Agency of the Year: A Maturing Droga5 Still Hasn’t Lost Its Edge

With a broader range and bigger ideas, the shop only seems to get better

The inspiration for "This Is Wholesome," the phenomenal, very un-Droga5-like campaign that the agency created for Honey Maid this year, came on a playground in New York's East Village.

That’s where agency executive creative director Kevin Brady sat on a sunny weekend morning in November 2013, watching his 8-year-old daughter play with friends when he noticed a leather-clad and pierced mom and dad helping their young son navigate the monkey bars. Nearby, two dads pushed two daughters side by side on swings.

For a moment, Brady stopped being a dad and took in the scene as an adman. He thought that he may have found a solution for a difficult, single-word creative brief for a graham cracker brand that’s been around for 89 years but has changed in recent times.

"It just hit me that this is wholesome," recalls Brady, who studied foreign affairs in college and strives to achieve higher meaning in ads. "No matter how they look, they are beautiful, wholesome families."

A few days later, marketing leaders at Honey Maid parent Mondelez gave the go-ahead to the idea of celebrating modern families of all types for what they have in common. And within four months, the first ad had made it on air, generating an avalanche of positive and negative comments in social media and becoming part of a national debate about same-sex marriage.

Andrew Essex, Vice Chairman | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

The ad also helped redefine Droga5, an 8-year-old agency known for its grasp of the male id, by creating some of the most heartfelt, emotional and talked-about ads in the industry.

Leading the way was "This Is Wholesome," which has generated 8.02 million views and 2,868 comments on YouTube; followed by Under Armour Women’s “Will Trumps Fate,” about a determined ballerina overcoming naysayers to achieve greatness, with 6.7 million views and 2,010 comments; and “Suck It,” Anna Kendrick’s salty riposte to Newcastle Brown Ale for hiring her for a would-be Super Bowl ad only to pull the plug, with 5.2 million views and counting.

“We’re an industry that for many decades used to look at things that when we finished producing something, you put a bow around it and it was done,” says agency creative chairman David Droga, an Aussie whose confidence belies his 46 years. “Now we spend a great deal of time thinking about where it’s going to go, why would anyone care, what are the ramifications of it—just really trying to map out [a plan], as opposed to putting it out somewhere and just hoping that people would like it or hoping that it sticks. That’s embedded in the strategies that we pick—thinking about what’s going to hit a cultural vein or a nerve.”

Sarah Thompson, Global CEO | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

It was a Very Good Year

Adweek’s U.S. Agency of the Year also grew massively in revenue and staff. Net revenue jumped 44 percent to an estimated $78 million via more than a dozen new assignments from marketers that included Reckitt Benckiser, Georgia-Pacific, Google, Blizzard Entertainment, Jockey and Dun & Bradstreet.

At the same time, the staff in New York more than doubled to 320, triggering a move to 92,000 square feet of space in a building on Wall Street, of all places, after six years on Lafayette Street in the East Village. Indeed, the agency that began in Droga’s kitchen in 2006 became a bona fide industry leader in many ways in 2014. As the founder puts it, “It may be my foreigner coming out, but the fact that I’m on Wall Street sort of makes me smile a little bit in a funny way, you know?”

Some of the new clients this year came looking for what Kraft first sought when it unexpectedly hired the shop in 2010: some creative juice for mature, packaged-good brands. After years of consolidating most of their brands at just a few core agencies, Reckitt Benckiser and Georgia-Pacific, in Kraft-like moves, expanded their rosters to include the likes of Wieden + Kennedy, The Martin Agency, Cutwater and Droga5.

Ted Royer, Chief Creative Officer | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Reckitt Benckiser, for one, was drawn by the swagger and pop-culture links of Droga5’s “Wild Rabbit” campaign for Hennessy cognac (the agency’s work for the liquor brand earned it a bronze at this year’s Clio Awards). And its faux Super Bowl push for Newcastle, which played out entirely online, cleaned up at industry awards like the Clios (where it won three trophies) and was selected as Adweek’s Ad of the Year. But what convinced Laurent Faracci, RB’s svp of global marketing and digital excellence, to hire the shop in May to tackle two of the company’s biggest brands—Air Wick and Clearasil—was a big idea that became the foundation of a new campaign for the air freshener that broke last week. The agency found an “amazing way to engage consumers on what makes your house a home,” explains Faracci.

The first ad tells the story of a military family in North Carolina sending candles that smell like things from home (a baseball glove, an apple pie, a burning fireplace) to “Daddy,” a soldier stationed in Qatar. The tagline is, “Home is in the air.”

