Droga5: Has the reality finally caught up with the hype?

tim burrowes landscapeWith the departure of Droga5’s key creative after just a year, Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes asks whether reality has caught up with one of Australia’s most talked about agencies.

I’ll say this for Droga5.

Over the last seven years, no agency has built such a big reputation on so little sustained success.   

Based on the well deserved global reputation of the US-based Aussie David Droga, the agency’s Sydney operation launched in 2008.

The big local name was David Nobay, Nobby to those who know him.

Nobby’s previous gig was as executive creative director of Saatchi & Saatchi in Sydney. Saatchis enjoyed a great deal of success during his time there and took a long time to recover from his departure.

He had a reputation of being a talented creative, a lover of the industry lifestyle, and a charismatic client-facing executive.

So expectations were high.

So high were they that Campaign Brief decreed Droga5 hottest agency of the year in 2008, before they’d actually launched any work.

And Nobay’s salesmanship helped deliver some big clients, and to sell in some campaigns marketing directors may later have regretted buying.

By 2009, Droga5 had the major coup of relaunching one of Australia’s biggest ever beer brands, VB.

The result was The Regulars, a 90s-style epic and expensive commercial featuring 1500 extras and a cast of quirky eccentrics.

Most controversially, the agency persuaded the brand to drop the “hard earned thirst” tag line. New agencies on a roster often like to do that, if the marketing director will let them.

I remember at the time, one experienced industry watcher telling me it was a mistake. He made the point that “Hard earned thirst” resonated whether you’d finished the day on a building site or were a white collar worker having a beer on the plane commuting home. “The drinking beer” wasn’t quite the same.

Sure enough, sales tanked (although it didn’t help that the strength of the beer had also been reduced.)

Within three years, Droga had lost the account to Clemenger BBDO. And the slogan (and the full strength beer) came back.

History repeated itself a week after losing VB

Droga5 won Woolworths, previously held by M&C Saatchi.

Out went the “fresh food people” jingle and in came a new theme song based around the days of the week. “The fresh food people” slogan was tweaked to become “Australia’s fresh food people”.

The campaign launched with an expensive ad featuring a cast of quirky eccentrics.

But Woolworths failed to lay a glove on Coles.

The rumblings from within Droga5 (in fairness often passed on by rivals, so feel free to take it with a pinch of salt) was that the talented and highly paid senior staff of Droga5 were being disdainful of working on the grubbier executional work of the workaday retail client. Much of the work was, it was said, being done by a roster of freelancers.

Two years later, Droga5 had lost its biggest account to Leo Burnett and the “fresh food people” slogan was back.

And yet the agency’s star power kept getting them onto big rosters.

And I kept waiting to see the great piece of work. Droga5 went on and off a Telstra retainer without delivering anything exciting.

Then there was the buzz when they got onto the Qantas roster.

The most memorable work was the replica of the NASA Mars rover Curiosity.

Critics rather cruelly described it as the “Qantas bomb disposal robot”. Certainly, it felt cold and impersonal to me.

But, I did feel very hopeful for the agency when Steve Coll joined a year ago.

He moved across from Havas, where over four years he’d helped turn round the agency after joining from AMV BBDO in the UK where he’d won a bunch of big global awards.

Coll – one of very few creatives from a traditional advertising background who truly puts earned media at the centre of a campaign strategy – quickly built a reputation for being a great collaborator.

So when news dropped this morning that he was leaving Droga so soon, my first thought was that he’d be going to a big global job, and that it was the local industry’s loss.

It turns out that’s not quite the case. He’s staying in Australia, but he is going to a bigger job.

At its peak, Droga5 claimed to have 130 staff when it had Woolworths. A few months back it was still claiming 75. But today after AdNews reported that it was down to 20, CEO Sudeep Gohil told us it was 43.

By a funny coincidence, by my calculations, Steve Coll will be With Collective’s 44th employee when he joins as partner and chief creative officer.

Yet some readers may not have even heard of With Collective, although they won Mumbrella’s Direct Agency of The Year title at the Mumbrella Awards last month.

I wonder whether it will later be seen as a symbolic move recognising the rise of a new type of agency. With Collective’s digitally-focused key offering is the meeting point of technology, data and creativity.

With Collective’s work on the Qantas Frequent Flyer alongside Droga5 will, I suspect, be where they got to know Steve Coll. The personalised campaign offering Qantas customers the chance to set their points destination was led by With Collective, for instance.

It’s very different to the big ad philosophy practiced by Nobay.

Coll is, I think, switching from the mad men to the math men.

The announcement of Nobay’s return to the helm of Droga5’s creative output demonstrates that the agency is still good at managing its own reputation.

Nobay, pictured right, on Recipe To Riches

Nobay, pictured right, on Recipe To Riches

In the press release sent to us by the agency, it focuses, first, on the return of Nobay to the front line after time out writing a play and being a judge on Recipe To Riches.

Which does rather invite the question of when did they announce he was stepping back from the front line in the first place?

And rather cleverly, the press release features a more humble sounding Nobay than some will be familiar with, talking about getting too big too quickly.

Framing this as the return of Nobay, rather than the departure of Coll, it does create a slightly different conversation.

Given that’s the case, the question then becomes one of whether Nobay can reinvent himself. Can the 30 year mad man become a math man?

I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I can’t say that I can think of another creative veteran who has returned from the wilderness and set the agenda a second time.

TedHortonAnd it’s not an age thing. Creative Ted Horton, who ran rings round Droga5’s Woollies’ work on behalf of Coles, is I guess, a fair bit older than Nobay. And he’s still many marketing directors’ first choice.

But a whole generation has joined the industry since Nobay last created an agenda-setting ad – so for many new arrivals, he isn’t even on the radar any more. He’ll need to remake his reputation, not rely on it.

Cynics may suspect that Nobay’s new found desire to go to work every day, is more closely related to the need to have somebody sitting in the big chair as soon as Coll departs, not least because the agency will be wanting a crack at Optus, which is currently up for grabs. Or it could even be about the inability to afford another big name ECD until the Woolworths hole is filled with Optus or something else. I doubt the agency is profitable right now.

Of course, if Droga5 gets the Optus gig, prepare for the end of the “Yes” positioning and a big ad featuring a cast of quirky eccentrics…

But like I say, Droga5 has always been great at managing industry perceptions.

Many will be predicting that the agency can rise again. I’m still wondering if it really rose in the first place.

  • Tim Burrowes is content director of Mumbrella

September 10 update: Droga5 has now announced that it will be closing its Australian operation before the end of the year.



Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.