Black magic: Can droga5 conquer the world?

From 'an agency without substance' to winning two black D&AD Pencils, Droga5 has come a long way in three years. Kate Nettleton finds out if it's all smoke and mirrors.

Treated with a mix of jealousy, intrigue and sometimes even contempt in the London market, Droga5 is an agency that has always shrouded itself in an air of mystique.

Check out the agency's website and you'll find Dave Droga hiding his identity behind his hands. Clearly this sense of mystery is a currency the agency is comfortable to trade under. Critics, though, reckon it's all just smoke and mirrors to disguise an agency without substance.

Not any more, perhaps. Droga5 has just notched up an industry first - scooping two black Pencils at D&AD for separate campaigns. So is Droga5 suddenly one of the best agencies in the world?

When Droga quit Publicis to launch Droga5 three years ago, he says there was never any magic mystery formula for the agency, but he did have some grandiose aims. "I wanted to try to build one of the most influential agencies of the 21st century. By default, that means it has to be incredibly brave and creative and work with the best people and the most forward-thinking clients," he says.

Now they're armed with two black Pencils ("We're from America, so we're all about excess, right?" Droga says), the agency is surely well on track to achieve such ambitions. Isn't it? Paul Silburn, the creative partner at Saatchi & Saatchi London, says: "I've heard a lot of people question what's behind it all but Droga5 is doing really interesting stuff. But a lot of its work has been for causes rather than fee-paying clients, so I guess the jury is still out on whether it has a viable business. It has got a long way to go before it can compete with the likes of Crispin Porter & Bogusky and Goodby Silverstein & Partners."

Maybe, but what started as a three-person outfit in New York has now expanded into an international agency, with an office in Sydney and an 85-strong workforce at its New York shop servicing around 20 clients, including the (certainly fee-paying) mobile phone giant Net10 and Puma.

And although Honey Shed (Droga's Publicis-backed digital venture) turned out to be ill-fated, his main agency has now grown so big, it is having to pack up its awards shelf - complete with the Pencils, not to mention its Cyber Grand Prix Cannes Lion - and move from Lafayette, in search of a new home.

While people still grapple with their integrated offering, Droga insists he's just "trying to be right" and present work and ideas to clients that they truly believe in. "I want to do stuff that we're not just proud of ourselves for. I want to create things that I can talk about to people at dinner parties - stuff that affects the real world," he says.

Sounds simple, no? Yet Droga5's best work has a breadth and depth that many TV-obsessed agencies could never hope to achieve. "The Great Schlep" and "Million" - which walked tall at D&AD - are dense campaigns that display a truly open approach to problem-solving.

It's the sort of agnosticism that many recent start-ups on both sides of the Atlantic have aspired to, and there's no doubt that some of Soho's newest agencies will be looking at the Droga5 model with interest. But when asked what advice he would give a start-up in this market, Droga says: "That would assume we're getting everything right." In the same breath, however, he advises that an outsourced model is the way forward: "We're not about trying to pretend we can do everything in-house - we're about creating an idea and shepherding it out."

And by refusing to go into a client meeting with any preconceptions over media channel or strategy - taking in an entire group of creatives rather than a single creative team - the agency has achieved an unencumbered approach to communications solutions. "The only restraint on our work should be our imagination," he explains.

However, Droga is keen to underline that any work the agency creates has to have "an ask" of people, in order to make a connection. "But it needs to be something that doesn't require too much effort. Sometimes the ultimate creativity is just taking the familiar and re-ordering it to make it fresh."

Fortunately, Droga's team, who bear the weighty task of remoulding the zeitgeist, come from a wide breadth of experience and backgrounds. With a chief executive recruited from outside the industry and a chief financial officer from the banking world, Droga5 avoids a myopic approach. "It's like the UN in our office, we've got people from all over the world who we've poached. That's probably why agencies don't like us - because we've stolen all their best people," Droga says.

This formula for integrated communications has certainly made an impression in New York, a notoriously hostile environment for start-ups.

Mark Wnek, the chairman of Lowe New York, says: "The impact it has had on the US scene in such a short amount of time is nothing short of unbelievable."

And with Droga5 now rattling the cages of UK creativity, should London brace itself for a Droga5 office? Although there are no imminent plans for expansion, Droga has clearly given some thought to both London and China.

"If it was the appropriate time and there were the appropriate people, I would love to open an agency in London. But my ego doesn't need to have six or ten offices around the world."


New York City Department of Education

Project: Million

Launched: 2008

The agency created an idea that used a mobile phone reward scheme to re-engage New York school children in their education. With 50 per cent of children from minority backgrounds not graduating on time, the scheme sought to ignite their interest in school by offering them a free mobile phone, which they could use only if they achieved good grades and attendance rates and completed their homework. The computerised system enabled teachers to mark each student, who were rewarded with minutes, texts and music downloads if they performed well, reinforcing the connection between hard work and earned rewards.

Jewish Council of Education & Research

Project: The Great Schlep

Launched: 2008

Florida had proven a key state in the last presidential elections so Droga5 was briefed to try to secure votes among the core demographic of Florida's elderly Jewish community in a bid to secure an Obama victory.

The agency came up with the insight that the only way to connect with this audience was through their grandchildren, who the agency mobilised through an integrated campaign spearheaded by the comedian Sarah Silverman. Websites, Facebook groups and some humorous virals managed to encourage thousands of Jewish grandchildren to reconnect with their grandparents in Florida and convince not just their elderly relatives but thousands of others to vote for change.


Project: The Tap Project

Launched: 2007

With more than one billion people unable to access clean water, Unicef was keen to raise awareness of the global water crisis. Proving that the simple ideas are often the best, this campaign encouraged the restaurant-goers of New York to donate $1 for every glass of tap water they ordered. After being rolled out across the US in 2008, with the help of other ad agencies and major corporations, the campaign went global this year for World Water Week in March. The project has raised more than $1million to date.

Ecko unltd

Project: Still Free

Launched: 2006

Mark Ecko, the founder of the clothing brand Ecko, wanted to create a piece of communication that would not only raise his own profile but also give the brand a bit more street cred. Droga5's solution was to create a viral film of Ecko, breaking into what looked like the base of Air Force One, and tagging the plane with graffiti. After seeding the film on 20 niche websites, it spread across the net before being picked up by hundreds of TV programmes and news outlets, reaching an audience of more than 115 million.