David Nobay takes a sawn-off to the naysayers

By David Nobay | 22 May 2014

This may come as a surprise to many, but I’ve never been more into the work and the business as I feel today. I reckon Sudeep would say the same. The last year or so has been a fucking grind, no doubt, but it genuinely feels like the fog’s cleared and we’re back to what we do best: ambitious ideas for real clients.

It’s more than convenient spin: we’re back to what I reckon is our best fighting weight – 75 people. A year ago, we were closer to 130. That included a lot of long-term freelancers, which can throw a creative culture off balance on its own. Obviously, a lot of full-time Woolies team, too.

I’m sad to see so many friends move on, but, in a ruthless way, it’s the best thing that could have happened to us. We got too big too fast. And in the end, we were producing too much good work, and not enough great.

It’s easy to have clarity in hindsight. The trick is not to ever make the same mistake twice. We’ve been expecting a change in the relationship with Woolies for over six months now, so have been quietly feeling out brands we felt genuinely shared our creative ambitions. The net affect of that is we’ve discretely put on over $40million of new business in that time, including Tiger Beer, BBC, Monster Headphones, QFF, Destination NSW, Frucor and AGNSW. We’ve also teamed up with UNICEF’s global client lead on the back of our Beyonce work to partner on the kind of big global thinking that really excites our people, and more importantly keeps them here."

Spinning yarns, half truths and the blog-dwellers

Think about it… You can’t snag characters like Jon Bradshaw (our new chief strat officer) and Steve Coll if you’re not already turning the ship around and heading into very smart waters. They got to hear the real story. Not the bullshit and gossip. Problem is, the real facts are usually very confidential. That’s how the business works. It’s why I hate the way the media plays out the facts about us. It’s rarely more than half true, but that’s usually enough for a decent yarn.

The irony is, we’ve come up with some of my favourite ideas ever over the last couple of years. But as Dave (Droga) often laments, “it’s not a great idea if it doesn’t get made”, and the simple truth is that not enough of our best ideas translated to a finished product. Droga5 is a unique brand. It demands excellence. It demands work that influences others. We had a couple of highlights recently – the One Show Gold/Cannes Gold/D&AD pencils awarded to Qantas Books Project stand out – but not enough. We expect more of ourselves. Screw the blog commentators. The day I need a faceless quote to inspire me, I’ll fucking kill myself.

Our pride in the brand is what drives us. Duncan Marshall, our last ECD, doesn’t ever have to defend himself creatively; his track record over the last 20 years (and two Black Pencils!) do the talking. We remain very close mates, and I know he’s going to do an amazing job in his next challenge at Droga5/WME in LA, but it was time for a change in chemistry, and Steve Coll is a pivotal hire for us, and especially me, personally. He’s proved at Havas that he can squeeze blood out of stones. And he’s done it with wit, honesty and elegance. It’s early days, but I know we’re going to be a great team. As I told him “my job’s defending you, your job’s defending the work”. It’s not that simple, but in a way, it is.

Steve Coll, David Nobay and Sudeep Gohil

Steve Coll, David Nobay and Sudeep Gohil

What happened with Woolies

Not a lot of people know this, but when Woolies first approached us about pitching, we said no. In fact, we thought they’d sent the RFI to us by mistake! Anyone could see we weren’t an obvious fit. But, funnily enough, that was our appeal to them. Or at least, then. Tjeerd Jergen, the MD, wanted some really fresh (excuse the pun) thinking, and that’s what he saw in our approach. I think we genuinely rewarded his faith with our first work. That initial “Mon/Tues/Weds…” brand work from EXIT Films stood out to many, from Woolies to cab drivers to the industry, as brave and a great shift in voice away from Coles. Suddenly, the two supermarkets had their own brands, and that was a good thing.

We made mistakes, sure, and I’m fine with any client choosing their own path, but the simple fact remains, over those two years, we saw the CMO role change four times. Talk to any agency head and they’ll sympathise. It’s simply not possible to stay in the saddle through that. I wish Leo’s the best, genuinely. Woolies are a unique and formidable force. You have to respect them as a business and I learnt a lot working with them. Doing Recipe to Riches was interesting too, though I could do with not sticking my mug in front of a hot camera for a while."

