Manhattan Project

One of Cannes’ most-talked about parties this year was as improbable an occurrence as the concrete soap bubble in which it took place. Publicis Worldwide entertained 850 guests at the Palais Bulles, Pierre Cardin’s outrageous summer villa hidden away in the hills overlooking the French Riviera, with dancing in the Palace of Bubbles’ surreal round rooms and skinny-dipping at dawn.

Publicis has never been a factor in the industry’s most glamorous awards show, let alone on its A-list social scene. The evening was a not-so-subtle hint of the ambitions of the party’s host, David Droga. Publicis’ new worldwide creative director picked up 12 Lions in June—more than the combined winnings of the network in the past decade—but Droga says that’s not good enough: He expects the agency to place among the top three networks next year.

“We said this year that our expectations at Cannes were modest. If you go there, you want to dominate. But this was purely about momentum, and it sends a really good signal,” he explains. “We’re starting to win, to have a presence. And we’re winning for work on big accounts, big clients. It’s an optimistic time.”

That sentiment comes amid the first public signs of Droga’s influence since he joined 16 months ago from corporate sibling Saatchi & Saatchi in London. Among those Cannes wins are ads for TBS, Allied Domecq and Hewlett-Packard, accounts with which he’s been actively involved. The New York-based Droga has been traveling the globe, moving quickly to meet clients and instill new creative leaders in seven of the company’s biggest markets.

Now Droga’s turning his attention to the U.S. The New York agency, with its top-heavy creative department, may well be the first place he shakes up, sources say. Peter Nicholson, hired from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in May 2002 to boost the creative profile of Publicis Chicago, became chief creative officer in New York that fall when the office absorbed the Midwest operations. With that same mandate, executive creative director David Corr also joined in 2001, from TBWA\Chiat\Day, New York. Among the ex-pats Droga has brought over are ecds Duncan Marshall and Howard Willmott, the team that helped him rack up awards at Saatchi, London.

Publicis may have recruited the kind of talent it needs to help carve a reputation for a network lacking any creative profile, but it still has to prove itself to clients like Procter & Gamble, inherited after the D’Arcy merger in 2002. “Internally, it’s a much more exciting place, but this is still a fragile time,” says Droga. “We’ve made a lot of changes; we’ve begun to move the creative meter. A lot of clients are trying to figure out what I’m about.”

If still a curiosity to the U.S. client community, Droga has developed a reputation internationally as one of the industry’s fastest-rising stars. His creative talent won him early acclaim, but he also possesses innate leadership skills that belie his 35 years. An Australian raised amid the mountains of New South Wales, Droga’s ascent in the ad world has been driven by his need to reach ever greater career peaks. At 27, already the youngest partner at Omon in Sydney, he left to become Saatchi’s creative chief in Singapore and soon took responsibility for all of Asia.

Two years later, he moved to London to revive Saatchi’s flagship, a tough job in a community not fond of outsiders running local shops. Within three years of his arrival, in 2002, Saatchi’s London office was named Agency of the Year at Cannes. The agency made its mark with controversial Club 18-30 work, filled with racy, double-entendre-laden scenes of vacationers, and campaigns for, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Carlsberg. When Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy set out to change the reputation of his flagship network, he took the advice of Saatchi worldwide CEO Kevin Roberts and hired Droga—and gave him a seat on the holding company’s board, signaling Droga’s importance as Publicis’ first worldwide creative director.

Reinventing Publicis is a top priority for Lévy, who has spent most of his career there. He says he has no qualms about Droga’s lack of experience in the U.S. or Europe. “I like the fact that he, as an Australian, went to smaller countries and changed Saatchi in Asia, and then moved up to bigger countries like the U.K., with such a competitive advertising industry, and changed Saatchi, London,” says Lévy. “Now he’s coming to the U.S., which has such huge accounts and [advertising] personalities. He’s already shown he can succeed in making change, even without a big investment in talent or with big accounts.”

Not that Publicis is skimping on creative firepower: In New York, the agency has hired 12 new teams, bringing in talent from Wieden + Kennedy, New York; Cliff Freeman and Partners, New York; Bartle, Bogle, Hegarty, London and New York; Saatchi, London; TBWA, Paris and London; and Fallon, London.

Throughout his career, Droga has insisted his agencies produce award-winning work for big, more difficult clients—not just for boutique brands. In London, for example, he used the visibility and complexity of marketers like P&G to show what the agency could deliver. The creative included “Learning from babies” for Pampers, a campaign about the various stages of development told from the POV of infants. Intended for the U.K. market, the effort was extended to Europe and the U.S.

Earlier this year, Publicis won P&G’s roster contest to represent the company’s debut on the Super Bowl with its animated Leonard the Bear character for Charmin. Droga says he likes the challenge of working on billion-dollar brands. “I was very proud of what we did for P&G in London,” he says. “It was true to the brand, and we saw positive business results.”

Says Publicis USA CEO Susan Gianinno: “David is not a salesperson in the sense that it’s all about, ‘How do I sell this idea?’ It’s more like, ‘How do I solve this business problem?’ He’s like a dog with a bone about that.” Just as important, she adds, is his flair with clients. “He engenders trust with his open, conversational style. He’s disarmingly human in his presenting of ideas and engaging listeners.”

