David Kolbusz’s career has seen him cross the Atlantic several times, pinballing between creative hot shops, each time lighting them up. His spark has illuminated TBWA\Toronto, Mother London, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco, BBH London and Wieden+Kennedy New York before finding his way to the chief creative officer role at Droga5 London in 2015.
Droga5 is currently one of London’s most consistently exciting agencies. David’s creative department has shone in its recent work for Barclaycard, Coal Drops Yard, Amazon and Ancestry and the past few months’ account wins, from Kahlua to GoCompare, promise future work to watch out for.
LBB’s Alex Reeves sat down with David over a couple of CBD-oil coffees (but of course) to find out what fuels the creativity of one of London’s premier adlanders.
LBB> You’re Canadian, right? How do you look back on your upbringing?
David> I’m first generation Canadian. My dad is Polish, my mother is English. I grew up in the nation’s capital, Ottawa. It was cold. When you haven’t lived some place for a while you go to the memory that keeps you away and that is the cold for me. I lived in New York for a couple of years not too recently and that was punishingly cold as well. I generally have an aversion to the cold, so the cold of the UK seems more manageable. But apart from being cold Canada is a great country. It’s home to very talented, kind, decent people with very progressive attitudes.
LBB> Has creating always been something that you particularly enjoy?
David> That’s always been a part of my make up. I’ve always done creative things and prized creativity above all other pursuits. I was never very good at sports or academics. I scraped by because I had to.
My interests were wide, even from a young age. They’ve widened as I’ve got older and introduced new disciplines into the repertoire, but from an early age it was books, film, television, music, even fashion. At about ten years old, fashion was introduced and I started to care about that. As you move through life finding new things and chasing leads, you find new things to be interested in. One thing will take me down a path to another thing and I diversify.
LBB> Teenagers usually get involved in a subculture or scene they identify with and immerse themselves in those specific things - so to have such broad tastes seems kind of unusual.
David> Yeah. I suppose I’ve never thought of it as such but I guess it is. Especially back then, tribalism was very much a thing. Kids found enemies for themselves as a means of identifying who they were and shaping who they grew into. It was never about one thing for me. It was about spread betting - taking pleasure in other people’s acts of creating. I never stuck to one particular genre. It was never of interest to me. There was a lot of validity to the output of many different people across a variety of disciplines.
LBB> And amongst all that, did you care about advertising?
David> I did. As a child growing up in the ‘80s, advertising became something that was vaguely fashionable. There was great advertising, of course, all throughout history. But I think the ‘80s is when it became woven into the fabric of culture. Especially with all the television that bled out from America. Things like the California Raisins, Spuds MacKenzie, Max Headroom - all of these marketing phenomenons made an impression on me from a very young age. It made it seem like it was - for a while - as legitimate a discipline as any of these other bits of popular culture.
LBB> So you didn’t feel it was a less-cool cousin of other creative formats?
David> No. It was maybe less pure and as a consequence maybe less aspirational, but it’s in a hierarchy that all still feels big. You’re still creating something. This is the commercial end of creativity. But it was also the easiest entry point into a creative discipline.
There are ways to get into film, rejection letter after rejection letter… There’s fetching coffees and running on set. But all these things felt like stumbling blocks. It felt like unnecessary hurdles when you could just take an advertising course, write ads, get a placement and start making things immediately. It felt like the fastest way to get to making things.
LBB> How did you find out about the industry?
David> I’d always been a fan of adverts. Even back before I took a degree I visited AdCritic.com, back in the mid to late ‘90s (which was later bought by Advertising Age and turned into Creativity). I would frequently look at AdCritic to see what the latest ads were, like I would head to Entertainment Weekly to find out what the latest films are or Rolling Stone, Spin or Pitchfork to found out about the latest music. I was aware of it as an artistic discipline.
But the way into it… I was working at Gap, putting myself through university. It was right across the street from an art college. Students doing advertising would be shopping at the Gap and I’d get into conversations with them. I was a good salesperson and someone at some stage mentioned that I had a way with words and asked if I’d ever given a thought to advertising. It was just a random customer, but that stuck with me. It got me thinking I could do advertising.
LBB> What was your first agency job?
David> I got a placement at TBWA in Toronto out of the Humber University copywriting programme. I was there for about a year and a half before deciding to move back to the UK. My wife at the time was English. She wanted to go back. And my mum was living there. So there was a lot of reason to go back to the UK.
