This month, Admap puts the spotlight on sustainability. We asked David Droga, founder and chairman, Droga5 for his views and advice on building a sustainable brand.

Brands are not only corporations, they are citizens of their communities, cities, and countries. When brands get behind issues, stand up to causes and have a moral point of view that can have an enormous effect on what happens in society. The ramifications of what brands stand for can have a seismic impact far beyond just quarterly results.

We’re seeing tangible evidence every day with big brands taking a stand. Putting people before money. You could argue that the brand is also making a smart decision, doing the right thing is also a good way to make money as well. But I don’t care which door they come through as long as they’re going to the same place, leading whatever category they’re in, and having a positive impact.

The age of transparency

We live in a transparent age now, people are much more aware of exactly what brands and clients do and what the backstory is behind the official communications. It goes beyond what a company says it does – it matters what happens in the head-office hallways and the make-up of the board, or how a company treats its employees. It matters where products are sourced from or how they are made.

Sometimes the only way people can inch an issue forward is with their wallets. A lot of brands react to the swell of consumer opinion, every business wants to be relevant and wants to be on the right side of the ledger. Not just because there’s money in it, but because we all live in a society where what we do is out in the spotlight. There’s more transparency and with that people and companies are exposed or celebrated for the right reasons.

Beyond communications to authentic change

Brands can encourage people to rally behind an initiative or put something out that celebrates a certain cause, and it’s great to draw attention to important societal issues. However, it’s even more interesting to me when not everything is built around communicating a purpose-driven message. It sounds weird as a communicator, but where it’s more about how the initiative affects policy and the mechanics of brand itself. We live in a world where corporations and brands can have a bigger impact on society than government, to the point where some government policies are far behind the actions of some industry leaders.

We used to work with Chobani, and I see sustainability best practice very much in where they’re located, how they treat their employees, where they source from, how they make the product. Consumers care about that. This is the moral imperative of companies but it’s also for morale, it’s for retention, it’s for recruitment, and for consumer benefit. It might not change the taste of the yoghurt, but it makes people eating the yoghurt feel better about eating it.

Our financial services client Prudential is housed in Newark, which is not necessarily the most glamorous part of New Jersey, but they’re very proud to be there and spend significant time giving back and rebuilding that community. Prudential has made it very clear that even though it sells different financial tools, life insurance and all those sorts of things, as a company they are obsessed with making Americans financially smarter as a whole. A lot of their mission is not a direct line back to selling a product, it’s just the right thing to do. They do get positive PR, but that’s not why they’re doing it. It’s also a great recruitment tool for Prudential, which attracts some of the best and brightest in business. And I know from the agency’s point of view, the absolute pride in what we do when we work with them. When it’s sincere all roads lead back to a positive outcome.

On the flipside, sometimes you have companies that will put $5m to back an initiative and spend $100m telling people they put $5m in. It would have been easier to put $105m in!

Brands that get it right

You’ve got to know your audience and also know where you stand. I thought the Nike Colin Kaepernick campaign was a great example last year, mind-numbing as it is that Kaepernick became a toxic topic in this country for what he stood up for – or kneeled for I should say. There was some fall out, but that just proves a point. Nike sales, chatter about the brand and consumer brand love went through the roof. And that all goes back to someone at Nike having the courage and making the decision to take a stand. And they didn’t do anything more than create one print ad with him in it. Too many brands don’t want to offend anybody so they try to take a stand for something but effectively they stand for nothing. No wonder such campaigns end up being more polarising, or generic.

Brands have to be careful. You’ve got to get behind something that’s true to who you are and the category you’re in and what you believe and what you can contribute to. It reeks when brands get behind something that is just for attention, when they’re saying something but pretending and it makes you want to squint.

It’s a mistake when brands align with a popular cause, or draw attention to an issue, not knowing they haven’t fixed the back of their own house. It’s crazy to talk about supporting women’s issues if your entire board is made up of men. Or crazy to talk about the environment and pushing forward for sustainable fuel if the majority of what you’re doing is polluting the Earth.

