Droga5 CCO on a childhood obsession with TV, why generosity is the trick to the agency’s success and the genius of Jack Kirby
Indirectly, Ted Royer has Neil French to thank for him meeting with David Droga. Ted kept seeing brilliant advertising coming out of Singapore and, it turned out, most of it came from Neil’s legendary mind. He wanted to work with him and set about making it happen. He landed a job offer at Neil’s agency but, after Neil left, it fell through. But Saatchi & Saatchi Singapore offered him another shot at Asia and Ted took the plunge. Four months later David joined as a regional creative director. In Ted’s words, they’ve been “really good friends ever since”.
These days Ted is, of course, CCO at Droga5, working closely with founder David. The agency was named Independent Agency of the Year at Cannes Lions 2017 - a title the agency has held for the past three years.
LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Ted (coincidentally the morning before that third successive award) to find out how an obsession with TV led to life in adland and the challenges of keeping the correct culture within an agency that’s bigger than one he’s ever worked.
LBB> How did you get into the industry? I’ve read online that there was quite a peculiar piece of inspiration that made you want to explore advertising…
TR> I watched a lot of TV as a kid. A lot of kids would be out playing sports or something but I just watched TV all the time. I remember at one point memorising the TV schedule - it was a sick amount of TV! I started really loving what I saw, including the ads.
But the first time I became aware of advertising as an industry was when I watched the show Bewitched - it’s about an ad guy whose wife is a witch and can do anything. But he was always complaining about work, about having to make an ad for Napoleon Soap or something - and I thought, ‘wow that’s a job, that’s cool’. There was also Thirtysomething, a show that nobody knows, but it was about two guys that ran an agency - it looked like a really interesting job.
And then I saw the Little Caesers commercials by Cliff Freeman and knew straight away that it was what I wanted to do. They were great, funny and silly. It seemed weirdly free and bizarre, even fresher than most TV shows. I investigated and realised that I could do that, but also make money. I’d heard that with too many artistic professions that there was a good chance of being broke. So it seemed like an opportunity to make some money but also have a lot of fun. And here we sit! [This interview took place on a beach in Cannes.]
LBB> I’m sure you don’t have quite as much free time as you did then - but do you still watch a lot of TV?
TR> Haha yes. My wife and I love the time after we put the kids to bed - those two or three hours that are just for us. The first thing we say is ‘what are we going to watch?’ Actually no - first it’s ‘what food are we going to order?’, then it’s the TV.
LBB> And so you studied advertising eventually?
TR> Yeah I studied at Portfolio Center in Atlanta, which is still a school for advertising creatives. I studied at regular college first but I feel like I found my tribe at Portfolio Center. There were 100 kids all trying to do this job and we nerded out on it really hard. There was no line between socially hanging out and doing schoolwork, it was just 24 hours of us thinking of things and partying and having fun. It was crazy and intense but fun to find a tribe of likeminded people.
LBB> You won a bunch of One Show pencils in your first year in the business - more than any other young creative. How important was it for you to stay grounded after that and did you consciously think about it at the time?
TR> Yeah, but that was because I was the second art director under a lot of really, really good people. Leonard Monahan, it was a little agency in Providence, Rhode Island that was full of really talented people. It showed me that working with great people was the way to have fun and do the best work.
LBB> In the wrong hands though, that early success could go to a person’s head…
TR> Yeah but honestly, I was just super grateful for the opportunity. I really was only helping art direct. Of course it sort of goes to your head but you also know that it’s a little bit bullshit. Awards are great but if you let them go to your head, you’re an asshole.
LBB> You’ve lived in Asia and Australia - do you think having global experiences like those are an important thing for ad creatives to do?
TR> I loved it, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I say this a lot: if you have a chance to live out of your home country, do it, especially if you work in this industry. It often challenges every assumption you have. Living in Singapore, the food was different, the culture was quite western but still different enough to be totally inspirational. For example, I made a black ad once - the client kindly told me that we couldn’t use that because black means death. Little things like that.
But there are couple of main reasons. Firstly, its constant inspiration. Even if you have a shitty day, you walk outside and the sky looks different. Secondly, it forces you to think of ideas that really do translate across cultures. If someone is going to laugh at something in China, Australia and the US, you know you’ve got something interesting. You see that a lot in Cannes - the work that does well gives joy and delight to everybody. You develop those muscles faster when you live abroad. I can’t recommend it enough.
LBB> MailChimp picked up a Grand Prix in Cyber at Cannes this year – congratulations. Can you tell us more about that campaign and why you think it has resonated so much?
TR> A lot of people seem to have different reasons for loving it, which is a nice issue to have. First of all there was a great process between Neil Heymann and Don Shelford, the main creatives on it, and the clients. They didn’t want to do traditional advertising - they hated it and thought it was boring. I think the guys actually presented a couple of ideas that felt more like ad campaigns and the clients said they wanted less advertising and for people to have more fun with it. It was really fun to take search and the way that people use the internet now, and just mess with it. That got a better level of engagement and more curious people involved with it.
Ad campaigns are always begging for your attention - but what I love about this is that it feels like it doesn’t really care if you get it or not. It’s sort of like a party that you’re not invited too. That’s cool and more campaigns should act like that. It shows a self-confidence that comes from that company. Since when does an ad campaign not kiss your ass?