I’d done enough stuff that I was able to cobble together a decent enough book. I made probably quite an embarrassing audition tape specifically for Mother. Mother was the agency that I jived with the most. It was the early ‘00s. They were the edgy, interesting advertising agency.
LBB> What was the next big watershed moment for you?
David> I was at Mother for five long years. A lot of the work that I did on Orange was probably significant. I did the Dance ad, which was Dougal [Wilson]’s first big ad. Then I took over the Orange Film Board spots and made some of those. The Rob Lowe one still endures and the Snoop Dogg one people still really like. There were good bits of work coming out of Mother. There were some odder bits as well, but the film stuff was probably what endured.
I’m still proud of the Orange Paper Film Festival. That was very different for its time. It was one of the first uses of camera-phone technology to get people to film shorts with these paper characters that we provided, upload them to a website and get them judged by judges like Edgar Wright. That was 2005 or so, so it was really early doors.
I think a lot of that work we did on the Orange Animals segmentation package, for example, is something that people don’t remember it because there was no real evaluative metrics for that type of work at the time. There was no way to award or recognise these things back then because the categories didn’t exist. Something like the Orange Paper Film Festival would probably do well today, but people’s memories are short so the film work garnered the most attention but there was a lot of interesting stuff.
LBB> Then you crossed the Atlantic a couple more times working for GSP, BBH and Wiedens, building a name for yourself and winning awards. What was it that attracted you to the Droga5 London job after all those top agencies?
David> It was kind of amazing what Droga had already accomplished with the New York office. I think the London office maybe started without the clear-headed intention that the New York office had. It had sputtered a little bit. There was a good team of people there, but for some reason the alchemy was a little off.
We’d met and spoke back and forth for about six months. Over that time I got to know and like him more. And I came to believe in what he was doing more. He seemed like he wanted to give me and the rest of the management team the autonomy to build the thing the way we wanted to - not to just do a Droga5 New York Part 2.
LBB> You and he are very different, right?
David> Yes. He’s much more successful. [Laughs]
But we have very different styles. Going into this, my initial concern was that he might be disappointed because I wouldn’t be able to live up to some expectation that he’d set. But he’s been hugely supportive throughout the entire time and has allowed us to find our footing. One of our mantras is turnaround is harder than a startup as we’ve slogged through the last three years. It’s true. It’s been a challenge at times. But I feel like we’ve done it the right way, making bigger and braver work for some great clients.
It’s tough. We’ve taken things a bit slower but we’ve stuck to our creative principles. It sounds like an excuse for why we weren’t successful earlier. I think we could have gotten bigger faster but I think it would have been at the expense of the work, ultimately. I’m proud of pretty much everything that’s come out of the building on our watch, which is tough for most agencies to say. I don’t think most agencies would look at their track record and say everything they’ve done has been good but we’re pretty close to that. There have been no embarrassments and that’s an accomplishment.
LBB> What are you proudest of?
David> I’m proud of the fact that we’ve managed to take this thing, an operation that wasn’t working, and we’ve turned it into something that people want to be a part of and people look forward to seeing what comes out of it. We’ve done that by staying true to our principles. There’s something nice about the fact that people look at all of our work and say it’s really brave or interesting. I think we’re some of the good guys. We make work that people don’t mind seeing - or even might enjoy.
LBB> How do you define those principles that you try to stick to?
David> Every agency will say that they prioritise creativity over all else and the work comes first and blah blah blah. It’s funny, of every company that ‘champions creativity’, very few abide by those principles and prioritise creativity above all else. That’s what we’ve tried to do. Legitimately, in how we operate our business, who we hire, the clients we take on, the work that we produce. We put a lot of care and attention into what we do. We make sure that everything that comes out is good because that’s what we do for a living. We make communication that’s designed to surprise and delight consumers and engage with them on a level that other, more surface-level, facile pieces of communication can’t.
We certainly try to make things a bit more interesting, more resonant, to have a bit more - whether you recognise it or not in the minute - subtext. We’re not pretentious or arty-farty for the sake of it but we like everything we do to have a deeper meaning or to come from a truth. It just feels more interesting that way.
LBB> It doesn’t feel patronising. I feel like a lot of your work assumes a level of intelligence.
