BALI, Indonesia—David Kolbusz has a "No assholes" rule when it comes to judging ad awards, and it's worked out pretty well for him lately.
The creative chief at Droga5 London has been judging Branded Content & Branded Entertainment for the Clio Awards here in Bali this week. And it's been an altogether pleasant experience, as the jury—which included U.S.-based judges PJ Pereira of Pereira & O'Dell, Jim Elliott of Arnold and Justine Armour of Wieden + Kennedy—has been top notch, debating the work with insight, humor and great taste.
It's the second straight positive judging experience for the Canadian-born Kolbusz, who was also on the Titanium & Integrated jury, led by his old boss, Sir John Hegarty, at Cannes earlier this summer.
"Awards are brilliant when you've got a good jury, and they're terrible when you've got a terrible jury," he tells Adweek over beachside beers here at the Ritz-Carlton, shortly after finishing judging by helping to choose a Grand Clio for the category. "When it's good, it's great. When it's bad, it's wretched and hurts the industry. It just depends on who you get in a room, and the decisions they make."
This year's Branded Content & Branded Entertainment jury proved well up to the task, having a lively chat on their final day together and debating longer than usual as they obsessively fine-tuned their ranking of top winners (which you'll be able to see Sept. 12 at clios.com). It's an important process, Kolbusz says, because awards do—for better or worse—help point the way forward for the industry.
In Branded Content, he adds, there's been a noticeable backlash away from the sometimes opportunistic embrace of social good and toward things that are more purely fun.
"There's a renewed enthusiasm for the craft of entertaining," Kolbusz says. "A lot of the things that were moving forward [in the jury room] were things that people were delighting in, just for the sake of it. Last year, at one of the shows I was at, it was all social good. It felt like the jury was sending a message. But it feels like the pendulum has swung."
The Clio jury endeavored to award brilliant pieces, plain and simple—something that, for whatever reason, doesn't always happen. Kolbusz points to the 1995 Cannes film jury, for example, which disastrously chose not to award a Grand Prix despite having at least one true masterpiece in the mix.
"You go back and see that one of the golds that was deemed unworthy was Levi's 'Drug Store.' And you go, 'Fucking hell,' " he says. "Apologies to anyone on that jury, but you fucked up. That's a great film, and to this day remains a great film, and one that is still referenced and one that is still fresh. That was a massive fuck-up."
Leading a Startup
It's this full-throated, often obscenity-laced passion for the work that makes Kolbusz such a fun guy to listen to. Of course, he's done plenty of remarkable work himself—from the Orange spot "Dancers" at Mother London a decade ago; to the famed "Three Little Pigs" for the Guardian in 2012 (a Grand Clio winner in Film and Adweek's Ad of the Year, which landed Kolbusz and his BBH London colleagues on our cover); to the "ShottaSoCo" Southern Comfort campaign last year at Wieden + Kennedy New York, from which Kolbusz decamped in October to join Droga.
It's that talent and great range that Droga is counting on to give its London outpost the creative spark it needs in a newly resurgent U.K. market, following a management reshuffle less than two years after the office's 2013 opening. Things have been fairly quiet since Kolbusz's arrival, but that's about to change. With a slew of projects in the pipeline, we should soon see hints of what kind of agency Droga5 London intends to be—how it will be like the New York mothership, and yet completely its own thing.
"If you look at New York's [awards] performance this year, it was mostly for stuff like Hennessy and Under Armour—big, sweeping, beautiful brand expressions. None of it's that self-referential," Kolbusz says. "That's a willful act of the Droga folks in New York, to try to do something quite different from what everyone else is doing. The London office is going to do that in our own way—but in a way that's different from how New York does it, too. You don't want to be a 'Me too' brand."
The two offices are, of course, at very different points in their respective journeys.
"We should be really different in what we produce," says Kolbusz. "It's a different set of individuals, and there's going to be a different alchemy. [New York] just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. They're looking to figure out what their next 10 years looks like. We're trying to go, 'What is our first iteration going to be?' "
Having run large creative departments at established agencies for years, Kolbusz is galvanized by leading what's essentially still a startup—and all the possibilities that entails. (He took the job, which was just too tempting, after strongly considering moving to Los Angeles and becoming a director.) The rank-and-file creatives he's overseeing at Droga5 London are ready to produce great things, he adds, judging by what they do in their spare time if nothing else.
"One of the things we're very conscious of is, we're quite a young agency," he says. "We've got an entire shop full of makers—people who go home and write stuff, and film stuff, and create ideas for products and fashion lines. We're going to try to build a lot of that into our offering, and not just create traditional marketing but also products and experiences."