LBB> There are so many elements to the campaign and each one was fed in different places - tell us about the process of navigating all of those elements into one overarching project.
TR> Well, each element shouldn’t hold together. The only thing that holds it all are these dumb rhymes which are really funny. But each thing on its own is also really interesting and silly and fun. Then you see two or three of them add up and you can’t not think what the fuck is going on here?
It was a super passionate group that brought this to life. You get those moments in advertising when people really feel they’re onto something - this was one of those. A lot of that team is here [in Cannes], as are the clients, and they all just gelled really well.
LBB> I wanted to ask you about Droga5 in general - it obviously has such a distinct tone of voice and identity. But how would you summarise it?
TR> The culture starts with David Droga, it really does. He’s very happy and positive - he’s never really in a bad mood. He’s super talented, ambitious and nice. And that’s how I would describe our culture - talented, ambitious and nice. I think all company cultures, whether they like it or not, come from the people leading them. We’re all believers. We believe we can have fun, do good and make an impact. We don’t like negativity, assholes and people crying in the bathroom. We like doing great work and having a great time doing it.
LBB> It’s just over ten years old now and is one of the most powerful brands in advertising - how have you and David nurtured that culture and level of work over that time?
TR> That’s the golden question. Every time we get to a certain size I wonder how we’re going to manage it. I remember when we got to 60 people and thinking wow we got big fast! We’re at 650 people now in New York. And the reality is that you can’t keep the same culture, and look at the past and try to hang onto it. What you have to do is look at how to be bigger but keep the fundamental elements there - the fun and feeling as though you can do your best work here and it’ll still be supported.
The word we use a lot is ‘generous’. How do we keep a generous culture within the business? It does get trickier. David actually said the other day, not only have none of us ever run an agency this big, but none of us have ever worked in an agency this big. Droga5 right now is by far the biggest agency I’ve ever worked in - and we’re running it! A lot of times we just go with our instincts. I think we’re doing a pretty good job of keeping the core parts of the culture while always questioning how we’re doing it. Our management teams looks at what we’re doing so often. It’s a crazy rollercoaster.
LBB> Let’s talk about awards - Publicis Groupe has obviously announced that it’s not entering any awards for the next year. How do you see advertising award shows in 2017? Are they worthwhile or is the industry too saturated?
TR> Awards shows, when they’re done well and are honest, have a really good purpose. As an industry we are actually quite negative about ourselves and what we do. But when I see the work here at Cannes or somewhere like the One Show - I’m on the One Club board, full disclosure - I feel super proud. I was sitting next to a guy at the One Show who was from the tech industry and he said to me that it was the best body of work he’d ever seen. We forget how great and impactful we can be. Shows are there to celebrate that and that’s a great purpose because we should be proud of what we do.
When they fall into the darker sides, I can understand why people get exhausted by them. Anybody who’s out just to win awards or rig the system is fucking hurting everybody else. We really like awards because they’re fun, but we don’t make work with that in mind. It’s about making the coolest, most impactful work possible - and if we do that, it might win awards. But some people set out to just do that, to mark a line on a tally - and that just seems ridiculous to me. It’s not why I got into this business.
LBB> What’s the best thing about the ad industry today?
TR> I offhandedly said to Susan Credle the other day that people don’t like advertising because of things like adblockers. And she said that as soon as she tells anyone that she works in advertising, they love to talk about it. But they love good advertising. Again, you look at the One Show reel or a lot of the work at Cannes, and it’s really good and inspiring.
I think we have this level of self-loathing and we’re reluctant to admit that we like advertising. Yeah, most of it is boring or humbling you with repetition - but when it’s good it’s fucking cool. We make great little films, we can make a huge impact - look at Fearless Girl, that was like an atom bomb that got dropped in New York, it was seismic. We shouldn’t be ashamed to be proud of ourselves. It’s a funny question because I think we are automatically a negative industry. Maybe I’m just old enough and tired enough that I don’t want to be cynical like that anymore!
LBB> I was actually going to ask you the thing that most frustrates you in the industry, but I feel like you’ve answered with that feeling of self-loathing you speak about…
TR> That’s it - that cynicism and negativity. In advertising if we’re constantly saying that the business is dying or that we’re so disposable, young people aren’t going to want to be in it. Why wouldn’t they go and work for Google or Facebook, these really optimistic companies? If we’re negative, we’re going to lose great talent. And clients notice it too - if we don’t respect ourselves, why should they? We should be prouder of what we do and stand up for our talent more.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
TR> I’m a huge Beatles fan and every few years I go through a big period with them. I love the way they made music, their creative process and what inspired them. That’s constantly inspiring to me - how each song came to life, how the album concepts came to life and how they picked themselves back up when they failed. There’s also an artist I gave a speech about called Jack Kirby - have you heard of him?
TR> Yeah, no one has. He’s a Marvel comic artist and he created all of the characters that you know. The Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor. He just didn’t get the credit for it - but they all came from his mind. I just love the energy of his work, there’s a fierceness and bravery to it. He got screwed by the companies that he was working for but he never stopped creating great stuff, even though he had a history of not being appreciated for it. He’s a bit of a cautionary tale but I’m inspired by how he never stopped creating and let his art suffer because of his circumstances. His work will live on for the next 100-200 years - all of these Marvel movies you see now that are making billions of dollars come from his mind. And no one knows his name. I think he’s the most under-appreciated artist of the 20th century.