps most impressive is Droga5’s new work for Prudential. When it comes to advertising, the insurance/financial services category—and particularly anything to do with retirement planning—is thought of as a creative wasteland. “Retirement advertising is full of dishonest and idealized images,” notes executive creative director Royer; indeed, most ads make retirement look like one long day at the beach. Droga5 has injected a welcome dose of honesty into the discussion with a series of mini-documentaries (running both online and as commercials) that follow real retirees as they embark on this new chapter of their lives with a mix of emotions. There’s a bittersweet tone to the ads that feels just right. One of the spots has already been selected by TED as an “ad worth spreading.”

I need to be doing and making—I’m a competitive, restless guy.”

Again, the diversity of Droga’s output defies easy labeling, but in looking for common threads that run through their body of work, the words “simple” and “human” come to mind. As Royer points out, there’s nothing complicated or circuitous about the way the agency tries to tackle a problem; they get right down to essential questions: 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.

To achieve that, the agency relies on an eclectic team assembled by Droga that includes a number of people he’s worked with at past agencies. Studzinski followed Droga to New York from London; Royer also worked with him previously at Saatchi. “Maybe it’s being one of so many kids growing up, having familiar people around is important to me,” Droga says. But at the same time, he thinks the agency benefits from the influence of “outsiders”; Droga’s co-founder and CEO Essex had no prior advertising background, coming out of the magazine publishing industry.

The structure of the agency is lean: Droga at the top, along with Essex; just two executive creative directors in Royer and Studzinski, overseeing all the work; former BBHer Sarah Thompson acting as president; Jonny Bauer heading up strategy; and Sally-Ann Dale in charge of interactive and production.

Thompson and Essex, both focused on the business side of the agency, seem to be taking great pride in the agency's demonstration over the past year that it can work with blue-chip clients, which is helping Droga5 move beyond “boutique” status.

But for Droga—a man who seems to have set a very high bar for himself and for what advertising, at its best, can accomplish—success is measured in terms of achieving a delicate balance. Yes, he wants to grow the agency and prove he can tackle the challenges of any client, in any category. But he also wants to maintain a certain creative purity that is normally associated with smaller agencies.

And if all that weren’t enough, there’s also a bit of a social agenda mixed in: Droga would like to see his agency do positive things that go beyond just selling stuff. Don’t laugh, because he’s shown it’s possible, not just with The Tap Project, but with another Droga5 initiative aimed at improving education in schools (Via is an ingenious plan that rewards kids with cell phone perks based on performance; the test project has been tried in New York and more recently in Oklahoma City, though the results are not yet clear). Most recently, Droga5 has worked with Vestas, a maker of wind turbines, to create a “WindMade” consumer label that distinguishes products/services created using wind energy. The idea is to get more companies to embrace renewable energy as a more visible element of their branding and packaging.

Balancing all those agendas is quite a tightrope act, but Droga, clearly a guy who does not lack for confidence, seems to relish the challenge. “I’m not scared of failure,” he says. “I’m scared of repetition.”ca

Warren Berger (warrenberger.com) is a writer and speaker specializing in design, advertising and innovation. He is the author of several books, including the newly revised A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2014). Berger lectures and conducts workshops on innovation and creativity in business, and he is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, the Harvard Business Review and CA.

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