DROGA5 CCO TED ROYER ON HOW TO MAKE IT IN ADVERTISING
Interview by Claire Wasserman
Someone once said, "It’s not advertising if you haven’t been kicked in the balls seven times.”
Ted Royer isn’t going to make you feel better. The Chief Creative Officer of Droga5 doesn’t mince words when it comes to his industry: "this is a shitty, difficult business." But Royer has prevailed against the punches, now throwing some of his own against agency in-fighting, award shows, and jingoism. In an industry that in his words "breeds self-loathers" the question becomes — How does one survive? And perhaps the better one — Why?
Raised on a steady diet of Gilligan's Island reruns, Royer learned at a very early age the power of escapism in storytelling. Upon discovering that everything was a choice made by someone — even the sign at a gas station was deliberate — Royer realized that he too could have an effect. He could be funny. A Little Caesar's ad was a turning point and thus, an ad man was born.
Yet, the industry is a tough one. According to Royer those that survive, and thrive, are those that believe they can do it better. With that firmly in mind, David Droga and Ted Royer set out nine years ago to create the sort of agency where big ideas and great creative would eclipse office politics and ghetto accounts. And so they have: Droga5 consistently creates work that racks up both awards and views — from the stirring Misty Copeland spot to their most recent win of Independent Agency of the Year. The more meaningful achievement, though, may be their thriving company culture, or as Royer puts it, "The Cult of Droga."
We spoke to Royer about ways to develop company culture beyond a weekly happy hour and how they safeguard the cult as they grow (Droga5 is almost doubling in size every year). In a candid interview, Royer tells us how he hires, when he fires, and a few of his pet peeves. Hint: don’t ask for the juice bar.
CW: Do you hang out with only ad people?
TR: Ha. I was bitching about Facebook the other day that there were so many ads...but then I realized that all I know are ad people! A lot of my friends are in advertising. I’m not sorry to say that because I love my friends, they’re really funny people. I can speak in a shorthand with them when I’m pissed off about something at work. But those are also the people I tend to meet. And I do think a lot of the people in our industry are funny and fun to be with and are really nice people. So I don’t lament that a lot of my friends are in advertising. Having said that, since moving to Brooklyn, I have made a bunch of friends who aren’t in advertising.
CW: Everyone is trying to achieve that whole work-life balance thing. How's that going for you?
TR: I’m getting really good at going home at 6pm. I love to put my son to bed. That’s my role. As if anything going on here is going to stop me from seeing my kids if I really want to see them. Sometimes I have to stay here like I did last night but mostly no, I want to get home and play with them, put them to bed, read to Max. And then, I just get back online at 8:30 and I can work again. I can watch anything, I can get on the phone with anybody, I can talk to clients. I usually talk to clients that late. But that time is super fucking valuable to me. The weekends are really valuable to me too. I’m not a believer in working for working’s sake.
CW: Have you had that balance your whole career?
TR: Oh god, no. I got hooked up kind of late so throughout my thirties and early forties, I was the guy at the agency on the weekends and I was working late all the time. My social life and work life completely blurred. I would drink with the people I worked with so yeah, I was working way, way more. You’ve sort of got to earn the right to not hit it all so hard.
CW: I read that you won the most One Show Pencils of anyone in their first year. How does success early on affect you?
TR: I have no idea if that’s still actually true. I got thirteen One Show Pencils in one year. It can swell someone’s head up to a degree where you become a totally insufferable asshole. To me it just brought a little relief. All it did for me was make me think, “Okay, maybe I can do this. Maybe I don’t suck.” And anyway a lot of that work was being the junior art director to some really, really great people like Paul Hirsch or Kara Goodrich. That year, they did most of that work. I helped out, I concepted, I wrote some stuff, but really I was just working with some fantastic people. So [winning the pencils] didn’t mean that much. It just showed me that I could at least play in this game, that I’m not a complete, total hack, that maybe I can do this job. So maybe that’s the good thing about awards; if you win them, they just calm you down. It’s when you start getting too obsessed with them and you’re doing scam ads and you’re doing this stuff for the rest of your life, that’s kind of ridiculous.
