Droga5 and the Art of the Sell, A Half-Century After Mad Men

Toyota’s ad campaign for its new car, the Mirai. Courtesy of Toyota/Frank, R./Corbis
The art of the sell,
a half-century after Mad Men.

Steven Panariello was having a hard time keeping his pants on. The Droga5 account director was sitting, fingers pressed against the edge of the conference-room table, head cocked toward the speakerphone, which was emitting what may be his least favorite sound: silence. “So, um, I’m trying to think how to start,” a voice piped up. “Obviously, it’s long.”

Panariello exhaled through his nostrils.

“Is the hook strong enough?” another voice chimed in.

Panariello lifted a hand to the collar of his floral button-up shirt. Ordinarily, he would have been providing a running commentary on the client’s commentary for the members of his team, who were seated in the room with him, but the phone’s mute button was broken, and so he was stifled. 

“Will people get what we’re trying to do?” a voice wondered.

Panariello undid his first couple of buttons. “I am known to take my shirt and pants off in meetings,” he’d warned earlier. “I get so worked up during the day energy-wise that they just have to come off.”

At the moment, he had reason to be worked up. On the other end of the phone were representatives of Toyota, who had just screened a video his team had made for its new car, the Mirai. The account is an important one for Droga5, a midsize agency that has earned a reputation for creating talked-about ad campaigns for boring products like graham crackers and financial services.

Which is what it was currently attempting to do with the Mirai, the latest entry in a rash of hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles born of a Bush-era subsidy encouraging automakers to build cars with lower carbon emissions. It was a tough sell. There are currently only 13 public hydrogen-fueling stations in the United States, most of them in Southern California, which meant the car would be available only there, at a price tag of $57,000, which is a lot for a car the blog Jalopnik called “crazy ugly.” And as the words Bush-era subsidy portend, not everyone is a fan of the technology. Opponents have argued that hydrogen is so volatile it can be dangerous and processing it uses so much energy it cancels out the benefits. Some have gone further, suggesting the technology is a fig leaf that allows Big Auto to pursue its real agenda, milking the Earth of every last drop of oil. Elon Musk, geek god and the CEO of the electric-car company Tesla, falls into this category. “Fuel cell is so bullshit,” he railed in a video of a speech to employees. “They don’t believe it. It’s like a marketing thing.”

All things considered, Toyota wasn’t expecting to sell a lot of Mirais (Mirai? “We haven’t decided yet what to call a gaggle of Mirais,” said Nathan Kokes, a marketing manager for Toyota). And when it approached Droga5, the car company hadn’t been asking for a huge marketing campaign, nor was it looking to leave its agency of record, Saatchi & Saatchi. “They just wanted a website,” said strategy director David Gonzales.

The strategy team dug in, and two weeks later, Droga5 went back to Toyota with a plan. Not just for a website, but for a wide-ranging multimedia campaign. In a grandiose presentation incorporating wisdom from Steve Jobs, Ernest Shackleton, and John F. Kennedy, they made the impassioned case that Toyota needed to do more. That as the maker of the Prius and therefore a leader in the category, Toyota had a responsibility to humanize fuel-cell technology, to vanquish the doubters who always stalk innovation (flash to that old start-up standby, the “horse is here to stay” quote) and take back the narrative from bitter underminers (fade to a photo of Musk and Upton Sinclair’s line, paraphrased, that one should “never expect someone to understand change when their livelihood depends on not understanding it”).

To do this, they said, Toyota needed to go all-in. Seizing on perhaps the only line in the brief with storytelling potential — hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe; it is in everything — the creative-team members had conceived “Fueled by Everything,” a cornucopia of marketing ideas that included events, stunts, and a website with multiple portals for viewers to join a “conversation” about fuel, all anchored by a whimsical multipart web-video series in which the Mirai would be fueled by hydrogen extracted from everyday things. For the first installment, they’d use cow manure. They’d call it: Fueled by Bullshit.

