Q&A: David Droga on His Journey From Working the Mailroom to Winning Cannes’ Top Honor

He'll collect the Lion of St. Mark for lifetime achievement

As founder and creative chairman of Droga5, David Droga has worked with some of the world’s biggest and most important brands, from Under Armour to The New York Times. He’s also won most of the industry’s top awards—and this year, he joins luminaries like John Hegarty, Dan Wieden, Lee Clow and Bob Greenberg as one of the select few honored with the Lion of St. Mark. Adweek recently sat down with Droga to discuss the award, his career and the industry at large.

Adweek: What led you to enter the advertising field?
David Droga: My first job in advertising was actually in the mailroom of Grey Advertising in Sydney. I was always obsessed with being a writer of some sort … I just loved the idea of writing for different personalities all the time. When I was 16 or something like that, [I learned] that there’s this thing called advertising where people pay you to come up with ideas, and it’s fast turnaround and you make things—and I was like, that sounds amazing. I applied for the first job in the newspaper that had the word “advertising” in it.

How did that go?
I was delivering the mail, which was the best way to learn advertising fast … snooping and listening in basically all the time. I was like, “I can do this.” I got to talking to some of the younger creatives and told them about my aspirations, and they told me there’s this thing called Australian Writers and Art Directors, which was a school for aspiring creators. I applied for that and [later] got a job as a copywriter [at FCB Sydney], and I still remember the first day walking in. I had a little typewriter and word processor and I thought that was so unbelievable.

What was the first campaign you worked on?
The No. 1 radio station in Australia was called MMM. The official brief was, “You’ve got to do something that makes people go, ‘Holy fuck,’ and the budget is $1 million. What are you going to do?” To this day it was one of the strangest, most unusual commercials I’ve ever made. I’d like to believe that I still have that edge now. I think the second campaign I did after that was for a pharmaceutical company, which sort of brought me crashing down to earth. But again, that was about as epic a start as you can have because normally, when you start as a creative, you’d sort of have to earn your right up the food chain of opportunities.

It’s almost like your first ad was a harbinger of the bold campaigns you’ve become known for.
I’ve never set out to just do things to be different, [but] I never tried to set limitations on what we could do. If the right thing is to play it straight down the line and do the most traditional thing that’s going to have the most impact, I’ll do that as well, but I’ve always tried to give myself at least the freedom to feel like I can explore and push the edges. There’s no question I’ve become more responsible as I migrated up that advertising food chain with the size of opportunities … for my first 10 years, [I] was a very selfish creative. I just thought, arrogantly, that no matter what I did it would be right and great and that creative solves all regardless of anything. But again, buried within all of that there’s still a very unrealistic creative person who just wants to do the most with every opportunity.

"People’s reactions to things are part of the narrative now, and the canvases you can play on are almost unlimited."
-David Droga

What are the most significant changes to affect the industry since you started?
It’s too easy to say it was simpler then … but the expectations of the narrative that we would tell was more of a contained thing. People’s reactions to things are part of the narrative now, and the canvases you can play on are almost unlimited. Consumers can opt out so much more than ever, and people worry that this is a terrible thing. I’m like, no, that puts the onus back on us as an industry to get better, to be more relevant, to be more creative, to show more purpose in what we do. And now Instagram has turned everyone into an advertising agency anyway, right? Everything you post is a personal campaign—what you want people to think about you. It’s been fascinating and I welcome it.

And what would you like to see happen in the coming years?
I’m proud to say that I’m in advertising. I wish the industry were more supportive of each other and that we wouldn’t compromise the industry by undercutting each other. [But] we’re an industry that has built out massive departments which are there just to justify mediocrity as opposed to striving for brilliance and impact. And so I wish more power was given to the thinkers; I wish there were more creative ad companies, even though they would be in competition with us. Bring it on. Advertising is not going away. As I’ve said, logical people make the world go around, [and] creative people make it worth living in.

What does the Lion of St. Mark honor mean to you?
I’m not even going to hide the fact that it makes me feel pretty special and filled with more humility than I probably have shown in a long time, and that’s because of who’s won it in the past, to be honest. I think it’s definitely the pinnacle of any creative accolade that you can win. And now the thing for me is to make sure that I can live up to it and not take my foot off the accelerator as well because I still feel like I’ve got so much I want to do and culture I want to build.

This story first appeared in the June 12, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.