"It showed me that I could at least play in this game, that I'm not a complete, total hack, that maybe I can do this job."
CW: Do you watch your own work?
TR: Anytime I look at anything I’ve worked on, all I see are the flaws. It’s not fun to watch my own stuff. I don’t watch our own stuff after we finish it, I just get full of angst and hatred.
CW: After cleaning up at The One Show, you left to work in Asia. Tell me about your move to Singapore.
TR: I moved there my second year in advertising. I was 27. And single. In Asia. Oh my god, it was so much fun! I’ve been a history buff all my life and I’d read all about Asian history so all of a sudden to wake up and find myself there was stunning. It was a blast. If anyone is reading this and interested in moving abroad, do it. Do it right away. Because your senses are heightened, your sense of self changes, you start questioning things you thought “well that’s the way we always did it...” It’s exciting and it’s fantastic and you become a better thinker and creative for it.
CW: Being the outsider: how do you recognize it and use it to your advantage?
TR: In Japan, China and Thailand, I’m this huge hairy guy walking around. I love it! I thought it was really great because you have to have an attitude of, “This is your country, I’m open to the way you do things and I’m really, really happy to be here, I’m not here to fuck anything up.” I remember guys who go there and say all these things about how America is the best, and I’m like: “Why the fuck THEN aren’t you in America?” Because we’re in Asia and I’m more interested in their culture! I don’t understand that weird, knee-jerk patriotism. Dive into wherever you are. I see it in people who move to New York from another country, they look at this city with fresh eyes and great attitudes.
CW: Given that you're an exporter of pop culture, do you ever feel pressure to represent America?
TR: No. The only way I want to represent America is to be a smart, polite, open-minded, nice person who isn’t some jingoistic asshole. And I think a lot of people consider Americans just that. I’ve had a lot of people throughout my life say I’m not like most Americans, or I’m not what they expected. Why? Is it because I’m actually considering what you’re saying? I’m listening? Informed? That I’m not cheering the bombing of some country? I remember going to Buenos Aires - we were having some conference in a hotel there. I walked down to the front desk and there was this American couple there, yelling at the concierge. They were saying, “We just want to find a juice bar! Where is a juice bar?!” The concierge doesn’t know what they are talking about. I went over to them and said, “You guys. You are in Buenos Aires. This isn’t fucking California. There are no juice bars here. You know what there are? The greatest cafes in the world. Go find one. There are no fucking juice bars.”
"This isn't fucking California. There are no juice bars here. You know what there are? The greatest cafes in the world. Go find one. There are no fucking juice bars."
CW: Did you actually say that?
TR: Yeah, I said that to them. They stopped yelling at the concierge.
CW: Do you have the desire to move back abroad?
TR: I’d love to. I went to Singapore this year and I’d move back there in a second. It’s super modern, comfortable and it's the center of Southeast Asia so travel-wise, you can pop over to India. My wife and I will probably move back to Sydney since she has a huge family there and they all fight over taking care of our kids.
CW: With David [Droga] and your wife both being Aussies, what's your take on Land Down Under?
TR: If California and England had a baby, it would be Sydney. It's gorgeous, has sunny weather, really optimistic people and beautiful beaches, but there are pubs everywhere. It’s a real pub culture. I love both those things. California weather and pubs? It’s fucking awesome.
CW: Have you ever experienced the impact of your work when you’re traveling?
TR: When I was over in Singapore I had this group of people from Japan come up and say, “We love the Newcastle work.” And I’m like, “You guys saw that?” That stuff is really fun. But they were in advertising... All I hang out with are ad people so I’m not really sure how far it goes. I do remember, I was talking to some German girl and when I asked how she got into advertising and she said that when she was five, she saw a TV ad for Hewlett Packard with these martians and I’m like, “Wait, what?” That was my ad! They had re-run it in Germany and she said she liked it so much she got into advertising. Which is sad. But she didn’t believe me for an hour! I had to pull it up on my phone and show her. I’m sure anyone with a good reel has met people who have been inspired by them. Cliff Freeman is the reason I’m in advertising. There was a Little Caesar's ad he did with a focus group and I remember being at home and seeing that and going, “Okay, that’s what I want to do. Those jokes are hilarious.”