No doubt, Droga, who graduated with top honors from the Australian Writers’ and Art Directors’ School, gets those traits from his parents, each very different in temperament. His father is a successful, retired businessman who ran a group of ski properties; his mother is an environmentalist who loves the arts. So while Droga shares his father’s business drive, he’s also a passionate art collector and would-be architect. He’s designed a home in Australia, as well as one in London’s Notting Hill, though he spent just three months there before heading to New York. Now living in Manhattan’s West Village, Droga escapes the city for his 30 acres and an old farmhouse in the Catskills, where he and his four-year-old son, Finn, have mud fights and build igloos.

It’s not just colleagues who like Droga’s direct, no-politics style and his decisiveness: On a brief trip to Saatchi, New York, before he had started his Singapore job, he noticed a woman visiting an employee at the agency. On a lark, he invited her out for coffee. Six months later, his now-wife, Marisa, moved to Singapore.

Like most Australians, Droga is obsessed with winning, supporting his native country regardless of sport. He’s similarly loyal to his agency teams. “Unlike some CDs, when his teams won awards, as most of them did, he made sure that they and not just he got the credit and recognition,” says James Hall, former CEO of Saatchi, London. “Dave’s departure for Publicis had a major impact on the mood of the agency, particularly the creative floor, which was very committed to him.”

Adds Marshall: “Dave makes things feel personal, not just business. You feel like you owe him, or you’d feel embarrassed if you let him down, because he doesn’t let you down.”

Droga honed his competitive skills early: In a family of seven, he’s the youngest of five brothers who went on to run brokerages and merchant banks. “He eats his food pretty fast,” jokes ecd Willmott.

Those instincts serve him well. After a tough start on the job that’s put greater distance between him and the work, Droga says his role as creative head of the world’s fifth largest network, with $9 billion in billings, has tested his abilities.”The big challenge here is that I’m out of my comfort zone—I was a Saatchi boy,” he says. “Publicis is so much larger, more global in scope, with different kinds of clients going in different directions.”

Saatchi CEO Roberts says that during the past year, Droga has gotten a crash course in the ways of American marketers and has the “scar tissue” to show for it. “U.S. clients are tougher, more research-driven,” Roberts says about the transition. And Droga admits as much: “New York is the most dynamic city in the world, but I’m surprised at how slow the industry is in many ways. Clients here are very process-driven and bureaucratic.”

Droga had to hit the ground running to reassure his new clients. Some weren’t thrilled to see him in a job first offered to, and turned down by, D’Arcy’s Lee Garfinkel [now chief creative officer at DDB]. “I told Publicis from the outset that we weren’t happy [about losing Garfinkel],” says Steve Davis, svp of marketing at Heineken USA. “I said, ‘You better show us why this is better and show us quickly.’ “

Droga did show him. Davis says he likes the work developed over the past year, ads like “Three Little Words” and “Election,” and considers Droga enough of a friend to share strategy sessions over lunch or dinner. It’s been “interesting to watch him evolve,” says Davis. “I think at first he felt pressured to feel like he had all the answers. He needed to become a very good listener, which he did. It’s a sign of executive maturity and self-confidence for someone to do that.”

Last December, that self-confidence helped Droga win TBS’ $15-20 million account and the task of promoting the cable network’s comedies. He and Saatchi alumnus Willmott had only a week to prepare for a pitch that pitted Publicis against the likes of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Cliff Freeman. The two decided to parody flashy presentations by using irrelevant fishing charts as their sole support materials. Then they described a campaign tagged “Very funny,” with ads that show people dialing an 800 number to find out if they’re in the midst of a funny situation. The meeting was scheduled for two hours, but the business was theirs in 30 minutes.

“[Droga and Willmott] brought four scripts on paper,” says TBS chief operating officer Steve Koonin. “They said, ‘Buy our ideas, not our charts.’ They talked to us and made us laugh. It was clear they had a deep understanding of comedy. The nine of us in the room just looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s hire these guys.'”

The win was a morale boost to the office. Droga’s role in New York—his location of choice rather than Paris or London—is still being determined. By his own admission, it’s difficult for him to step back from hands-on involvement in the work, but he says he’s trying to become more of a “godfather” adviser. This spring, he consolidated the creative troops on the agency’s 11th floor. They celebrated the change with a feng shui blessing, a lion-dragon parade—a Droga practice in his last couple of jobs—Chinese musicians and dim sum.

“David leads from the trenches. He’ll be in there, sleeves rolled up, cajoling, encouraging and rallying,” says former Saatchi colleague Calvin Soh, creative director at Fallon, Singapore. “Wherever he goes, he creates an environment that is highly competitive yet with an incredible sense of esprit de corps.”

Droga is making his presence felt in other ways. He helped recruit New York CEO Gill Duff, formerly an account head on FedEx at BBDO, New York. While there were rumors of tensions between Droga and Gianinno, who had been filling that role, Gianinno says the stories are “ludicrous and a source of humor” between the two. With a new team in place and Droga focused on New York, more changes can be expected in the office he plans to make into a proper flagship. “I want the agency’s work to be more distinctive, to have more voice,” he says. “I’m impatient. I want us to be among the best agency networks.”

Bob Isherwood, worldwide creative director at Saatchi and mentor to Droga, has no doubt he’ll reach his goal. “All of Dave’s challenges have been big: starting an agency [Omon] at 21; running a region for a multinational; taking on London,” he says. “He likes scary challenges for which he might not be ready. But I knew I could always trust him to deliver—he never let me down.”