U.S. Agency of the Year: Droga5 Is Defined As Much by Its Soul as Its Soaring Success

At 10 years old, the shop is firing on all cylinders

Using the fingers on just one hand, David Droga argues, you can count the number of agencies that possess a "strong soul." These are "the ones that are consistent, retain people and do some of the most interesting work," Droga says.

He, of course, counts his own agency, Droga5, as one—which some might dismiss as a mix of idealism and ego by the agency's founder and creative chairman. But even Droga's critics—who frequently sigh and roll their eyes at each mention of his name—would have trouble arguing that he's wrong.

Walking the halls of the agency's crowded Wall Street headquarters and talking to its ever-growing staff, it's easy to see that soul soaked into everything from the work on display to the conversations around Droga5's communal dinner table. The 675 employees (at last count) include a mix of young talent eager to prove themselves at the industry's hottest shop alongside those who have been with Droga since his earliest days as a disruptive force in the agency world.

That soul may have been at the heart of Droga5 since the agency's inception, but it was certainly in full bloom this year.

Droga5 enjoyed a 2016 that any agency would envy. It created some of the marketing industry's best creative work in recent memory, won a litany of top-tier clients (occasionally even without a review), swept up 66 major industry awards and grew its revenue an impressive 35 percent.

The combination of all these factors made Droga5 a pretty easy choice for Adweek's U.S. Agency of the Year for 2016.

Droga5's strong revenue growth only served to let the agency enhance its capabilities too. Increasingly, the agency is bringing more resources in-house to deliver results for clients faster. It expanded Droga5 Studios—the shop's own production studio that worked on the latest Google Pixel spots—and offered up its own media planning services (a team that's eight people strong) to work on quicker, nimbler projects.

You won't see Droga5 pulling everything in-house, though. "That would be foolish," Droga says. "But again there are times when the best way to test something is to prototype it. We're just trying to make ourselves more relevant." That's why the agency continues to build its internal studios on the second floor of its office. Dedicated to the shop's makers and thinkers, the studio includes everything from edit suites to VR experimental rooms, "all the sort of stuff to shorten the distance between getting things out of the creatives' heads and into the world," Droga notes.

The year also saw Droga5 boost its client roster, with the addition of Pizza Hut, Trident, AB InBev's Best Damn, The New York Times and finally Sprint—which alone spent $763 million on paid media in 2015 and Droga5 won from Deutsch without a review.

When it does pitch, Droga has an important restriction—he won't show work that's more than a year old. Droga believes clients trust an agency more when the work is current. It also inspires the team to continually deliver best-in-class advertising. "We aren't going to trade off past glories," he says.

Droga5's only client loss of 2016 was Toyota when the car discontinued its Scion brand. That said, it also opted to part ways with a handful of clients including Diet Coke and Newcastle parent company Heineken in order to pursue work with competitor brands.

"We have been really thoughtful about portfolio management," says Sarah Thompson, Droga5's global and New York CEO. After winning Chase last year, the agency added Chase Sapphire and Chase Freedom, while also expanding its work with Google. Adds Droga: "We win more business, not because of pitching but because clients say, 'We like the work you're doing.'"

(L. to r.) Susie Nam, Ted Royer, Chris Wollen, David Droga, Sarah Thompson, Jonny Bauer, Sally-Ann Dale Photo: Kevin Scanlon

A year of unsurpassed creative
Perhaps the best example of the agency's ability to satisfy its clients with powerful work, while growing business organically, is Under Armour. What began as a project assignment in 2014—the Misty Copeland "I Will What I Want" spot—blossomed into the shop becoming Under Armour's agency of record last year. The shop raised its game for the client even more this year. In February, it began releasing Olympic spots, strategically starting a conversation about the Rio Games months before any other brand even settled on campaign ideas. Both ads for Under Armour aimed to show that although the Olympics is an inspiring event, it's extraordinarily harsh on athletes who spend years training for mere seconds of performance.

The first spot, featuring the U.S. women's gymnastics team, depicted a group of strong women in a way that had never been done before. "I always just wanted people to see it and feel really inadequate about their muscles," jokes group creative director Tim Gordon. "What we did truly want to show was just really bad-ass, powerful women doing things that no one imagined went into gymnastics and showing that in a light that felt different than the glamour and the sequins."

Then came the Phelps spot, which told the story of the swimmer's grueling, relentless training. Perfectly set to The Kills' "The Last Goodbye," the work felt particularly prescient when Phelps secured another six golds before retiring after Rio. It also scored six Cannes Lions including a Grand Prix in Film Craft. Beyond the accolades, the Phelps ad also became one of the most shared Olympic spots of all time, with nearly 11.5 million views on YouTube to date, which for a brand not officially sponsoring the games, "was like a win times 10," says Adrienne Lofton, Under Armour's svp of global brand marketing.

For a brand like Hennessy, with which Droga5 has been working for nearly six years, the challenge was how to continue to deliver great creative work that felt fresh, but still stayed true to the brand's identity. This year it was "The Piccards" spot—a story of a father who became the first man to reach the stratosphere, and a son who became the first man to reach the deepest part of the Earth's ocean floor. The visually stunning ad, narrated by rapper Nas, took roughly half a year to make. "Just when you think you've tapped fully that creative well of innovation, Droga5 comes up with a different look, a different take, pushing the brand forward," says Rodney Williams, CMO and evp of brands, Moët Hennessy USA. Plus the Hennessy brand has grown stronger year over year, according to Williams, demonstrating "the campaign is having more and more of an impact on the business."

A funny side
While Droga5 has made a name for itself in the last few years as an agency that can create emotional work, 2016 also represented a return to the shop's unapologetically funny roots. In May, Droga5 dropped a teen-targeted campaign for Clearasil inspired by a teen's Facebook comment about prior ads. "Nice try 40-year-old marketing person in your tower in New York City," Gordon says the comment read. Duly inspired, the team built on the insight that while the brand definitely doesn't understand teens, it does know how to treat acne. The agency also helped Clearasil engage with teens and moms online, creating tons of content to use in response to Facebook fans who either praised the brand or called it out for not understanding what teens actually care about.

In early summer, Droga hit the funny bone hard with work for Johnsonville. A company with a small ad budget, the sausage maker was looking for Droga5 to create "breakthrough work that still felt like Johnsonville," says integrated marketing director Jamie Schmelzer. In a series of spots for the "Made the Johnsonville Way" campaign, Droga5 enlisted three Johnsonville employees to tell the world what their ads would look like if they were charged with creating them. "This is a good example of something that started as being humanity-obsessed, really getting to know the people that work [at Johnsonville] and not just the stuff they make and sell," says Droga5 group creative director Scott Bell.

The next decade
This year, the agency celebrated its 10th anniversary with a blowout celebration on Governors Island—shutting down the New York landmark for a day to throw a small-scale music festival for its employees. Despite the weeklong partying, Droga and his team fully expected a return to the competitive drive from staffers once they shook off the tinnitus and hangovers. "On every single rung within the agency there's a group of people who are ready to take the spot of the person above them," says Thompson.

It's that relentless drive from the top down—and bottom up—that Droga believes will keep his shop at the top of its game. "Our work can always get better," he says, "and we are constantly striving for that."

For more on Adweek's 2016 Agencies of the Year, be sure to check out:

10 of Droga5's Best Ads This Year
• Global Agency of the Year: Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide
6 Funny, Moving and Provocative Ads by Ogilvy
• Breakthrough Agency of the Year: Venables Bell & Partners

This story first appeared in the December 5, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.
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