CW: You’re so lucky you realized at a young age what you wanted to be...
TR: And all I did was watch TV. I watched so much fucking TV.
CW: That means you have to let your kids watch TV.
TR: No! Because I’m out of shape and lazy and way too focused on my stupid job and that small world I live in. That’s why I want to move to Australia so they can become surfers and scuba divers and world adventurers.
CW: Do you have rules around screen time at home?
TR: Yep, an hour a day. He’s 2 ½ and he’s already obsessed. If you take the phone away from him, he’ll scream. He threw a temper tantrum a few weeks ago so since then, an hour a day, max. You’re not going to become like I did. I came from a divorced family and it was back in the 70’s when no one was watching the kids so we watched TV all the fucking time. It was terrible.
CW: Or was it liberating that you didn't have helicopter parents? I mean, you had the freedom to create whatever world you wanted.
TR: But I squandered that freedom by watching TV all the time.
CW: But it was your education!
TR: It was, there is that. I remember getting smart about TV at an early age. Like I was the first one to realize that we were watching shows in reruns. My sister thought Gilligan’s Island was on every day and I realized no, they were running on network TV and now they were running in reruns. I was the first one to figure out how TV worked. I started when I was three years old - that was back when there were six channels. I would watch anything. I would just sit there and watch the worst fucking thing.
CW: What was so mesmerizing about it?
TR: The constant bombardment of stories and jokes. Real life didn’t compete that well. I mean I could sit there and think (and I would draw a lot); I could go out and make my own fun - and I did - but TV was always this pull. With divorce, my family fought a lot and it was a nice escape. I don’t want this to turn into a therapy session.
CW: I have a bad habit of turning interviews into therapy sessions, sorry. Let’s move on to something lighter, like dating. I know you’re happily coupled up but did you like dating?
TR: I loved it because it was almost like a game. Who can charm whom more? It was like a funny audition. It was soul-crushing and depressing for sure but I also found it to be a pretty fun way to spend an evening. But I do not miss it.
CW: Did you ever do online dating?
TR: I did. Not apps but I was on Match.com. What I loved about it was - first of all, let’s be honest here, I have this weird giant head and a huge jaw and I don’t think I make a sexy first impression.
CW: Quentin Tarantino-esque?
TR: Did I tell you that?! Some guys came up to me in Malaysia and mistook me for him. I couldn’t convince them that I wasn’t Quentin Tarantino. So finally I gave them an autograph. So somewhere some guy has got my autograph version of Tarantino.
Back to online dating: meeting girls in bars was really tough. It’s hard to go up to a girl and I was never really good at it. However, Match.com comes along. So I’m home wearing my disgusting bathrobe, smoking a joint, and I sit down and write a really good first note. I’d read someone’s profile and write a destroying letter that would get me a date. I could finally get laid using my brain.
"So I'm home wearing my disgusting bathrobe, smoking a joint, and I sit down and write a really good first note. I could finally get laid using my brain."
CW: You had an unfair advantage being a copywriter!
TR: I say, finally a level playing field. This nerdy brain can finally compete a little bit. And like two hours later I would have a date after I’d been eating a burrito, dropping sour cream on my chest. It was fantastic.
CW: But then they meet you...
TR: With sour cream on my chest.
CW: How did you meet your wife?
TR: I met my wife in Cannes. It's about as ad-y a story you can get, it’s so ad-y.
CW: Would you ever work together?
TR: No fucking way! I love her to death but there’s no way I can do that. I don’t understand the couple that can concept together and then go home and like, make dinner. It just seems like way too much for one person. However, it isn’t a terrible thing that if I have something going on that I have to do, she totally understands it. And when I do want someone to bounce something off of, I love her opinion. It's good for when I need her to be in advertising but it’s also very easy for us to just be a couple. Actually, it's pretty great. We have this sort of unspoken rule that we talk about work for like 5 or 10 minutes if we need to, and then we don’t. Or if one of us has to work, we’ll go over there [gestures to the corner] and work.
CW: Enough personal, let’s get professional. What is advertising, to you?