Susie Nam, Head of Accounts, General Manager |

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Similar to RB, Toyota sought a bigger-picture positioning when it hired Droga5 in June to lead marketing around a new hydrogen fuel-cell car called the Mirai. The first trace of the agency’s thinking drove “The Turning Point,” a nearly two-minute video on Toyota’s website that sets the table for the launch of the car in California next year, according to Doug Coleman, national manager for vehicle marketing and communications at Toyota.

“The vision that they brought to the table has really become the pillar of our campaign,” says Coleman.

Tapping the Right Talent

Beyond the strategy for Droga5’s first Air Wick work is a test, of sorts, for the agency’s minority owner, talent agency William Morris Endeavor, which supplied talent to amplify the campaign’s message. In both new business pitches and the development of new campaigns, the shop shares brand strategies with agents at WME-IMG.

Sally-Ann Dale, Chief Creation Officer | Photo: Kevin Scanlon

The goal is not only to add star power but also to identify upcoming movies, TV shows and events that can spark interest among brand marketers. Agents “have the know-how, they have connections and they know what’s coming up,” explains Sarah Thompson, a six-year veteran of the agency who leads the New York office and rose to global CEO last month. “It has made us think about media in a very different way.”

WME-IMG, in turn, has enlisted the agency to create apps for stars such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and marketing around the launch of a new album from Kendrick Lamar. (The album push will roll out in February.)

Droga himself understands, however, that Hollywood sizzle is no substitute for a great campaign strategy—and his agency launched a bevy of them this year, starting with “If We Made It” for Newcastle in January and continuing with “This Is Wholesome” for Honey Maid in March and “I Will What I Want” for Under Armour’s line of women’s gear, which began in August with the ad featuring ballerina Misty Copeland.

As Copeland demonstrates her fluid, muscle bulging spins and splits, a girl’s voice repeats words of discouragement that Copeland heard as an aspiring performer in her teens. “You have the wrong body for ballet,” the voice intones, adding, “and at 13, you’re too old to be considered.” The ad ends with on-screen copy defiantly noting the Copeland overcame such criticism to become a soloist for the American Ballet Theatre.

A subsequent ad, in which model Gisele Bündchen kickboxes through the noise of hateful comments about her in social media, generated 2.4 million views on YouTube. Both Copeland and Bündchen represent a category of consumers that Under Armour calls “athletic females.”

Refining the Message

Looking back on the development of the ads, Leanne Fremar, Under Armour’s executive creative director on the women’s line, says that the team assigned to her business did an “amazing job of engaging [with us], throwing out incredible ideas and brainstorming every detail and nuance in order to ensure that the product that we were putting forth had an amazing amount of integrity and a powerful, really beautiful message.”

The same could be said of the effort behind “This Is Wholesome,” which cast real families in starring roles and enlisted documentary filmmakers T.J. Martin and Dan Lindsay (“Undefeated”) to direct the first ad.

Jonny Bauer, Global Chief Strategy Officer |

Photo: Kevin Scanlon

Amazingly, the directors asked for and got approval to shoot the ads and a series of short films on each family without a single Mondelez executive on set. The strength of the strategy and the script, though, gave marketing leaders Gary Osifchin and Jill Baskin confidence that the directors would deliver the goods.

“Of course we had a preproduction meeting, we knew all of the casting, we had vetted all the people—all of that. But when he went off, he went off,” says Baskin, vp of brand strategy and communications at Mondelez and one of the first marketing execs to work with Droga5 at Kraft.

Kraft spun out its snacks business in 2012 into a separate company that became Mondelez International. Droga5 now handles two Mondelez brands: Honey Maid and belVita biscuits.

If all the online buzz around “Wholesome”—including more than 270,000 shares in social media for a follow-up video in which artists turned printouts of hateful comments into the word “Love”—wasn’t proof enough of the relevance and humanity of the campaign, a shout-out from none other than President Obama eliminated any doubt.

The president, speaking at an LBGT Pride Month reception in the East Room of the White House in June, included the brand in a series of examples of how attitudes toward gay people had changed in the previous year. “Coca-Cola and Honey Maid were unafraid to sell their products in commercials showing same-sex parents and their children,” noted Obama at the event.

Obviously, a presidential thumbs-up meant a lot to Mondelez.

“I’ve been in advertising for a long time and that’s never happened to me. So, it was pretty cool,” says Baskin, who earlier in her career spent nearly two decades in account management and strategic planning at Leo Burnett.

“Look, advertising—to make an impact these days—it needs to make a statement and stand up or else you aren’t going to get any traction,” Baskin continues. “Playing it down the middle just doesn’t work anymore. I always thought advertising could play a positive role too.”

You can’t get more culturally relevant than that.