The Droga5 co-CCOs speak to LBB’s Addison Capper, in association with 750mph, about the benefits of having a co-conspirator and why it’s important that there’s no one-shoe-fits-all scenario to generating expertly crafted advertising
Audio post production company 750mph has partnered with Little Black Book on a new interview series called ‘Uncompromising on Craft’. The series is dedicated to learning from the sharpest minds in adland who transfix eyeballs, set the industry benchmark and make the work that we all wish we'd made.
Up today are Tim Gordon (pictured right) and Felix Richter (pictured left), co-CCOs of Droga5, an agency that, we think it’s fair to say, is rightfully well known for the level of craft at which its ideas are executed. They have both been co-CCOs since October 2019 when they were promoted from their roles of ECDs. Tim is one of Droga5’s first ever employees and has been behind some of the agency’s most well known and loved work for its clients including Puma, Under Armour, The New York Times and Chase. Felix joined Droga5 in 2011 and has since created some of the agency’s most notable work. In 2017 he was named AdAge’s creative director of the year and, along with director Bjorn Ruehmann, he created the music video trilogy ‘FLORIAN’ for German artist Paul Kalkbrenner.
LBB’s Addison Capper chatted with Tim and Felix about how they work together as co-CCOs and why a zero-dogma approach at the agency leads to the best craft. We've also included a selection of recent Droga5 work throughout the article.
LBB> I think it’s fair to say that Droga5 is an agency that's particularly well known for the high levels of craft to its work. As co-CCOs, how do you go about ensuring that the level of the agency's work is at its highest level down the entire ecosystem of how a commercial is produced?
Tim> I think we benefit, and the agency has benefited, from us being at Droga5 for so long. The agency has always prided itself on craft and the belief that if you're going to create something, it should be crafted well. There's a real attention to detail that comes from a place of people who have always really enjoyed making things. Our people first and foremost want to birth interesting things. It's in our DNA. There is just an understanding and a belief. If we're going to make something, let's make it really beautiful or really funny or incredibly well written because we all want to make stuff, and we're happy to. And I think that's something that we really try to imbue in everyone who joins.
It's very fortunate we're the type of place that attracts talent that stays. The work is a platform for those people to have a voice in the world. And if you nurture that, you have people who continue to do things year after year. And then, finally, great and well-crafted work begets more well-crafted work. We all admit there's a healthy amount of jealousy here between ourselves. That's a good thing. We all want to be held to the standard of the work that came before us. And it shouldn't be a facsimile. We want things that are sort of dynamically different in tone and vibe.
Felix> Droga5 has always had an atmosphere where you feel like you can experiment and play and try different things. We try to keep the place dogma free in order for new things to be crafted in new ways. For example, there’s this unwritten law in the industry around how the idea becomes the compass for all the creative decisions that follow. Everything needs to be in service of it. A lot of times that's good, but it also limits the work. When we craft work, we allow ourselves to go left or go right and sometimes ignore the idea a little bit and try this and try that. When I look at my favorite pieces of work that the agency has made, that seems to have played a role in almost all of them.
LBB> As creatives, how have you found the challenges of remote production over the course of the past year? Have you and your teams struggled with not being on set, or has it been a refreshing reset?
Tim> I think we've adapted really well. The production team deserves such a huge amount of credit for the way they work. They know what we're after because they're after the same things as creative, so they do a really good job ensuring that there's a certain amount of time to make a great deliverable, regardless of what the project is. Part of that process is also an understanding that craft isn't just a moodily lit, four-minute film - though it could be, and that could be amazing - but it's also about finding what the piece should be or what the execution should be. I think that's where we excel. We give ourselves the time in both the creation of the idea and the post-creation process, in which we determine what the tone should be, by luck, by feel or really everything. Personally, I try to be as involved as I can to the point of being helpful but also, at times, not involved, in order to let people really experiment before we look. But at the end of the day, there is no dogma or a one-shoe-fits-all scenario when it comes to how people work for us.
Felix> There is an element of in-person that makes those things a lot quicker and a lot wilder. When you sit together in a room, you can be like: what about this and what about that? But at the same time, it's been incredible and great to see how amazingly the teams have adapted. That type of thing still seems to be happening on Zoom calls. It's great to see.
LBB> As co-CCOs, how do you both work together? A few agencies have that set up these days, but it's still mostly the lone CCO. Do you both oversee most stuff or is it more about dividing and conquering?
Tim> We've never thought: well, the industry does it this way, so we should be doing it the same way as them. Working here, something that you continue to learn is that you don't do what other people are doing. You do what works. We are a large creatively-led agency. Because of that, the only thing that matters is creativity and everyone being bought into that idea. But that also means we're a big department. The creative department is the biggest and most robust, so personally, having a co-conspirator and a partner is vital. We have a shared worldview, but we also have different perspectives. When they're brought together, we benefit from it, and we're able to work through things and talk through ideas.
Also, from a managerial standpoint, there are so many of us that it's helpful to have two heads. But when it comes to work, we do delineate. We'll have accounts that are on either side of our aisle, but we also work together on things and share the work that we're closer with or ask for advice. It's very informal, but I find it works really well. And then when it comes to managing the department and the people, we do it sort of hand in glove, and we do that together. I would hope that people benefit from it as much as we benefit from it.
Felix> We meet at least once a day so we are caught up and have the same mind on all sorts of department issues. But at the same time, because there are two of us, we can have one-on-one conversations with people more easily. Droga5 has always been a polyphony of strong creative voices. There are always a lot of people pushing for different things and leading different things, so that kind of co-structure makes sense for the way work gets done here.
The New York Times - Life Needs Truth
LBB> You've mentioned that both of you have been at the agency for a long time and how that helps the output of the work. The culture of the agency must be really important. How do you nurture that as co-CCOs and long-time employees?