TR: Someone said, “It’s not advertising if you haven’t been kicked in the balls seven times.” It's a constant string of disappointments. You've just got to toughen up and get over that. For example, we’ve been arguing with and presenting ideas to this client for a year. A whole fucking year. You have to have tons of patience. It's a really difficult, shitty business. Someone also once said, “One out of ten things lives and goes on to be good.” That means you either have nine things that didn’t sell or bad executions or whatever. So you have to be totally used to horrible disappointment. That means when something goes well, you have to really celebrate the highs. That’s why I don’t think of Cannes as something douchey. Like when creatives get to go there, they should drink their face off and have a great time because it’s a fucking ridiculous business. Or when we do win a pitch, we should all go out and celebrate and we should cheer because the lows are low and constant. And the highs, when they come around, if you don’t celebrate them, no one is going to celebrate them for you.
"The lows are low and constant. And the highs, when they come around, if you don't celebrate them, no one is going to celebrate them for you."
CW: When I met you, we joked that with every award show, we’re like: “Another one of these?!”
TR: I don’t mean award shows. I mean if something good happens for the agency or the people you’re working with, you shouldn’t be afraid to go, “Hey, at least that was good,” because again, the bad outweighs the good in this industry. There are more shitty days than you have great days. So when you have a great day, you should take a moment and be happy about it.
Award shows and accolades: that’s a whole other thing. We are the most self-congratulatory industry, it's ridiculous.
CW: Why do you think that is?
TR: Because we have a deep insecurity that what we do really doesn’t matter and so we have to make up for it by throwing awards at each other. It's incredibly competitive, bitchy, and jealous. That’s just sort of the nature of creative people, I think. Someone said that “Jealousy is the highest praise you can get from somebody.” That means if you make somebody jealous, they actually think it really is good. You don’t want nice praise like “Oh that was really nice”; that means they aren't threatened by your shitty ad. So I think we are kind of a bitchy industry. I mean, our highest achievement still isn’t movies or music or big cultural huge wins. Our highest achievement is a really good ad or a really good platform. So there’s a level of self-loathing. We’re all like, ‘eh.’ At the end of the day, it’s just advertising so how excited can people really get?
CW: Sometimes it seems a lot of people I meet in advertising are wannabe writers, filmmakers, etc. If it’s “just advertising”, why not do something else?
TR: That’s great if you want to write a book or a movie or something, no one’s stopping you. I was one like that where I thought, why haven’t I done something else? Nobody is stopping you! So my thing is if you’re complaining that you’re not doing it, then it’s your own fucking fault. A lot of my friends are writing books, short stories, and becoming directors. If you are this ad creative who is filled with self-loathing and you really want to be doing X, then do X. Just don’t bitch about advertising so much because you don’t want to be doing it. This is a well-paid industry and an industry that’s easy to do an okay job and to have a nice career. I think the middle to bottom of advertising, you can come in and do your job and be fine. So I think people are stuck in these jobs because you make a decent amount of money and think yeah, I can do that job.
"We have a deep insecurity that what we do really doesn't matter. At the end of the day it's just advertising, so how excited can people get?"
CW: If I want to be Ted Royer when I grow up, what would you tell me? What might you warn me about?
TR: We already covered the whole disappointment thing. This is a business that kicks you in the teeth a lot. Again, the highest praise you’re going to get is your aunt telling you she’s seen your ad. There can be huge fame, but not for most of us. There’s good money to be had. You just have to like it. If you want to get up to the CCO level or even start your own agency, you have to like the business. If you don’t like it, don’t do it. Because there’s so many people in the industry that hate it and bitch about it all the time and my attitude is, get out of the way because there’s a lot of people who do want to do it. You have to believe you can genuinely do better than what’s out there. That’s the big thing that fuels me and the people I know who are really good: they believe they can do better than what’s currently being done.
CW: Last year we sent out a survey to all of our members, asking what companies they’d go full-time for. Wieden + Kennedy and Droga5 were mentioned an overwhelming number of times. Why do you think that is?
