Interview with David Droga

Right in the second module of Hyper Island back in September we were investigating the Future of the media industry. For this my group and I were lucky enough to get David Droga, founder of Droga5, on the phone for 20 minutes to ask him a few questions and get his opinions on where our industry is heading. I've been meaning to share the interview some time ago so here's the full transcript. There's also a audio recording of it, but the quality is rather suboptimal. I need more practise in interviewing people I guess :)



Wal: Hello David, it’s nice to speak to you, I’m really excited. I’m calling together with some people, we’re all sitting here in Stockholm at Hyper Island and we’re curious if we could ask you a couple of questions?

Dave: Sure, we have so many Swedes in our office now, I’m feeling like I'm talking to Swedes all day.

Wal: Ha, nice one. Basically, the first module we’re doing right now in our Interactive Art Director course is about finding out about the future of the media industry. So we’d like to ask you as one of the leaders of this industry and as a person who people look up to, what gets you excited at the moment in the industry?

Dave: It's a very broad question, and if I knew all the answers, I would print them and sell them off. I would be a Billionaire right now. I think there's no question that the industry is probably at its most fragile and exciting points. There's fragmentation and there's opportunity about. But by the way, is that question specific to just digital or?

Wal: Well, digital and advertising obviously, because you guys are able to combine those two seamlessly it seems.

Dave: We try not to separate them. It's all what's relevant and what's effective. There's no question that more often than not, digital plays a heavy part in that. But there still has to be as much thought into how and why we do it, as oppose to just doing it. I think there is still a lot of wasted money in digital media. People see that it's a segment that's growing and booming so they put a lot of money into it, but there are not putting as much thought into it. It's kind of crazy because I find bad digital advertising actually more intrusive and more offensive than bad traditional advertising. Because you know, traditional advertising, all be it TV or print, you almost condition to accept advertising as part of that. But online, just by the nature of why it booms so much and how it operates, it's much more under your own control. Advertising sort of interrupts and bombards you, it's much more offensive unless it's actually seamless.

Wal: If you don't separate it that way how does your creative department work, do you have traditional creatives and digital creatives?

Dave: We have one big creative department that has people from different backgrounds. There are people that have digital backgrounds. But at the end of the day it all comes down to the strategy or coming up with the idea or the implementation. When we concept it's not necessary a traditional team, it's sort of a hybrid of creatives. It might be some traditional creatives but in this hybrid model there's also some creatives that come from a digital background. Those digital creatives may be cracking the TV, just as the traditional creative team could be cracking a digital brief. Clearly when it comes down to actually execution, that's where you sort of tap into peoples backgrounds and specialities. It's not as linear as it was in the past, where traditional teams cracks it and then it's passed down to be executed by a digital team. That seems like an old fashioned model. Our model is almost flipped. If you compare it to a train, in the old model it used to be that the train would pick up passengers when it went along, it would pick up a traditional team, then it would pick up a digital team, then it would pick up producers, you know what I mean? Now in the opposite model, it's a train shedding passengers, so we start with everybody at the table. And we loose people as we go along.

Wal: In our course we are actually trying to become one of those hybrid creatives and combine design, strategy and technology into one thing. What do you expect of those hybrid creatives? Maybe a direction what way we could shape our course in order to succeed in that?

Dave: You have to be quite neutral in the beginning, you can't be seduced by a specific medium. If you sit down at the table with a medium in mind then you immediately limit yourself. What we're trying to do is to liberate our creatives by saying – ok let's start at the beginning and see whatever idea seems the right idea – and then we look at the medium to exploit it in, as opposed to starting with a TV commercial or a viral or a website. It never starts that way, it always starts with the idea before we get into any execution. We never start with an execution.
We don't expect our creatives to be planners, I do like when they have a strategic point of view, but we have a very strong strategic department that's independent. But I do like the creatives to be more than just whacky creatives, I like them to understand the insights into why they come up with ideas. The best ideas are not just creative for the sake of being creative. They are grounded in something. They definitely come from an insight.

Wal: We are a quite a digital focused school, but you're coming from a rather tradition background. Could you give us any tips what skills we should not neglect to take over from the traditional guys.

