John Hegarty and David Droga: What’s Great, What’s Not and What’s Next

Droga also talks WME

CANNES, France—David Droga has won a million advertising awards. But here at the Cannes Lions festival on Friday, his thoughts took him back to the first award show he ever attended in his native Australia. Something happened there that he would remember forever.

David Abbott, the founder of London's Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, who died last month at age 75, was the guest host that night. And the Droga5 founder, at the time an 18-year-old student, was starstruck.

"Everybody was intimidated by the fact that this legend was here," Droga told a full house at the Palais des Festivals. "I went up to the stage to get this award. And he said something charming and lovely. And as he congratulated me—this is true—this little bit of spit came out of his mouth and hit me right in the eye."

Far from being put off, Droga was elated.

"I remember thinking, 'David Abbott just spit in my eye.' I didn't even wipe it off. And I just remember thinking, 'If I could have just a bit of what he has, I'm going to be all right.' "

That kind of passion for advertising drives both Droga and Hegarty, of course—two men who've both reached the pinnacle of their industry, who both enjoy cursing on stage and who are both committed to the purity and simplicity of the unadorned idea in a business where it's easily lost or overlooked.

In a 45-minute session, they touched on everything from their personal histories to their agency philosophies to the pressures and perils of working in what Droga termed the "shiny" new world of marketing today.

It was an inspired pairing: Hegarty, the old-school creative director who prizes instinct over experience and feelings over facts, and Droga, the new-school anti-authoritarian who's looking to upend the business with ideas and partnerships no one's tried before. (It helped, too, that both are remarkably eloquent parsers of the business and creativity's role in it—not necessarily the norm this week at Cannes.)

Early on, Droga touched on something that's been a theme at this year's Cannes Lions: the notion of companies not just making good products but doing good work—work that improves people's lives or betters the planet. Many of the Lion winners have been humanitarian or environmental in nature—and the new Product Design Lions explicitly require that the products make a positive contribution to society or the planet.

Droga has begun thinking this way, too.

"I still feel that I'm this scrappy, feisty creative person," he said. "I haven't lost that quest and that thirst to do something great. But I think I've evolved from a selfish creative person into one that suddenly realized that it's really only fucking great if something happens with it, if the ramifications of it touch something or affect something."

He added: "The thing I believe is, we are good if our peers think we're great. But we are great if the real world thinks we're good. And there's a huge difference."

Meanwhile, Hegarty, the semi-retired founder of BBH, spoke of his creative philosophy beginning in the early years, and said it was fundamentally based on honesty—with his colleagues and with the consumer.

"We were desperate to create work that became part of the cultural landscape. And we talked about ideas that moved people," he said. "The thing I wasn't interested in doing was creating advertising that tripped people up, that faked that this was a piece of editorial when it wasn't. There's a lot of talk today about how we can influence people on Facebook or we can put messages into Twitter. Personally—and I don't give a shit if you agree or disagree—I don't like that. I think there's an honesty in our creativity that says here's a great idea, and inspires people to follow it."

At one point, Droga was asked about his deal last summer to sell 49 percent of his agency to William Morris Endeavor, the Hollywood talent agency. He said it was about access.

"I didn't want to sell to a holding company and become one card in a deck. I wanted to partner with people who can do things we could never do," he said. "We're in the business of influence. And if we're going to be in partnership with anybody, I want it to be with people who have amazing access and influence. It's not about filling our stuff with celebrities. They see further out. They have a hand in 50 percent of all TV shows produced in America, and movies and music. It's taken six months to understand each other. And now we have some things in the pipeline that feel seamless and legitimate."

Beyond that, the conversation touched on everything from client relations to data to the work that influenced both of them the most. (Hegarty said the Volkswagen ads from the '60s; Droga said Nike's early ads.) Asked about the industry's media evolution, Droga pointed to mobile as the nut that most agencies still can't crack, while Hegarty explained how BBH is using TV much differently than before.

"We create a blockbuster now," he said. "And we may only run it three or four times on TV. But we create a debate and start a conversation. And that conversation goes into social media, which generates an audience. The people who haven't seen it go and look at it on YouTube. And you create this virtual circle. It's a different way of using media."

Asked at the end if they'd like to offer some parting words, both men recapped their essential ethos.

"The thing we talk about at BBH is just trying to say to each other, 'Please tell the truth. Please be true to each other,' " said Hegarty. "If an idea's not great, we've got to admit to it. And through that, we might go on to create something great. So just talk the truth to each other."

"The industry is very shiny," added Droga. "Do something great that you really believe is great. And maybe someday someone will want you to spit in their eye."