TR: I have nothing but immense respect for Wieden. I mean they are what, 30 years old and still doing it year after year. And the people I know who have worked at Wieden have a lot of the qualities we’ve talked about: they love the work, they have a strong belief they can do better than what’s out there... It’s a company where creative clearly comes first. Sometimes it’s hard for them to fit into the rest of the world after coming from Wieden because it has such a wonderful culture for creatives that a lot of agencies don’t have even close to that. I think David [Droga] would agree with me that we both immensely respect Wieden and hold it up as one - if not the - greatest agencies in the industry. And when Dan Wieden got his Lion of St. Mark award at Cannes, he is the one guy who can get the room to stand up and go crazy. Universally he is loved and respected and what he’s done for the industry far outweighs any giant holding company's reach or scalability. They’re fantastic. And the people I know there now are fantastic. So I hold Wieden in huge, huge esteem.
CW: Droga5 is frequently cited as an agency that everyone wants to work for. Why do you think that is?
TR: I think the people who work here are great advertisements for why you work here. I think the people who work here are happy and they feel they are in an environment that champions the great ideas. Some of the people who have come here and thrived have been like, "You guys have delivered on what you’ve promised and I hope I’m delivering on what I’ve promised you." That’s a conversation I often have with people in their reviews. I think we’re an agency that tries its hardest to let you be your best. It’s also really fun. It’s a really fun agency, everyone has a great time. Our parties are awesome, people love hanging out with each other. There was ski trip last weekend and like 50 people went - it’s just a great environment.
CW: How have you seen it change over the last nine years?
TR: It's been hard because we’re over 400 people. Anyone who knows David Droga knows that he did not want to have a small agency. We want to be big and strong and great. We don’t want to be big just to be big. We sold a minority stake to WME [William Morris Endeavor]. They are so respectful they say, “We don’t know how you do what you do, we just want you to keep on doing it.” It’s not like, say a WPP or an Omnicom who would come in and start telling us how to run our business because they think they need to get their share price up and need to pay ridiculous CEO bonuses. We have a parent who respects what we do and we respect what they do. Our areas of expertise don’t overlap.
CW: Did you expect to grow so fast?
TR: We expected to grow fast but this has been really fast. In this last year alone, I think we’ve doubled in size! It’s been crazy. When we were small, we never wanted to just be a small agency. We wanted to be a mid-size agency and be really great. Now I think we’re considered mid to large and we want to be a great network. We talk about where we could open up next and what we would do. Now we have these clients who really want us to have an international presence so again, I think Wieden is a fantastic role model for a small network that is performing pretty consistently over all the offices. You always see interesting work from a Wieden office. We want to have a fairly robust presence. Robust enough to be able to tackle any client in the world, but we don’t want to be some massive giant with 800 offices everywhere because that’s just sluggish and weird. We want to play with the best and biggest accounts in the world. We don’t have a huge car account - we have great car business but we don’t have an $80 million dollar account. I think GE is like $90 million dollars, Microsoft is like $100 million in fees. Our biggest fee is what, $10 million, you know? So we’re still dealing with those size accounts. We want to move up to that next level. The way we do that is by constantly showing how good we can be each time we get a bigger and bigger client.
CW: I once read that you said removing obstacles reduces office politics. But when you scale, aren't politics sort of inevitable?
TR: Well I think the character of an agency comes from the top down. And so again, I’ll point to David. He has absolutely no fucking time for politics, let’s say the typical fight between account services and the creative department. Now I’ve worked at a lot of other agencies where account services hated creative and creative hated account and that just seemed like the normal way to be. There is absolutely no fucking time for that here and that is a stupid, boring conflict. It’s ridiculous. So one of the reasons to start a place like this is to not have the same stupid problems that other agencies have.
CW: How do you make sure that doesn’t happen?
TR: Because everyone is lined up behind the work. And everyone knows that everyone they report to, that there is none of that fucking bullshit. People who complain about other people are called out immediately on it like, “Why are you fucking blaming other people?” If it’s your problem, it’s your problem. I have zero patience for anyone coming in trying to sell someone under the bus. It’s things like this - they come from the top. It’s who David is, who Sarah is, who Jonny is. We don’t have time for politics, we don’t have time for stupid conflicts, we don’t have time for stupid shit. Because we want to keep running as fast as we can to be about the work. So again, all of us have worked at other agencies and seen how not to do it. I’d rather have new problems to solve than the same, old, dumb industry problems that are just boring.