Dave: I forged my career by doing traditional stuff in the beginning, because that's what was asked of me. I'm your classic creative. I dont' care what the canvas is, I just wanna be creative. In the beginning it was very much TV and print. But the reason I got excited by digital, and do still get excited by the potential of it, is that it's a three dimensional canvas. As an industry we pride ourselves being storytellers. And we used to be just storytellers that told a complete story. A 30 second commercial had a start, a middle and a finish. A print ad was all there on the page. But what's best about digital is that the story doesn't necessary ever finish. We instigate a story and it can evolve, so we are as much creatives as we are curators. Still we have the essence of being storytellers but we don't have to finish the story as such. Digital allows you to create something that can evolve. This can be through the contribution of the people you're aiming at or we can add other elements and you can bury things in it. That's why it's so fascinating when it's done well. It's less control but more exciting.

Wal: That's a great way to see it.

Dave: I always try to look at it, not how ideas are gonna be received by the client or by our peers, but in the real world. You want to be able to work with it, interact with it. What is it gonna make people feel as opposed to make them think?

Wal: If you've seen it all, what do you still get impressed by? We're obviously competing for the desks next to people like you to tap your minds. How can we impress you or other people that are that cutting edge?

Dave: To me, genuinely, the ideas that I like the most are the right ideas. Simply because they are not just creative for the sake of it, they are ideas that tap into real human truths and they're evoke some kind of emotion out of me. Obviously for it to be appropriate it has to be the right type of emotion for the right type of client. It's not just, oh that's weird or that's funny, or that's whacky. It provokes some sort of reaction which almost has a knock on effect. And that's what I think creative solutions should show, taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. That's what I find really fascinating. Just being different for the sake of it – anyone can be different for the sake of it. I think that's easy. But doing something with the ordinary, that's where the most interesting things happen, it's such a lateral way of looking at the everyday.

Wal: So it's about taking insights and connecting them with emotions.

Dave: Yeah, that's what's so fascinating with advertising, if it's done well. You probably heard it before but but it's that balance between art and commerce. That's what excites me the most. We have boundaries, an artist who is painting on a wall or a canvas doesn't have boundaries, they can do anything they want. Which is exciting and intimidating and takes a special kind of person. But we have the perimeters and mandatories, which is kind of restricting. And that's what I love - how do we solve that puzzle with all the restrictions we have? Sometime the most creative thing is the person who has the most restraints. Restraint is a really hard thing in our industry, people usually go too far, too over the top. That's why I go back to simplicity and it's also grounded in something that is based on a human truth. And you can actually be more creative with it because you've got an incentive to go back to. Does that make sense?

Wal: It sounds very passionate if you talk about it. I very much believe that it's a lot of fun coming up with those things.

Dave: It's an amazing amazing tough but amazing industry. We basically get to be creative with other people's money and other people's businesses. With that comes great responsibility. The conversations I'm having these days are so much more interesting than the conversations I was having five years ago. I could almost predict the types of conversations I would go in and have with the client five years ago. Now what's so exciting about it, is that you can't predict. That makes it that much more exciting and intimidating. We really get to stretch our imagination more. I'm sure all you lecturers will tell you the same thing but, I really believe that it's probably the best time one can be in our industry. There used to be quite a traditional way to get into the industry. You go into the industry and you work your way up the ladder, you start with print ads or radio or brochures and earn the right to go up to something that would sort of become more mad. Where it is now you can strike a chord right from the get go with something that's really small and digital. And there's also opportunity for clients now, it used to be the battle of budgets. The number one and number two made the most most noise. Now number three, four, five and six have as much right to create something that has impact. It's not necessary the money that gives you the impact but the thinking. And who doesn't want to be in an industry, where all this craziness makes us think harder and better. Assumption does no longer exist in our industry, which is the best thing for a creative industry.

Wal: We try to focus a lot on group dynamics and processes, how to come up with those great ideas and how to push them further. We'd like to know how you keep the culture of Droga5 focused in that sense. And how do you get those kind of results? How do you work with your agency culture?