It's appropriate that Kolbusz has been judging Branded Entertainment this week, because that word—entertainment—has been a touchstone for him lately.
"There was a period of time when I was like, 'We're not going to be an advertising agency, we're going to be an entertainment agency,' " he says. "Not entertainment in the traditional sense—light entertainment, soft-shoe numbers and Judy Garland-esque vocals—but entertainment as in, anything we do on behalf of a brand should surprise and delight the audience. The work we do doesn't have to conform to a particular form. It doesn't have to be a television ad or an online experience. It can be whatever we want it to be, as long as it charms people. That's going to be one of our pursuits."
Kolbusz doesn't have many examples, yet, of what this flexible, nonconforming work will look like. But he does point to the "Commiseration Burger" the agency made this summer for U.K. burger brand Rustlers, which humorously suggested (rightly, as it turned out) that English fans be "realistic" about their team's chances at Euro 2016.
The campaign included a big musical anthem but also, notably, a special burger that came with mayonnaise and ketchup packets so fans could paint a patriotic St. George's flag on the sandwich. "It was product development that was intended to sell a brand message," Kolbusz says. "That was really simple, and done really affordably. That's an interesting thing for us."
Droga5 London plans to explore these kinds of unconventional avenues for clients, and for itself as well—where possible, it's interested in creating in-house brands and products, too.
"We will do work for clients, of course, but we're also thinking of ourselves as our own client. Let's see if we can make money by doing interesting work for ourselves, and play around with the notion of what a typical agency is," Kolbusz says. "[The creatives] are hungry and curious, and it doesn't all begin and end with television. Television is nice, and it's fun, and we can all do a passable spot in our sleep. But there's something interesting about pushing the boundaries a bit and going, 'What's going to be the thing you don't expect, that scares you or makes you uncomfortable, or amuses you in ways you didn't know were possible?' "
For Kolbusz, London is the perfect place for such an experiment. This is his third tour in the British capital—after starting his career at TBWA Toronto, he was at Mother London from 2003 to 2007, and at BBH London from 2010 to 2014. In between, he was at Goodby, Silverstein & Partners for three years, and right before Droga, he had his 18-month stint co-leading W+K New York's creative department.
"New York is this unbelievable smorgasbord of opportunities to experience culture and art. But they're rarely shared experiences," he says now, nine months after leaving. "There's so much going on in New York, and it's incredible. But you don't talk to someone and go, 'Oh, did you see that thing?' 'Yeah, yeah, it was great.' 'And what about this thing?' 'Yeah, it was great.' I guess it's community. In London, it feels like there's more of an artistic community, whereas in New York it feels like a collection of amazing things and you might happen to catch the same thing as someone else. Art and culture is so important to who I am. I feed off it. I have to live in a city that has lots of it. Otherwise I go a bit nuts."
Settling in again in his favorite city, Kolbusz, now 40, is fully focused on another big part of his job—nurturing young creatives and getting them to perform at their best.
"It's all the more important now that you work with the younger generation and have more of a reciprocal, collaborative relationship with the work," he says. "What you bring to the party is drilling taste into them, and strengthening their barometer, and letting them know why something works or doesn't work. And from them, you get the youth, the energy, the sense of what the younger generation is going to be interested in."
While admitting that "the older you get, the less spongelike you become," Kolbusz says it's important to him to have a working understanding of everything the kids are doing these days—if only so he doesn't make the mistake of killing something because he doesn't get it.
"I haven't run into a situation, though, where I'm like, 'We can't do this idea,' and the team is like, 'You don't understand,' " he says. "I'm an overcommunicator, though. I can communicate what I don't like about an idea, and why something isn't working for me. And I'll use too many words. They'll get an understanding of how I feel about a thing, and they'll argue back if they feel like there's something valid there. And I like it when people argue back. It makes you question your own taste and opinion, and it can consequently make you more sure of your position—or poke holes in your wall of defense."
But while elements of his job are similar to what he's done in the past, the fact is that growing an agency essentially from scratch is new territory for Kolbusz. And he advises that it will still be a while before this one's DNA is readily apparent.
"I've never done this before, worked at an agency this small and tried to build something," he says. "You're not going to really get a sense of what Droga5 London is for another year and a half, two years. If you think about it, in life, if you move to a new city, it takes 18 months to settle in. There's this statistic—if you're dating a person, it takes 18 months to experience real, empathic, genuine love. There's something weird about this 18-month thing. We've done stuff I'm already proud of. But the stuff that feels like it will really be of the Droga5 London brand, that's probably a year and a half away."
—The Clio Awards will be announcing this year's gold, silver and bronze winners on clios.com on Sept. 12. The Grand Clio winners will be revealed at the Clio Awards ceremony in New York on Sept. 28.