5 Minutes with… Neil Heymann
In the press release announcing his promotion to Droga5’s new chief creative officer, Neil Heymann was described by the agency’s founder David Droga as “one of our agency’s most beloved people”. And it’s a sentiment we heard from numerous of Neil’s colleagues while at Cannes Lions this year.
Neil has been with the agency since 2009, when he was appointed digital associate creative director, before being elevated to executive creative director in 2013. His first venture into US agency life though was via the snow-tipped mountains of Crispin Porter + Bogusky Boulder in the winter of 2007 - a bit of a culture shock, we imagine, for an Aussie fresh off the boat from a Sydney summer.
Eager to know more about Neil’s plans and ambitions for his new role at Droga5 - and his nerdiness for all things pop culture - LBB’s Addison Capper picked his brains.
LBB> On the Droga5 website it says that you have “nerdy pop culture obsessions” - tell me about that! What gets your nerdy side going?
Neil> Pop culture in general has always been right there at the forefront of everything that I’ve been involved with. In the context of that bio it’s related to the fact that so many of the things that I’ve had the opportunity to work on at Droga, and prior to that, kick into a different gear when there’s an overlap with pop culture, whether it’s Jay-Z, The Simpsons or something else. I guess I’ve always been obsessed with what people get obsessed with.
LBB> And working in advertising, the two things go hand-in-hand… was it always your plan to become a creative?
Neil> There are definitely people who grow up knowing that they want to work in advertising and making that their life plan. You speak to ad school graduates and they’ve always dreamed of being a creative director. That definitely wasn’t my experience. I wasn’t really aware of a lot of those things until reasonably late in life. I always loved to draw - my dream job as a kid would have been to work for Mad Magazine or be a cartoonist. I guess that’s another version of the nerdiness. I’d spend hours just drawing and watching TV, and there is a logical progression [into advertising] from there.
LBB> Is drawing something you still try and practice now?
Neil> Not as much as I would like, but it is a good back-pocket skill to have. When I was at school it was a defining characteristic - I was the kid who could draw. These days it’s more about if the need arises to sketch something out then I can do it. There’s still something crazy about seeing something appear on a blank page. It’s something I’ve always loved.
LBB> So, do you consider yourself an art director over a copywriter?
Neil> Technically I have had that title in the past and my job has often been through a visual lens. A lot of my experience in the last 10 years or so has been in places where being a copywriter is such an elevated skill, being able to write amazing TV scripts and that kind of thing. I’ve worked with some of the best in the business. But I do think that at a certain point with great creative directors, it’s really hard to tell where they came from. They’re equally passionate and to some degree skilled in both. It all becomes interwoven.
LBB> Do you still have traditional creative teams at Droga5 though?
Neil> We do but we also have a few outliers and some people that operate more independently. We have a great design department, creative technologists, experience designers and more. There are a lot of crayons in the box, but what I’m really excited about is how we can connect them all in more unexpected ways. When I say things like that I think a lot people expect you to just tie a creative technologist as a third wheel to our creative teams, but we’ve tried different things and had a lot of success with a writer-writer team, for example. It’s really just about getting further ahead of what the task at hand actually is and building the team for that, and where possible challenging some of the conventional wisdom of who the right people to solve that brief are.
LBB> Which other goals and aims have you set yourself for the new role?
Neil> As we just discussed, to be more creative with how we’re creative is definitely one of them. But that doesn’t just apply to the creative department. The requests that we get from our clients these days and the demands for creating work for the 2018 media landscape require coordination of many more skill-sets and disciplines. Finding ways to collaborate more productively is a huge part of that, and to some extent getting people more comfortable with making those decisions together in real time. It’s a more digital mentality with things that are less finished and more in beta, and constantly improved upon. The culture of collaboration is an important one. To choreograph all those pieces and truly integrate and get the most out of all of them - that’s where the fun challenges lay.
LBB> I always think it’s an interesting challenge to become a creative leader of a company that’s already succeeding, one that doesn’t need ‘fixing’ - answering that question when entering a failing company is quite easy.
Neil> Right. It’s more coming from a position of ‘don’t screw this up!’ (at least) and then building upon that. It’s such an amazing group of people at Droga5 and so many of us have worked through more years together than most do in advertising. In many ways that’s very reassuring but it’s also just as important to reinvent those relationships and make sure that all those people are still being challenged and pushed. A big part of the reason we have all stayed at the agency so long is that there are constant opportunities. I can’t speak for everybody but I’ve always felt like it’s hard to think of where you would go next because the opportunities are always interesting and there’s always a level of excitement around them.
LBB> When you joined Droga5, the agency was about 60-65 people - today your creative team is now way over 100…
Neil> I had that realisation myself. When you think about the extremes of that scale it is kind of daunting, but all of that happened very gradually. Just to prove my point on the stream of opportunities there, I feel like I’ve had five or six jobs in my time at Droga5, and at five or six different agencies, because the change has been gradual - but dramatic.