"I'd rather have new problems to solve than the same, old, dumb industry problems that are just boring."
CW: When you scale so fast, how do you maintain the company's culture?
TR: If the work is good across the board, isn’t that the culture? That’s what people know what they’re doing here, what they stand for. I always get wary of companies that try to ‘create culture.’ Like, “We’re doing a bagel bar! Happy hour Wednesdays!” There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not culture to me. The culture is when everybody gets really psyched about a piece of work, they’re loving it and laughing about it. Or the culture is when the environment is so good and everyone is on the same mission, like when we were in ad school. If everyone feels that they’re with their peers that they love and respect...they all go skiing together because they just fucking love being with each other.
CW: But you first have to express the company's mission well. It’s funny because everything you’re saying is "obvious" but other agencies can still struggle with it.
TR: Because I don’t think other agencies truly believe it. I think they give that stuff lip service but when it comes down to money, or some decision, they will go for the share price. Or what the holding company wants, or what the CEO thinks will get his bonus. We are a creatively led place with a creative leader who truly does believe in all this shit. And then everybody gets in line behind it. Because it’s real. We have resigned accounts that are causing us too much pain and aren’t worth the effort. We don’t want there to be ghetto floors. I’ve worked in places where there would be whole floors that no one visited because the account was so bad they were like, “Don’t go down there.”
CW: That’s depressing.
TR: A lot of agencies have that where the new CCO comes in and it’s like, you, no, new guy, you can’t touch that business. It’s running fine, it’s running on it’s own, don’t get in there and try to change it. Well, that’s a ghetto account that just lowered the ceiling on its aspirations so low just to keep the money coming in. We’re never going to be a place like that. And everyone who works here knows that.
CW: I’ve read in many cases when a company goes public, not much good comes out of it, at least from an employee perspective.
TR: WME is private. Sure, money changes everything. When you go public you’re longer the cult you were before; you are now beholden to shareholders and stockholder meetings. Sure. Maybe we’ll see.
CW: I've got to ask: what do you think of millennials? Do we seem totally entitled to you?
TR: I think a lot of the stereotypes are true. I do. I think that millennials are a very, very optimistic generation, they believe they can make anything happen. Whereas my generation is pretty cynical. I don’t like to think of myself as part of that but I guess I am. I’m super cynical, super “fuck that, it’s bullshit.” That’s just what Generation X was. It was very jaded. While millennials are like, “I’m going to be a CEO at 26, my app is going to take off!” And the thing is, they’re surrounded by proof that it can happen. How many people do you know whose app has taken off? With social media, the feeling is that everyone is crushing it. I sometimes find it hard to hire when someone has just gotten $500k for their app from funding or whatever. But I don’t share the complaints that most creative directors do that millennials are self-absorbed. The people who are in that generation here are fucking awesome. They bust their ass and they are very smart and really cool. I’ve actually been at conferences where creative directors complain about this generation [millennials] and I don’t really agree with them.
CW: Do you think those creative directors complain because they just haven’t hired the right people?
TR: Sure, isn’t that a thing you always have to worry about? Hiring right? [At Droga5] we’re pretty careful about who we hire. We fire pretty quickly if we think somebody isn’t going to work out. But we are - I like to say this - we are a cult. And you have to believe in this cult and you have to believe in what we’re doing and we expect you to work really, really hard when you’re here when it’s time to work. And I think everybody gets that. A lot of good creatives love that, they want to work hard - it’s great for their careers, they’re going to make work that gets famous, so it's a very beneficial relationship. This company can do a ton for them, to get their work famous, to get them famous, but also they can do a ton for us like helping us concept fantastic ideas. People here understand how that relationship works. And we deliver. I like to say that we’ve made a lot of people’s careers better. I’m proud of that. When people go on to get salaries that I can no longer match, I feel good! I’m like, “Good. Great! You just got how much more!? Fantastic, go take it.” Well done. I’ll just go train the next group.