Dave: You know, I keep it really simple, I'm pretty direct about what I like and what I don't like. But at the same time I don't have people fleshing out a million things really deep and wasting their time. I'd rather look at twenty ideas that are top line in the beginning, so it's more of a conversation. And I always challenge people. What is the ramification of what we're doing? What is the ripple effect? My objective is to build the most influential agency in the world, not necessarily the biggest or not necessarily the most creative, you know I mean? To be the most influential you have to do things that matter, you have to do things that actually have an effect. By default you have to be creative, by default you have to work with interesting people, by default you have to have certain size. The influence of the work is what gets me excited. We talk a lot about what are we doing, what's the purpose of it, what's the real effect of it? It's such a competitive landscape out there.

Wal: Wow, influence is a great goal, definitely.

Dave: You can never get to the finish line but it's a lense to judge yourself. It stops us from working with, you know, let's say crappy clients. It stops us from hiring crappy people. We all have the same mindset. What are we doing today that's helping us getting closer to being more influential? Influential for our clients and influential for our industry.

Wal: You guys obviously have influence, everyone speaks of your work. Maybe you can tell us what the industry's future will look like with your influence? A cliche question but we're quite curious.

Dave: I always say – why did I start the agency? I started the agency to reinvent my advertising industry not anybody else's. The amount of different categories and I don't mean clients, I mean the other industries we can collaborate with and influence – is extraordinary. We don't have to try and pretend to be the movie industry now, we don't have to try and pretend to be the record industry now. But our thinking can influence those industries, and we can collaborate with them. There isn't a business in the world that can't benefit now from collaborating with smart marketing and creative people. And that shines a light on the good agencies out there. I don't know what the future is, but all I know it's fucking exciting.

Wal: Yes and we are excited now.

Dave: It's a great time. Look, it doesn't make it any easier. We work our asses off here, and we don't get it right all the time but more often than not we do. Because we're obsessed about getting it right, not about making it the most creative. You know by default as I said, I think it is usually very creative, if your objective is to get it right. Then you find that you suddenly open up new ways that you never thought you can possibly do. We try not to be intimidated by the attitude of 'that's too hard to pull off'. If it's the right idea, more often than not things start aligning and you can pull things off.

Wal: Have you ever been to Stockholm David?

Dave: I've been once actually, I went last year. I wasn't there long enough but it was such a beautiful time. My mother went to school in Stockholm.

Wal: If you ever want to come back to Stockholm, we'd love to have you as a lecturer to share all your thoughts with 100 other Hyper Island people who would really be interested in what you have to say.

Dave: I certainly will. I have a lot of time for Hyper Island, as I say we have a couple of people from Hyper Island here.

Wal: What's your idea of Hyper Island? What do you think we can bring to the table? What should we continue doing?

Dave: From what I know, i just think that you guys are a little braver than most advertising schools out there. You're sort of, more forward facing than a lot of other schools. Who knows why? Is it something in the water? Who knows what it is? What you get is a momentum going, and everyone feeds on that, which is how agencies grow. You know, how does a good agency grow? Because it sort of gets it own confidence going and a standard. And that standard builds everyone around it. That's what's obviously going on at Hyper Island. And that's what we're trying to do here. You know, no one has all the answer and I always say, sometimes we're sprinting forward other times we're falling forward - but at least we're moving forward. And that's my goal.

Wal: They keep telling us here to leave our comfort zone and to do things we don't normally do, and that's kind of like what I'm doing right now, it's completely mind blowing for me to talk to you and get all your thoughts, so I'm really happy.

Dave: But that's what I say, it's what you believe in. That's my only thing for every creative I say, try and do work that appeals to you, that you believe in. Don't try and do work that's weird for the sake of it, because you'll end up just with weird work, that's not grounded in anything. It's easy to do stuff that's bizarre, and different. But to do work that's fucking great and right is harder. Sometimes you have to leave things on the table that, you know, makes you laugh, but aren't necessarily right. You have to try always to... I don't know. Who knows? You'll find your groove and everyone does.

Wal: Nice, pretty cool. Any last words for Hyper Island?

Dave: Keep doing what you're doing and I'm looking forward to have more Hyper Island people in our office. There are five Swedes in our office already. A little mini Sweden.

Wal: We say Tack for thank you here in Sweden. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts.

Dave: Good luck with it all.