David> Exactly. I think a lot of marketers assume the opposite. They feel like they have to dumb everything down to reach their audience, which I think is an incredibly arrogant way of looking at the world, your audience, your customers. You have to assume intelligence.
LBB> I think your work also assumes a good level of taste.
David> Taste is hugely important. Taste is almost the most important thing. It’s the greatest litmus test for anyone entering our building - they’ve got to have taste. Even if they have bad taste and they understand why their taste is bad and are willing to accept that - that’s a valid answer because at least it shows that you have analytical powers that help you make the right decision in the moment.
Everything you produce is going to be an aggregate of your experience, whether that’s life, conversations or other people’s art. I find the most successful, relevant and interesting artists - the ones who manage to make great work into their dotage - are usually people who take in and celebrate others’ creativity and are constantly being inspired themselves. I think that’s an important part of regeneration.
LBB> Your Instagram feed always makes me chuckle. It’s quite dark…
David> It’s certainly not happy clappy. My last post [at the time of the Interview, this one
] lost me followers. I think people were a little unhappy with that. It was a little bit nihilistic… I consider myself a nihilist. But I know what to do with it. I just park it.
LBB> I appreciate that you’re one person within Droga5 London, but I was wondering whether your take on the world affects the way you operate as an agency.
David> No! I think if anything people recognise my issues for what they are. There’s a lot of ‘ah it’s just Kolbusz.’ But I’m quickly dismissive of some of my darker tendencies and attitudes. I think it’s fine to think and believe one thing as long as you don’t let it infect the way that you operate on a day-to-day basis.
Seperate to nihilism, I believe that one of the most important human virtues is kindness. I prioritise that over all else. I’d say, hopefully, that’s more emblematic of how I’ve influenced the Droga5 culture. I try to be nice.
LBB> What’s a project you’ve worked on recently that you’d like people to pay attention to.
David> I’m very proud of what we do so it’s always going to be the most recent things. I think we have really varied work. I think the branding exercise and identity we went through for Coal Drops Yard
. I love that work. I think it’s stunning. It’s a very hard job to do well. I think our design team completely bossed it. It’s immediately iconic, recognisable, high on the branding dial. It struck the right tone for that client and what they were trying to accomplish with that space.
The Amazon work, I think, is very populist. Some people say it’s dark and edgy. I don’t see that. It’s been well received. I’m proud of that because it’s communicating an insight about how people watch that I think hasn’t been put forth.
Then the first piece of Barclaycard work I’m hugely proud of. When we won Barclaycard everyone wondered what the work was going to be like and if now was the moment we were going to compromise on our principles and put out something average. There were no client battles, no fight there. They were hungry, receptive and brilliant. An absolute stellar client on the consumer and business side. They’ve bought really interesting work.
LBB> Yes! I loved finding out that The Crystal Barn is a real business. How did you find them?
David> The whole goal of that campaign was to take businesses which at first blush seem unserious or strange and demonstrate that these businesses can thrive and Barclaycard can be partners to them too. Barclaycard aren’t just for big businesses.
So we went down the list of all these strange, slightly different businesses. We looked at all of them and at the individuals who were running them and tried to find people with interesting businesses who were interesting characters themselves, but also willing to collaborate with us.
That one ad is part of a much bigger ecosystem of information about Claire and Andy and The Crystal Barn. They had a great time filming that. They came into it with eyes wide open. They know they’re a little bit kooky and that their obsession with crystals is perceived as a little bit strange. I’m obsessed with crystals. I was a crystal fan even before. We just celebrated that in a way that felt authentic to them. Hopefully it will do well for them.
LBB> What sort of culture do you like to consume? Do you still have really broad tastes?
David> I still have a voracious appetite. I still like to consume a lot of culture. If I’m not making I’m consuming.
My life is built up of work, consumption and family life - raising two kids. They find themselves forced along on many a weekend journey to see the latest art exhibition. One day I hope they’ll realise it’s a great thing but right now it’s ‘we’re not going to an art gallery are we!?’ To get the hits you’ve got to go through a fair few misses. I think my children are at the stage where they remember the misses more than the hits. But if you remind them of the hits - the Turbine Hall at the Tate, Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room - they warm to the idea of looking at some art. And if all else fails, you just offer them a treat at the end of it.