The longest runway in the world

The Qantas pitch lasted over nine months. Seriously! David Droga once called it “the longest striptease in history” and I know what he meant. In that time, we saw the global grounding and a major board reshuffle all happen – and this was before we even signed off on contracts.

In reality, we won the business because we clearly demonstrated that we understood that Qantas needed a strategic business partner a lot more than a flashy ad (as tempting as that would have been!). For the grown-ups in the industry, it shouldn’t take too many front page headlines to scream that Qantas has business challenges at its core; not marketing ones. Yes, those frustrations bump straight into the brand, but unless you can get your head around what’s under the water line, it’s all too easy to think simply cranking up “I still call Australia home” will save the day.

Sometimes, I feel like everything I’ve learnt in the last 30 years in this insane business has led me to Qantas. It’s my Moby Dick. It keeps me up at night, but it also fascinates me. I got bored with the everyday machinery of the ad business years ago. I’m more interested in the business of what makes businesses rise or fall, and there’s no better study than Qantas. It’s a puzzle worthy of the best of us.

Thank God, we have a great team around us, including the new marketing director, Tim McColl Jones. He gets it. He knows that if the business needed just a big ad campaign, we would have done one by now. The truth is, it needs everything, all at once, seamlessly. We’re not far off making that a reality, but we’re working on Tim’s timeline, not a baying blog. Watch this space.

Unleashing the beast

It’s timely that the global Tiger pitch came in August last year; just about the same moment we were keen to re-assert our creative credentials. The brief couldn’t have been more ambitious – to totally re-invent and re-introduce a brand that is as well known in Singapore and the Asian region as VB is here in Australia. The goal was even bigger than VB; to build a global creative platform for Heineken, the new owners of the brand, to push Tiger around the world as a truly authentic and contemporary Asian brand. The upside was huge. The first time a major Asian brand was entrusted entirely to an Australian agency, where the geographical limitations are overmatched by the creative potential of the partnership.

We threw everything into it. On a personal level, my passport has been stamped too many times to remember over the last six months. The result is for all to see. The kind of creative work we’d be proud of anywhere in the world, and a platform (UNCAGE) that screams to be extended a thousand different ways over the coming years. It’s been a truly inspiring journey, and a welcome one for me given all the negative shit of the last year.

The lead clients, all out of Heineken Amsterdam, are used to working alongside W+K on Heineken globally and being pushed and challenged creatively. For me, that makes all the difference. It’s always a thousand times easier pushing great work with clients who already have experience of doing great work. They acknowledge the inherent drama of dealing with an overseas agency, but equally recognise the upside of building a great relationship with a creative company you can trust and rely on for open partnership and new ideas. Our win sends a strong signal to the Asian region that it’s feasible on a business level to engage passionate Australian creative companies offshore.

Great clients, hens' teeth and button men

Truly great clients are as rare as hens’ teeth, these days. Or, maybe, a truer statement would be “enduring relationships with great clients are as rare as hens’ teeth”. It could be that after thirty years working across this business at every level, in just about every city from Hong Kong to New York, I’m getting a tad cynical. But cynicism is not part of who I am. Never was. I hate cynics, almost as much as personal insecurity (the greatest cancer in our industry). I couldn’t get out of bed every morning (especially given my two-year-old keeps me up most bloody nights) if I was truly cynical about this thing we still call advertising.

At its best, it’s still fucking awesome. And, at its worst, it’s still probably better than working at a desk on Future Funds. No, the simple truth is, back when I got into this business, the average client was more trusting, more engaged and more empowered than they are today. I don’t have any quant research to back this up, but I’d stake my humidor on it. Twenty years ago, there’d be a really stressy, high-end preso that would result in two outcomes: the work was bought, in which case copywriters like me would have to get busy. Or, the work would be killed, in which case, we’d have to get even busier. Green light or red? Simpler times.

The truth is, and I stress that this is not universal…but generally speaking, the truth is that the client side of the business is much, much more layered. It’s like the old mafia trials; where the Don stayed out of jail because every decision below him was elegantly divorced from his diary. In the world of the Cosa Nostra, they’re called “Button Men”. These days, in the world of big brand advertising, they’re more often referred to as “middle management”. The guys and girls who don’t have power to green-light, but certainly do have the power to switch your big idea to amber.