Toyota found the idea brilliant. By publicly tweaking Musk, the company would appeal to the only possible market for the Mirai (young California-based men with $57,000 to spend on alternative-fuel vehicles). It also gave people at Toyota some personal satisfaction. While Toyota had done business with Musk in the past — they collaborated on the RAV4 EV — his anti-fuel-cell rhetoric had started to grate. (Recently, he had called them “mind-bogglingly stupid,” “incredibly dumb,” and “silly.”) And it didn’t hurt that the whole campaign was cloaked in a beneficence that made it seem like Toyota was doing a public service. “We thought it was great,” Kokes told me.

While the Droga5 team had been a little nervous about the profanity, Toyota didn’t seem bothered. “Toyota is really trying to push exciting, emotional, innovative advertising,” said Kokes. “We want people to think we are willing to take a risk.”

Droga5 was ecstatic. The agency had been asked to pitch a website and had walked away with their first automotive campaign, a jewel in the crown for an ad agency of its size. Now it just had to keep Toyota happy.

So far, they had done their best. They had crisscrossed the country, stayed in weird motels, eaten at Hooters, immersed themselves in the most boring science, and waded through fields of actual shit to bring Toyota the footage they had just watched. And yet:

“Regarding the word bullshit,” said a Toyota executive through the speakerphone. “Are we going to, like, show that word? Does a person actually use that word?”

“Seriously,” Panariello would later joke. “If ‘Bullshit’ launches and is really successful, I am going to get so drunk I’ll have to get my stomach pumped.”

The ad campaign’s key players. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images/Courtesy of Droga5

Drinking, over-the-top sales pitches and mid-century furniture: Advertising still has a lot in common with the world portrayed on dearly departing Mad Men. But like everything else in 2015, it’s a lot more complicated. “When you see the process on Mad Men, it looks so simple,” said Droga5’s executive creative director, Neil Heymann. “It’s like, there’s an insight generated by some part of the team, and it’s given to the creatives, and they kind of go off on a long lunch or think about it and come back three days later with, like, one poster, but it’s not like that now. Also,” he added, “it’s a TV show.”

Before fast-forward, before the internet, before BuzzFeed started tweeting for Pepsi, the advertising industry, like the media industry, enjoyed the privileges of a bully pulpit. People had to see advertisements. They didn’t have a choice. These days, ads are forced to fight for attention in the crowded bazaar of the internet just like everything else, and when you’re competing with porn and corgis in bathing suits, it takes a lot to get noticed. “Even from when I started ten years ago, it’s just gotten more and more and more,” said Panariello. He was 19 and still in college when he got his first agency gig, unbeknownst to his employer, who thought he was enrolled in an M.B.A. program. Now a decade later, he’s an account director, which means that like Mad Men’s Pete Campbell, it falls to him to make sure the campaigns are running smoothly. Unlike Campbell, he is a charmingly profane Brooklynite who fires off paragraph-long sentences in a unique patois of corporate jargon and internet slang. “It’s like, you used to be able to put a 30-second commercial out, but now you’re orchestrating an entire system of content,” he said. “You have to do posts for social and write headlines for press releases and manage the forum on the website, and it’s got to work in mobile, and the notion of what it means to launch something has become fundamentally much more complex and demanding of your soul and your life.”

He’s not the only one at Droga5 who’s a little high strung. Despite occupying a 92,000-square-foot space on Wall Street, the firm has the vibe of a college dorm during finals week; at any given time of day there are young people walking around, wild-eyed, clutching bowls of cereal. The source of all this restless energy can probably be traced directly to the office of the founder, David Droga. An Australian with the bright, curious eyes of a woodland creature, Droga grew up the fifth of six children and thus has been agitating for attention his entire life. “I am the most competitive person you will ever meet,” he told me, sitting in his exceptionally well-decorated office. “Like, if you pulled out a hula hoop now, I would try to out-hula-hoop you.”