Tim> Something unique that Felix and I bring is the fact that we've done basically every job within the department. Because we came up through the ranks, we have a unique and personal perspective of what it takes to do a job, what each job entails and how we can benefit. We have a lot of leftover thoughts from our time in those positions, so I do hope the department benefits from having people who've been there.
The second is that we try to strike a balance. Nobody likes forced culture or forced fun. We're not camp counselors - we'd be terrible at that. But at the same time, we want people to feel like they work at a place that's bigger than just a paycheck and bigger than just a transaction. We accomplish that by recognising why everyone is here. Most people are here because they really don't want to feel like they actually have a job. When you're doing creative stuff and when you're working on things that you believe in and you have the time, space, ability and support to spend time editing them or working on them, it's awesome. You feel very humbled to be able to create something that you really love and be paid for it. Our biggest job is creating an environment that nurtures that experience.
But we also know that being a creative is not a linear path. It's important for us to encourage people to be curious, to be flexible about how people want to work and to support play. Naturally, that's easier when we're in the office or when we're together - this all needs to be taken with a grain of salt when it comes to talking about Zoom. But ultimately, I want to create a place where people are proud to work because it gives people an ability to do what they want to do, and it pushes them, and it spurs them on. It's also worth mentioning that we don't do it alone. We have fantastic ECDs that play such a big role, Julia [Albu] and Rene [Ramirez] run the creative ops side. It's a real team effort.
LBB> How do you both assess whether an idea or a piece of work is truly creative? What are your criteria?
Tim> For me, I go back to two things. There's an honesty to an idea and unexpectedness. When those two things exist, then, for me, it's fertile ground. It says to me that we can play here while also staying the course. Think about the Facebook work that came out before the Olympics - it was unexpected but also incredibly honest to the subculture. There are so many other parts that sometimes the actual craft of it feels so far ahead and unexpected or honest that sometimes you're just like: ‘oh, that's actually the thing’. But I'd probably try and look at those two things as my initial compass.
Felix> I 100% agree. Sometimes there's this feeling when you see something and it feels like a really good solution to the brief and is technically an original idea but feels familiar in terms of the mechanic. When something feels true, it needs to be said. The same thing goes for when there is something that feels like you haven't seen it before - that's usually a good sign.
LBB> How do you know when a piece of work is done?
Felix> Most of the time, there is a moment in the process of crafting something where it clicks, and things start feeling really good. It can happen at very different times. Sometimes it's already on paper, and you realise it has so much energy that nothing that happens after is really a surprise. In a weird way, the thing is kind of done then. But then there are also cases where things come together in the first edit or even in the fifth edit. Sometimes it only happens with the music. No matter when it is, after that point, it's just a matter of protecting it and not doing too much more in the steps that come afterward. But most of the time, you really feel when things click and start feeling good. And then it's done.
LBB> Which piece of work from Droga5 from the past year or so are you particularly proud of and why?
Tim> Without the stupid adage of loving all our children equally - and I'll humblebrag for a little bit - we're a little spoiled for options if you just look over the last calendar year, which I think is a fair amount of time to judge an agency by. We've been very fortunate to have great clients, partners, production partners and creatives. I think I'm most proud of the work like ‘Life Needs Truth’ for The New York Times, Huggies, which was so unexpected and different but also well done, and then Paramount+, which was just silly. We also did this really lovely film for REFORM Alliance that is honest and simple but beautiful. To this end, I don't think comedy gets as much of a nod for craft as it should. But I am most proud of the fact that our house style is no house style. If you line up our work in the last year - the Facebook films, The New York Times, Paramount+, Huggies and many more that I am missing - they all share the fact that people really cared about them. But at the same time, they're really different, and I guess that's what I'm probably most proud of.
Felix> In the context of craft, on Huggies, Juliana [Cobb, ECD] and her team did an incredible job in a very short amount of time. It was great on paper, but then it still had to click together, so I think that's an example of really lovely Droga5 craft. And then, more recently, there was Facebook’s Olympics campaign. Craft-wise, our focus was not overcooking it. We, including the client team, were all very conscious that when you do something around skateboarding for a brand, you can't take too much credit, and you have to tread lightly and make sure you're authentic and not forcing anything. That particular audience is so specific on this kind of thing, and we were fortunate to have a huge team with a couple of real experts. It was a very good collaboration, and I'm very proud of where all these films landed and that they don't feel like skateboarding clichés.
Not only did we have skateboard expertise, but we also had many different stories. We had the longboarding community, for instance. We were very conscious about having authentic voices tell the stories. The director trio that we worked with for the Ghana spot was really incredible about that, and I'm grateful to them for how it turned out.
LBB> When it comes to your own creativity, what external factors can really help you fly, and what do you find frustrates it?
Tim> I thrive off of the momentum generated by when a thing gets going. I really like that feeling. It's hard to put your finger on it, but it's sort of like a wave cresting within the agency when an idea starts to germinate and come to life. But it's not just from creatives. Account people, strategists and production people also generate that feeling, and I feed off that energy. I also like playing around in the edit and stuff like that, and I think we're fortunate that we get a lot of that positive momentum. Personally, I run, and I find that it serves as a great detox either pre or post. There's actually a lot of science about the cardiovascular system and getting a release of endorphins that help you clear your mind. I don't have a pure routine; I just sort of feed off what's there and really try to keep the energy going.
Felix> I'm similar in that I don't have an exceptionally interesting technique. Feeding off the energy of a project is really important for me as well. Throughout the whole creative process, I'm definitely a dialectic person in the sense that I have to say things out loud to know if they make sense, so talking to people is also really important to me. I actually really admire people who can just go in a room and sit there and write down the thing, and it comes out perfect. But I'm not like that.