There are spectacular multi-billion dollar brands where you could ask someone on the factory floor and they’d understand what the brand stands for and sustainability is reflected by every decision at every level. I have massive admiration for Patagonia as a brand and for its leadership, and the sincere stance it takes on everything. And even a company as huge as Walmart, when it makes a purpose-driven decision, for example about packaging or in the supply chain, it changes so many categories. The beauty is that there’s so many great companies to choose from now, if you’d asked ten years ago there were so few that took a stance. There’s a new generation of leadership in these companies, being more than just captains of industries but moral compasses of industries.

Lessons from Droga5

At Droga5, we’ve done purpose-driven work from the get go, this is sort of who we are and goes back to the upbringing I had and all that sort of stuff. You have to be a bit discerning about who you work with, although I appreciate not all agencies have that choice. Choose carefully, if you draw attention to an issue it will expose you if you don’t have that issue in the centre of your decision making.

We try to align with like-minded people. We’ve earned the right now with the reputation for the type of work we’ve put out there that more often than not clients are drawn to us as we’re drawn to them. Don’t get me wrong, I have no allergy to selling beer or sneakers or stuff like that. But much as I like the energy and momentum in the tone of Under Armour, I love the fact that Kevin Plank is helping rebuild and re-energise Baltimore, or what he’s doing for veterans. It’s not who the athletes are or the shininess of the advertising, it’s the substance. There’s all these different components that make up a brand now.

I know this approach makes a big difference to the people who work here, who doesn’t want to be proud of someone they’re working with or something they’re working on.

I’m spoilt with the talented people and great leaders at Droga5, so it makes it easier and we’re all in it together. It’s not some kind of siloed thing where we have to figure out one award-winning social good campaign. That’s not how it works here. It’s more what we can do on a bigger canvas and be consistent and sincere about it.

The younger generation are more aware of what’s going on and have opinions. At this agency I want people to have an interest in society. I want them to be good at advertising, but I want their interest to be in what’s going on in the real world and if we can marry the two then more often than not we can create something that’s of the moment and relevant. Our job is to produce ideas and strategies and put them out in the world, and if we can create stuff that moves the needle forward in any way for our clients and for causes, then we feel good about what we’re doing. Creative people are empathetic people, it’s not something that we have to force people to want to do. The privilege of doing the work we’ve done is attracting great talent. I think it’s helped us recruit spectacular like-minded people and also we’re lucky the leadership here puts our beliefs ahead of just making money for the sake of it. Caring shouldn’t make you comprised, giving a shit isn’t a niche thing anymore.

David Droga is Chair of the Jury for the Sustainable Development Goals Lions in 2019

The Sustainable Development Goals Lions are more than just another category, another vertical. It’s probably the most crucial category of Cannes Lions if you look at what’s going on in society, and the influence our industry and brands have on the world. I’ve been lucky over the years to chair all the main categories, and I think this should be the most aspirational Lion to win.

The ethos behind the SDG Lions touches who I am and how I was raised, and is also very much what our agency strives to try and do. We want to mirror our creativity and strategy if possible with a higher purpose and a bigger contribution. This category is a reflection of what’s happening out in the real world, and it’s exciting because more brands need to show more contribution.

In terms of leading the jury for this important category, I hope that we can get to work that is more than just disposable, ways of embracing something deeper than just the communications put out in to the world. The initiative should show a sincere commitment by the brand, including by its behaviour as well as what is being said. The brand should truly be championing the issues that they rally behind. That’s what’s most important. Clearly it’s easier to create a bright flare and draw attention to an issue, but if that’s not permeating the company and their belief system as well, then it’s superficial. It’s very easy to say that you’re behind something or that you stand for something without actually changing the behaviours and decision making in the brand itself.

Winning an SDG Lion is not just for glory, or something that sits on your shelf, it will go on forever. The impact or idea of what you’ve created hopefully has a permanent long-lasting residual. Rewards are fleeting, impact isn’t. And entries go towards making a difference, who doesn’t want to make a difference?

The Sustainable Development Goals Lions celebrate creative problem solving, solutions or other initiatives that harness creativity and seek to positively impact the world. Enter now at