Arrogant twats and what went wrong

I take a broad view on this. Twenty years ago, senior creatives in big agencies were invariably arrogant twats. We were openly encouraged to be aloof; special; protected and rare. The simple act of seeing the creative problem from a core business perspective was no-doubt enough to relegate us to the dungeons below-the-line. Which, thankfully for me, was where my career started. Maybe that’s why I see both sides of the argument: The weary client and the ambitious creative. The problem and the solution. The glass half empty (trying to kill you) and the simple idea that can save the day.

The marriage counsellor in this twisted analogy is TRUST. I used to say that the most important thing in any creative culture was laughter. I still believe it’s vital. If you can’t laugh, then you’re not relaxed and comfortable enough to fail. If you’re not open to failure, then you’re not open to doing something truly brave…and so on. But the central ingredient in this chain is TRUST. The truth is, it used to exist more between agencies and clients. Where it went is open to debate. I’m sure Darren at P3 is more than happy to expand. As would be Michael Ritchie at Revolver. Or a client. Or a creative. And, here’s the rub: I suspect they’d ALL be right. And, equally, their responses would ALL be different.

Context is the thing. It takes simple notions, like transparency, and makes them complicated. And, god knows, this business has never been more complicated. More options. More platforms. More demos. More insight. More data. More and, yet strangely, less. Less laughter. Less partnership. Less honesty. Less TRUST. Without that five letter word, I think we’re all on a slippery slope. What’s the answer? Well, if I knew that, I wouldn’t have to write this, now would I?

WME, IMG and tenuous sexual analogies

The definition of madness, or so they say, is doing the same thing while expecting a different outcome. For this reason alone, I was visibly buoyed on hearing the planned merger with William Morris Endeavor (WME) and Droga5 almost 18 months ago. Here was a classic case of 1+1 (hopefully) = 3. Oil and water, or at least olive oil and petrol, combining to create a fuel much more powerful. Demonic alchemy, that ideally would be a springboard for something we’ve all been talking about as a global industry for way too long…influencing pop culture through what we do as agencies, rather than simply aping it.

Well, the deal finally went through towards the end of last year, and some would ask if the honeymoon is over? The truth is, we’re still exploring each other’s bodies (to extend the tenuous sexual analogy) and pretty soon we’re confident of news. Sudeep and I have been making fairly regular trips to the mean streets of Rodeo Drive in LA (where WME is based) pitching, listening and planning a way to make 1+1=more than 2.

For my part, I’m deep into developing a globally brand-funded TV format with WME’s head of non-fiction (a trustworthy business title, if ever there was one), while Sudeep has been leveraging his previous years of industry experience to amplify our clients’ brands via the world of music. He was also in the middle of the deal with Qantas and the producers of Modern Family to make that family outing to Sydney a reality for our client.

Closer to home, only this month, the merger between WME and the major global sports and fashion talent-management brand, IMG went through (for a lazy US$2.6 billion). That makes our partner’s reach truly unique. Selfishly, it also gives Droga5 Sydney an immediate and powerful brother in IMG; an organisation with an already incredibly dominant footprint in Australasia.

Just this week, we’ve been working with IMG’s Australia Head, Martin Jolly, to talk about how to take on their existing clients and assets, including Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and The Australian Open Of Surfing. In Asia, I’ve been working closely with the Asian president of IMG, Robbie Henchman, to set up a Singapore hub-service office for Droga5, directly out of their existing Singaporean office. It’s early evidence that this merger is much more than paper for both sides. It’s a very tangible chance for us to evolve into something new, relevant and unique for our clients. Talent/advertising/strategy/brands; all working as one. Now, there’s a thought…

David Nobay
Creative Chairman

Have something to say on this? Share your views in the comments section below. Or if you have a news story or tip-off, drop us a line at adnews@yaffa.com.au

Sign up to the AdNews newsletter, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter for breaking stories and campaigns throughout the day.

Read more about these related brands, agencies and people

comments powered by Disqus