At 46, Droga is old enough to have started his career in the mailroom. From there, he obsessively worked his way through the ranks at Saatchi & Saatchi, eventually becoming the creative director at Publicis, the French media conglomerate that acquired the agency in 2006. Once on top of the mountain, he took a look around and wasn’t all that impressed. “I’m not embarrassed to be in advertising,” Droga told me, though no one had suggested otherwise. “But I’m embarrassed by a lot of advertising. We’re one of the only industries where people have invented technology to prevent our work from getting to them. If that’s not a message to us as an industry to do shit that is more interesting, more relevant, better, I don’t know what it is.” After a brief flirtation with founding a start-up, Honeyshed, a much-derided e-commerce site that died in 2009 of its own embarrassingly bad attempts at appealing to youth culture (the word jiggy was used), Droga went back to what he was good at, and, with his hard-won awareness of internet mores, competed with everything he had.

Droga5’s first project, a hoax in which the agency filmed a YouTube video of urban-fashion designer Marc Ecko tagging what appeared to be Air Force One, “was done 100 percent to exploit news channels,” Droga told me. “I knew the average news network would want to believe it was real.” When the prank was revealed, Droga5 became known as a pioneer of a new wave of advertising, one that stretched its mandate to include stunts and public relations and guerrilla marketing and social media and crazy things like inviting a reporter into your office to chronicle the making of your first car campaign.

People at Droga5 like to say they don’t just make ads; they create “cultural moments” — like in 2010, when they collaborated with Bing and Jay Z to promote the latter’s book by planting various pages from it on everything from cars to cheeseburger wrappers across the country. Or in March, when they replaced women on magazine covers and Times Square billboards with the words not-there.org as part of a campaign to drive traffic to a Clinton Foundation report on gender equality. Even some of their more traditional ads have become events, such the fake Super Bowl ad they made for Newcastle in which Anna Kendrick tells the beer company to “suck it,” which got so many “GENIUS” retweets I ended up watching it just to feel culturally relevant. Or the affecting series they did for Honey Maid in 2014, which prompted President Obama to praise the company for being “unafraid” to include interracial, same-sex, and otherwise unconventional families in its definition of wholesome.

“I don’t want to sound too worthy here,” Droga said carefully. “But I want to do something that honestly contributes something positive to society.” Into this category he puts Toyota, which was in this “sweet spot” where it might actually change people’s minds about hydrogen, and therefore the future of car technology. “I just really fucking want to build this agency that has influence,” he said. “Positive influence.” His firm has dabbled in politics with an ad for Obama’s reelection featuring Sarah Silverman, and when I asked if he’s going to have anything to do with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, he got an extremely funny look on his face.

Two years ago, Droga5 signed on to a partnership with talent powerhouse William Morris Endeavor, which hopes they can brandify clients like the Rock. “I think they’re artists,” Ari Emanuel, WME’s co-CEO, told me in a phone call. “Like anyone else we work with. They understand that it’s the storytelling that is important. Gotta go make some money!” he signed off. Which is the other reason why he went into business with them. All this rhetoric about storytelling and content makes good business sense. Companies recognize the value proposition: If people are tweeting and Facebooking and seeking out ads, if newspapers and magazines are writing about them, they won’t have to spend as much money buying ad space.

They are good, Droga5. A few times after spending hours in their office, listening to them sell themselves, I had to call people who might put things in perspective. One advertising veteran, who now works at a consulting firm, was particularly blunt: “They’re an ad agency. They’re selling crap that someone doesn’t need, and that’s the bottom line.”

Right. So, back to the crap.

When the members of the Droga5 team said in their initial presentation that they could get a car to run on bullshit, they were kind of bullshitting. “Half the time, we sell things to clients that we honestly believe is the right thing,” said Droga. “But we don’t know exactly how we are going to do it.”

It fell to the creative team, headed by a pair of Australians named David Gibson and Nathan Lennon, to figure it out. Toyota put them in touch with Nuvera, a hydrogen-energy company outside Boston with a personable engineer named Scott Blanchet, who gave them a crash course. Methane, which can be converted into hydrogen, is not actually in cow shit, they learned, but in cow emissions. This meant the bullshit would have to be processed by a machine, the rather unsubtly named digester, at which point Nuvera would be able to transform it into hydrogen through something called a steam-reformation process. For the video, they envisioned something documentary style, like the kind made by Morgan Spurlock, best known for the film Super Size Me (and a partner with New York on a prospective television project). Spurlock, it turned out, was available and at a surprisingly reasonable price.

