Brian Whipple: So, my friend David, I’d love to have a little chat with you about the role of brands and brand advertising in pursuing purposeful innovation. Do you believe that brand creative has, historically, played a role in purpose – in making human lives better, more efficient?
David Droga: Definitely. It has evolved from being very practical – where you sold a product or a brand for what it does – to where people started to ask questions about what a brand stands for beyond what it says on the tin or what comes out of the packet. They want to know what role something has in their life and who the people behind it are.
This had been a fairly slow change, but then the internet and the fact every piece of information about a brand is just there has meant that what you stand for and what you do has to be in sync. People now make judgment calls not just on what a product does but what it stands for. And it’s only going to keep moving that way.
BW: The word ‘purpose’ can take many shapes, from brand authenticity to improving human lives and making them more efficient and effective and, overall, better. How does the idea of purpose feature in the work of Droga5?
DD: Clients don’t just come to us because of the creative. The creative gets all the glory, but strategy is our secret sauce. And clients see us as being in sync with them as far as trying to find a brand that has a consistent, authentic narrative – and, as you say, a purpose.
And it runs the gamut. Some, like The New York Times, are very overt in what their mission is – The New York Times doesn’t hide behind its mission, it’s very proud about it and if anything has distilled it down into a singular statement, the fight for journalism and truth.
And then we have some even bigger clients, that touch many aspects of people’s lives, like JPMorgan Chase – the largest bank in the country, that 50% of Americans have a relationship with. Its purpose is very much about how it can help its consumers make more of their own money and you see that in the products it creates, in its philanthropy – and we spend as much time talking to it about that stuff as we do about selling stuff or putting out advertising.
That, for us, is the ultimate. It helps the people working in a company and the people working for a company – as in us, the outsiders – that we all march to the same beat. You know what I mean? There’s no making things up as you go along. That’s why it’s fantastic to work with purposeful companies.
BW: And ultimately, that’s what advertising is: making it clear that what’s good for a company is good for the consumer of that company…
DD: 100%. We’re all consumers of the product. I mean, when we first kicked around the idea of Accenture Interactive and Droga5 joining forces, we aligned on more than just our charming personalities! We aligned with the mission you’re on, how it is consistent to where we want to go. So I’m sure that, from the most long-standing employees at your company to the newest, everyone is coming in thinking: ‘OK, we want to do that, we want to stand for something that is different from the clutter and the mess of all the other companies out there.’
BW: So, let me ask you a hard question. A hypothetical. Let’s say your growth is less than you want it to be and you have two large opportunities in front of you. One of them is large in revenue but completely devoid of purpose, while the other is large only in terms of significance and purpose. Which one do you pick?
DD: It is an easy thing to answer, but my ego is a speed bump in that it depends on whether the huge company devoid of purpose had no interest in standing for anything, or whether I thought we could go in there and help it find it. My ego thinks we can unearth what its purpose is and give it a valid point of view, you know? So that’s attractive to me. But if it was in a category that had no interest beyond just the functional – make money at any expense, at any cost, no morality or anything – I wouldn’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole.
One of the privileges in our history is that we never had to choose based on revenue or anything. And I believe that there are enough great entities and companies out there of all sizes that they’re going to keep us in business and growing. It has been much to the chagrin of our chief financial officer that we have turned down some very, very, very big opportunities in the past as they were completely out of sync with what we believed.
BW: Can you give an example? If not the client, the industry at least?
DD: It’s dangerous thing to say, right, because I don’t want to slam anyone publicly. And I don’t pretend to be Mother Theresa. I feel no guilt about selling beer, but I wouldn’t sell things that I would ban from my own household.
I won’t name the name, but the biggest electronic cigarette brand in the country wanted us to do its work and would have paid us a fortune. This was two years ago and we were like: ‘Absolutely not, no matter what, I don’t care how much you pay us.’ Like, if I would scold my kids for doing it, why would I try to get someone else’s kids to do it?
I’ll tell you a funny story. When we first launched the agency, when we were just five or six people, one of the first clients that wanted us to do a campaign for it was a very well-known porno magazine. We were invited to its offices and were being talked through what it does and its issues, and I was just laughing inside thinking: ‘There is no way I can take any of this money – even though we’re only in month three and still a nothing agency – because I can’t have our very first client be a porno magazine!’ I think some of the team might have lifted a few of their magazines on the way out though…
BW: Wise decision… So what projects are you currently working on that have, in your view, tremendous purpose or purpose potential?