"You have to believe in this cult and we expect you to work really, really hard when it's time to work."
CW: What do you think motivates the people that you’re hiring at Droga5?
TR: I think there’s a genuine belief that you can do really cool stuff. I think being creatively led from David Droga all the way down, there is a genuine respect for great creative and a genuine desire to do great creative. So I think everyone feels that and they feel, “Shit, it's really possible here.” Someone was telling me they went to an ad school where they were constantly told, "Thats not realistic, you can’t do that." Then when she came here we were like, "NO! Do more of that!” She couldn’t believe it. It's like we’re more freeing than ad school was. Maybe ad schools are worried about their work being realistic whereas we’re the opposite. We want the craziest stuff ever. It's my job to encourage the craziest thinking ever and then reign it back and make it fit into what we’re actually going to be able to make. I remember a creative director once said she hated it when young creative directors came up with unrealistic ideas. That’s EXACTLY what I want from them! I’ll be the one, with my cynical jaded self, to pull it back and try to hammer it into a more realistic shape. But I’m inspired by that. I want the craziness. I want the huge ideas because now we have raw material.
CW: The use of the word ‘cult’ is interesting.
TR: I say it all the time, "Be part of our cult!" It’s not a terrible thing. There’s clear leadership, there’s a clear attitude - everyone here loves to have fun. [Executive Creative Director] Kevin Brady just bought a bar cart and is going around serving drinks.
CW: How does the cult get manifested here? How would I experience it?
TR: Well we really believe that people have a huge amount of responsibility. No one skates by. And if we see politics and bullshit and crying in the bathroom, goodbye. When people are political, when people are shitty and backstab, when they cause problems like that, we usually end up removing them. Because we care too much about the work environment and how much people are feeling and performing here to let someone who is detrimental to the culture stick around. I don’t know. It’s a hard thing to say how a culture is represented.
CW: A bar cart? That’s awesome! Don’t be surprised if we’re now working out of here...I can take the ferry right to you!
TR: You do know that ferry is like 50% Droga employees. People now schedule ferry meetings.
CW: How does that make you feel, knowing that people do that?
TR: I love it. Because I was really worried that when you move from the Bowery [to the Financial District] that being down here would make people not want to come in. But since we are bunch of skinny jean wearing hipsters and they all live in Williamsburg, the ferry is like the greatest thing. It’s a really nice way to get to work, with the views of Manhattan, it’s pretty stunning. Yeah, it’s actually done a lot for the culture.
CW: Are most people under a certain age who work here?
TR: If you’re asking me if I feel very old, then yeah. I think there are like six or seven people in the whole company who are older than me so yeah, I feel really fucking old. [Laughs.] Actually it’s probably keeping me young. All I do is goof around all day with people in their twenties and early thirties, it’s great! It’s a really fun job.
CW: I know you’re also on the board of The One Club. Tell us why you’re passionate about its mission.
TR: When I was in ad school, The One Show was the book that everyone fought over and looked at and loved. It was like the compass point of where to go; whenever you opened it up, you were like, “This is awesome.” It was funny and tasty and great and I actually remember bringing it home - because my mom never quite got what I was doing.
CW: What do your parents do?
TR: Well they are both gone now but they had their own business in Lancaster [Pennsylvania]. Nothing creative. My mom also trained dogs. She thought, “I guess what you’re doing is interesting.” And when I’d come home with the book from The One Show and say, “This is what I’m doing, these are ads and look, they’re funny” and she would go, “Ah..” She sorta got it. You know I’m sure a lot of people have trouble explaining to their families what they do.
CW: When we interview WNW members, we usually ask if their parents understand what they do for a living. More often than not, their parents don't really get it until they win an award. I guess it's because it's something recognizable?
TR: The One Show was always the best barometer in America. Now obviously we have Cannes and D&AD is obviously an excellent award to win and really tough to win. I feel a debt to them because that annual was what got me really excited about advertising when I was in school. I love that it’s not-for-profit and that everything goes back to scholarships and creating things like Art & Copy that are supporting the industry and I really like that about it. It’s a little group that’s working really hard for our creative community, our creative tribe. They are real champions of it. Again, I’m on the board with a bunch of really cool, funny, nice people whom I respect a lot. Every time I go to a board meeting, there are always some interesting, intelligent opinions. Jose Molla is our chairman of the board and he’s an awesome guy. I’m proud to be in a group like that who care about the industry, you know? We’re in such a fucking cynical industry that a lot of people shit on all the time. I actually like standing with some of the people who care for it and want to give their time back to it.
