Andrew Essex On The Spot

Native New Yorker and former journalist Andrew Essex, CEO of Droga5, likes to be where the action is. That the 41-year-old father of two left the world of ink for an agency, however, is no small matter given the big-name magazines at which he’d worked, including Details (executive editor) and Absolut (founding editor). Recent work from the Publicis Groupe agency, started by former Publicis worldwide cd David Droga, includes the Tap Project (an effort to raise funds for Unicef), original programming for an undisclosed tech client and a branded entertainment project set to launch mid-year.

Q: Why leave journalism for the ad business?

A: Anyone who’s been in print for the last five or six years has heard many depressing proclamations that print is dead. Although I don’t believe that for a second, there is a sense of that not being where the action is. I feel like I’m in the middle of a new paradigm. We really are synthesizing a few different disciplines. There’s this real sense that anything is possible.

What’s been the most difficult part of your transition?

I’m aware this sounds ridiculous, but the transition has been almost seamless. I chalk the bulk of that up to the caliber of people I work with. [Also], the similarities far outweigh the differences. Essentially, you’re dealing with highly creative, idiosyncratic individuals, a constant stream of new challenges and digestively unsettling deadlines.

And what have you found most surprising?

The relationship between the agencies and the clients. The dynamics are complicated and that’s something that you certainly learn a lot about—a competitive pitching process. One can pitch Si Newhouse on a new magazine and that can be very intense, but often you’re not necessarily pitching against other people.

Are you able to do creative work in your agency role?

I’m working on scripts, video treatments, creating characters, avatars. A lot of it is really very entrepreneurial and creative. In fact, I would hazard to say it’s more creative than a lot of the magazine work.

Droga5 recently won TracFone. How do you plan to grow the brand?

TracFone is in many ways a dream client: They’re the undisputed leader in the rapidly growing pre-paid wireless category but they have no real brand to speak of, and they’re committed to changing that. We’re going to work with them to redress that brand deficit in a compelling way. … I’m particularly fond of noting that TracFone is the 30th most popular item at Wal-Mart, right after milk.

Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy has alluded to a significant Droga5 project that he’s very excited about. What is it?

That project will launch mid-year. The general consensus is that it will provide brands an opportunity to be the star of a show rather than the uninvited guest. The key here is the scale and vision of the thing, the impact it’s going to have for brands and the ways it connects consumers with brands in unprecedented ways.

Do you think that the line between print editorial and advertising has gotten too blurry?

Content is king with distribution being queen. I’ve been in the content business all my life. When you work in the creative business, you always find that sister businesses are envious. So of course every actor wants to direct. Maybe people in advertising want to be able to sit down and write a 5,000-word piece. Once you’ve done that for a while, the fact of the matter is, if you’re honest with yourself, you sometimes get bored and bring to the table certain similar skills, and then you use them in a new way and you’re suddenly revitalized. I think any content business benefits from people who are energized.

Where did you start out as a journalist?

I got a job at some weird little trade publication for co-op and condo owners, and then made a sort of impossible jump to The New Yorker.

How did you manage that?

Well, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I had a couple of profs who worked there, Adam Gopnik and Louis Menand. They knew about a job. … I was there during the Tina Brown regime and that was certainly the graduate seminar.

What was your greatest lesson?

From putting sentences together properly to knowing what a good story is. [Brown] would dismiss you in literally a second and a half by shifting her eye if she wasn’t interested. It was a really amazing. You’d start talking and say “I have an idea” and if she wasn’t interested she’d walk away. I certainly learned to pitch.

What’s the smartest business decision you’ve ever made?

Not playing it safe. … Doing what I’m doing now. This has been such an exciting new adventure.

What about the worst?

On one level leaving The New Yorker. My mother would have been happy if I was there for the rest of my life. But probably doing something just for the salary. I made a couple of mercenary decisions in the past that I’ve come to regret.

Who has had the greatest influence on your career?

Tina Brown. Dave Droga. Caroline Miller [former editor of New York Magazine], who gave me Absolut magazine.

What work are you most proud of?

When I was at The New Yorker I was doing “Talk of the Town” pieces and I found myself looking back on a piece about James Merdoch as a young rebel with a beard, unwashed T-shirt, looking me in the eye and promising he would never work for his dad. Also, a very long piece in Details about a very bazaar little world of genital teaching associates.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in the business?

I would read everything and always assume you don’t know enough.

What kind of decisions?

There’s just been a couple of books that I worked on that I haven’t believed in, so you realize then you have no relationship to the customer and that’s a soul-killing endeavor.

What do you miss most about your publishing life?

Sitting in the front row at the fashion shows. That’s a nice little perk, being that close to the models. I think that’s about it.

Give me three words to describe yourself.

Unpretentious. Average height. Well preserved.

How would other people describe you?

Competent. Energetic. Well read. Inquisitive.

Which writer has had the greatest impact on your creativity?

Don Delillo is a favorite of mine. He came out of the advertising world. For a long time I felt like it was my goal in life to speak like his characters.

How did that work out for you?

Not so well. I can occasionally throw things in there, but people would say no one talks like this.

What are your most memorable moments as a journalist?

Sitting in an examination room at John Hopkins, a 90-degree examining room, with four co-ed med students as they examined [someone else’s] penis under fluorescent lights. It’s one of those things that you say “How did I get into this position.” I did the celebrity profile for a long time, so being on the U2 plane with Bono, being lost with Jim Carey in a convertible somewhere in the hills. Losing a tape with a Penelope Cruz interview. Having Julia Roberts tell me that my glasses looked nice. Hiking with Lucy Liu. Making Heather Graham cry.

How did you make her cry?

I brought up some direct-to-video as an honest question and she immediately started crying, and I said forget about it, don’t worry about it.

What was the last book you read?

I just finished Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird, a young Irish writer whose probably best known as Zadie Smith’s husband. It’s his first novel. It reads like the work of someone whose written 10 books, and I hate him for it. I also read Guests of the Ayatollah, a riveting, and deeply distressing blow-by-blow of the Iran hostage crisis by Mark Bowden, the journalist who did Black Hawk Down.

What’s the last thing you did for fun?

Completely changing industries. And watching my daughter being born.