DD: We’ve just taken this fantastic new opportunity with Kimberly Clark – a massive, global brand – and it’s more than just selling diapers and nappies and stuff like that. If we can, without overstepping the mark, understand our role with mothers and the most precious thing in their lives, that’s a noble purpose right there. If we can add value in that ecosystem and talk to them on terms that are appropriate for them, at times when they need it… it sounds weird, but innovation in that space is crucial. You know that you’re a parent, I’m a parent. That’s a great purpose-led brand that we’re just starting off on.
BW: What’s fascinating, from an Accenture Interactive perspective, is what you just described – that instead of doing advertising for diapers you’re getting into what the parenting or mothering experience is. And that is what we are discussing and trying to help people with, and education around diapers and those physical products is just a small part of that.
DD: That’s what’s so seductive and attractive to me. Yes, I understand at the end of the day it is running a business where it has to sell a certain amount of units. I 100% get that. But there’s going to be so many times where we’re developing apps and services that are just in service of the mother, and that might not be a direct sale to a nappy.
But it’s building a relationship and the experience of the brand is developed across multiple touch points. That, for me, is exciting. And it is very liberating for creatives because, as much as we love making glorious TV commercials and out-of-home and things like that, if we can also take that narrative and translate it into a channel or an app or a device, that is amazing.
BW: So, imagine you’re a Fortune 2000 company, the chief marketing officer or chief experience officer as it’s sometimes called. What are the biggest challenges you have today?
DD: There are so many challenges as people have so many options not to participate with you, and there’s so much noise out there and so many brands pretending to have purpose but not really standing by it or sticking to it. So the challenge is to be relevant, and to know when to stick your head in and when to not.
It’s a weird thing because so many brands just think it’s a race to make the most noise at all times, and it just creates this white noise. Brands that know where their place is and where their place isn’t, that’s the biggest challenge. Because you can advertise everywhere and anywhere now, we’re bombarded with stuff so much and it makes me hate advertising.
Any time I go anywhere, someone is trying to have a conversation with me. And most of the time it isn’t appropriate. Done well though, it is magnificent. So the biggest challenge facing brands is restraint, understanding context and finding the thing that differentiates them – their reason for being. Let’s do something to earn people’s attention that is worthy of their attention.
BW: Yeah, there’s this misconception in the digital era that more equals better. And that’s just not true. You know what equals better? Better equals better. Occasionally better is more, but more does not mean better. Anyway, last question. Was there ever a turning point for you, a moment that you remember when you realized that not only could you build a great company but that you could actually help people?
DD: I think I started the agency because I wanted to do that. I’d been fortunate in my career before then, moving up the ladder and working on some great brands, but at the end of the day I wanted to work on brands that I believed in, that I wanted to be part of, and I wanted to work with people I respected and found mutually motivating.
And I was very lucky because one of the first things we did as an agency was this hoax where we pretended to spray graffiti on Air Force One, which got a lot of attention and led to Esquire magazine’s then-editor David Granger putting me in his ‘best and brightest’ issue. This was only six months in. But he was very smart because he called me on my bullshit and said he wasn’t just going to write about all the things I was telling him I stood for – how we were making a positive contribution and that ideas are more than just disposable ads. He said: ‘Well, you gotta prove it to me.’ And when I asked what he meant he said he was going to give me one page in Esquire to do anything I wanted with in order to prove all this to him.
I was like: ‘Wow, OK, amazing.’ But also: ‘This is quite terrifying.’ So my first reaction was to do an ad for one of the few clients we had back then. But then I thought: ‘No, go back to why you first started this and prove that creativity really can have a seismic impact.’ I needed to do it for something I believed in and I’d been reading a lot about water issues in Africa, so I decided I was going to do something for these kids who were without water.
I was in a diner brainstorming and it struck me as weird that they’d just put this glass of water in front of me, for free. I thought: ‘I’m not paying for this, but what if I was? What if I could actually get people in the US to pay for tap water?” So I called up Unicef and said I wanted to convince restaurants to add a donation on to bills every time someone has tap water. We came up with this thing called the ‘Tap Project’, and Esquire said let’s do it and we got a couple of thousand restaurants in New York to agree to it.
Unicef then took it on and ran it for 10 years and it raised tens of millions of dollars. And all I had done was create a logo and a brand – I hadn’t created a product, just framed something that already exists. And what that did for me personally, and for the agency, was phenomenal. It proved a point that, actually, we creative people – and what might seem like tiny ideas – can actually create massive momentum.
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