"We're in such a fucking cynical industry that a lot of people shit on all the time. I actually like standing with some of the people who care for it and want to give their time back to it."
CW: Organizations like ADC and The One Club are dedicated to educating and celebrating the industry. Those of us in advertising: what can we do to give back?
TR: I think they’re doing a lot of what they can. We’re always looking for more ways to do it. Art & Copy is a great example. Ignacio Oreamuno is doing a great job of it at ADC. Crab parties where everyone comes over and shucks crabs, or at the Miami Festival where people got their hands dirty and were making stuff. I loved it because it was playtime, and I mean that in the best way. Like, let’s paint! It was really tactile, it was fun and interesting and I think that’s fantastic.
I want to do more with say, high schools for example. Because I think a lot of people have no idea that this job even exists. I mean, I remember being in high school having very little idea that we could do this.
CW: I thought you knew you wanted to do this since you were like, five!
TR: No, I mean TV was still just TV and I was looking at it like, I could probably do something with that... But at least I was vaguely aware of this kind of stuff. I taught a couple of classes where they got some inner city kids together at the ADC and when I told them I was in advertising, they were like, "What?" I’d have to say, "I actually make the ads you see on TV." And they were like, "Wow!" I think a lot of people assume that the people who work at the actual company make the ads, you know? So then I start asking, "What are your favorite ads?" And then I gave them a brief and they went off into teams so they could present their ideas. By the end of the day, some of them were like, "I didn’t even know this existed. This is amazing!" It’s fucking fun to get them when they’re that young and to stretch their ideas of what jobs might be out there for them.
CW: It’s sort of ironic that a medium like TV ads is so accessible - yet the industry isn't.
TR: You can see their heads go like this [widens his eyes.] I told them that every single thing you see was a choice made by somebody behind it who was working on a problem. Like, go to a gas station and look at the gas station sign. Someone designed that! That was a choice. Everything is a choice! And that started getting them going, whatever I like or see, I could be the person who does that.
CW: That’s very empowering.
TR: It’s weird. People haven’t said it to them, so they just don’t know.
CW: Final question (and admittedly self-serving). Besides our flasks, what do you like about Working Not Working?
TR: I love the flasks, I love Justin and now I love you! I like the fact that you’ve created something that’s incredibly accessible that also has a very high standard. I love that people have to earn their way into it and that it’s not just a cattle call. You’ve built a relationship platform that I think is really responsive and quick and something we’ve really come to rely on. There are still headhunters out there I like very much and whose opinion I respect. I think the two can co-exist. I’m just very happy this tool exists to give us a shorthand in solving problems in a way that’s not just LinkedIn. What the fuck is LinkedIn? I get LinkedIn requests from people - how do you even know me? It’s just a weird, meat market thing. Working Not Working: you guys understand the business, very much so. You understand what’s important to agencies in finding talent. That references are everything, that having a certain standard is everything. Time is huge, so valuable. I hate that sometimes we’re strapped and we grab whatever warm body floats in front of us. But we’re not above that - it happens too much probably. So that deep understanding of what and how we operate is really, really important and very beneficial. I think it’s also just a smart fucking idea because now you can do it across any industry. The potential for it is enormous. You’re going to get the whole airplane design industry. Architects. I don’t know who freelances as much as we do but the possibilities are sick.
CW: That means a lot because it has been three years of purposefully keeping the community tight, painstakingly going through each portfolio. We don’t automate any of that. And when you have big vision and ultimately want to expand, it requires a lot of patience to grow thoughtfully.
TR: That’s what I mean about understanding. This is a relationship industry. There’s so much bullshit, there’s mountains of it; to understand how to get around that and to make that one of your highest goals is extraordinarily patient and extraordinarily understanding of what we value.