2013-06-17

How David Droga Creates Advertising That Matters

The man behind Droga5 talks about how he uses the ad world to create markets for important ideas (and to sell stuff, too).

Sometimes the biggest ideas can be the simplest, the smallest and most obvious. For David Droga, founder and creative chairman of Droga5, the notion of give and take turned out to be a game-changer for his award-winning advertising agency. Launched in 2007, the UNICEF Tap Project, which raises awareness and funds for clean water projects, asked diners “when you take water, give water.”

This ongoing collaboration was conceived, not as a disposable annual advertising program, but as a simple, scalable way to give in flexible increments, from $1 for regular tap water in restaurants to $5 for celebrity tap water. It underlined the value of the tap water taken for granted everyday. By changing customer’s mindsets, the project has raised nearly $3 million and benefited from pro bono work by agencies in 23 markets.

At the core of Droga5’s mission is impact: what they call creativity with a purpose. Droga counts himself fortunate to be amongst the first generation of business leaders who don’t have to choose between building a robust business with global reach and giving back to society. For all the success Droga5 is having, the goal is not simply growth. Droga says that the company focuses on the projects they take on, making sure that the mission and actions of the companies align with those of the agency. They have earned a reputation as an innovator of sustainable ideas built around social good. "We can be problem solvers so that it’s more than just about creating ads,” he says. “We’re very much an advertising agency, but it’s not about creating ads as we know it."

And Droga has been quite outspoken about the state of advertising as we know it, saying that 90% of advertising is pollution and that the industry, which has the potential to impact every sector, can and should do better. Droga seeks to set an example with his work, creating something positive that elevates the industry. “Inspiration or emulation, I’ll take either,” Droga says.

Droga5 attracts like-minded individuals who are creative, kind and ambitious. “They’re generous with their time, with their support, with their nurturing,” Droga says. “We’re still a competitive, high-performing place but what makes a difference is there’s a backbone and great ethos here. It’s not succeed at any cost; it’s succeed the right way.”

Droga’s forte is not in handing over large donation checks but instead he prefers the investment and emotional attachment that comes with using his skills for good. “Ideas more than ever can make the biggest difference in the world,” Droga says. “We’re communicators, we’re problem solvers and we’re lateral thinkers and there’s nothing that can’t be improved with that. The world needs us and we want to be needed.” Engaging the resources and talent at the agency to make a difference is an integral part of the company.

At Droga5, the starting place with a client is not what the campaign is going to look or sound like but what is the impact going to be. That approach may require stepping away from the project, sharing the project with others or admitting a lack of expertise. “Generosity is as much showing your vulnerability as it is your passion for something,” Droga says.

Its approach is honest, down-to-earth, approachable and entertaining. To help Obama win Florida in the 2008 election, Droga5 enlisted Sarah Silverman for The Great Schlep. The video encouraged Jewish grandchildren to visit and convince their grandparents to vote for Obama. The program lived or died by people taking on the idea and making it happen.

This is the latest post in a series on generosity, in conjunction with Catchafire.
Droga is content to create original and engaging work that has an impact on society beyond just the bottom line, even if it prevents them from becoming a billion dollar company. “I believe we’re doing it the right way for us,” Droga says. “Our ambitions are not limited to quarterly results. Our ambitions are linked to a belief in what we do. And one of the definite privileges of success is being able to see beyond yourself.” Droga credits his polar opposite parents with teaching him to value the connection between philanthropy and business, giving and taking. His mother, a fiery poetic Danish activist, raised her children to be about contribution, art and love, while his father, a successful entrepreneur, raised his children to conquer the world. Although seemingly contrary forces, neither one was meant to be at the expense of the other and there is an unlikely harmony between the two, much as there is in Droga himself and the business world today. "There’s a lot of good fortune in the upbringing I had that gave me that balance of both sides, a lot of good fortune that I was given a creative talent, a lot of good fortune that I found a job where I could actually put that in and build a business," Droga says. "I am grateful for that. I’ve always thought that one side of being grateful is to spread it a little bit." Droga finds that many people go into business thinking they want to be a success so that they can do good in their second act. “I’ve never been one of those people,” he says. “Turn your first act into that thing. The sign of this agency’s success is that we don’t have to build this entity so that we can afford a foundation in years to come. I just don’t feel like I’m having to play a part, pretending to be someone I’m not. It’s seamless and I only have one life.”

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