Finding a farm was more difficult — some weren’t all too keen on the idea of hosting a camera crew, especially one whose CV includes agricultural exposés — but eventually Spurlock’s production company turned up Ron, a telegenic dairy farmer in Central California. Blanchet agreed to appear in the film as the expert, even though it meant saying the words “He’s got … lots and lots of manure, and that’s just what I’m looking for.” But while Ron did have plentiful poop, he had no digester. They would have to truck the poop to the nearest one that would take it.

“Due to several digesters turning us down, this is our only option right now,” a producer named Bill Berg wrote to the team about the commercial farm they landed on. “We will be putting our cow shit in the ‘poo lagoon,’ ” he went on, “which is basically a huge swimming pool filled with shit.”

In early March, Spurlock and his crew, along with representatives from Toyota and a black-clad, fancy-sneakers-wearing contingent from Droga5, arrived for what became known as “the poop shoot.”

“The amount of shit jokes,” groaned Bola Adekoya, one of the other directors on the account, who led the charge to California.

“You find yourself having the most ridiculous conversations,” said David Gibson, who stayed in the New York office to work on graphics for the website. “Like, should the poop have three or four ridges?”

“Should it feel hot, should it feel steamy?” Panariello interjected.

“Or should it be more like Mr. Whippy?” Gibson replied. “At the moment it’s a bit too Mr. Whippy.”

Back on the farm, the city kids realized they were unprepared for what Adekoya later referred to as “a football-length field of percolating poop.” A trip to Walmart salvaged their shoes, but not everything else. “Apols for the Friday night email but wanted to flag a potential overage with you now,” Panariello later wrote in an email to the team. “Due to the extended exposure to cow manure and wildlife in general, I’m worried that Bola will need to get a full hair transplant/reinstallation.”

After the poop shoot, the methane and the full crew were transported to Boston, where they processed the methane at Nuvera’s facilities. Then it was off to Atlanta to shoot the car in action on a road that wasn’t covered in snow.

In New York, the creatives and a team of editors set about digesting the hours of footage, which proved to be another learning experience. “When a cow shits, it’s like an elevator door opening,” Panariello told me, pressing his hands together and pulling them slowly apart.

By late March, Team Bullshit was ready to show Toyota a rough cut.

“Are they going to freak out, do you think?” asked a young creative, inspecting the film’s titles, which were designed by a 3-D-typography specialist to appear constructed of shit.

“I don’t know,” Gibson said. “Maybe?”

“Okay, that didn’t go well,” Panariello confirmed the following week. He was sitting at his desk, pants unbuttoned, but still worn. (“I’ve been good for you,” he told me.)

Surprisingly, the poop visuals were the least of Toyota’s concerns. “We love it,” the company’s marketing executive Douglas Coleman had enthused, before launching into a litany of polite requests: The quote from Elon Musk that floated onscreen in the beginning was worded incorrectly. Legal had a problem with Blanchet saying, in the opening scene, that fuel cells were “perfect” technology. And the animated sequence depicting the steam-reformation process was missing a few steps. “Though I hate to ask you to add anything more,” said Coleman, “since it’s so long and we really need to chop-chop.”

There were other problems. The top-secret concept for another film in the series had appeared to be falling apart, “because there’s some science shit,” as Adekoya had announced in the morning status meeting, which meant they had to come up with a whole new idea.

“Hashtag BecauseScience,” Panariello said, sighing.

Then there was Saatchi & Saatchi. Though Droga5 had won the campaign, the larger firm was still in charge of media placement, which was awkward. So far, the plans the agency had suggested were somewhat uncreative, like placing the film in syndicated preroll, so that it would play automatically when people clicked to watch a video on other sites. This is a tactic David Droga is especially unfond of. (“I want to give a speech where just before I get to a point, I run a full minute of a spinning wheel or something, just to make the point of how torturous it is,” he told me.)

“It’s just so overtly promotional,” Panariello said, cringing. “We want it to appear more organically in social feeds. Not something you are forced to watch.”

With all of this going on, Panariello was hardly able to process the fact that his boyfriend of two years had suddenly broken up with him. “It was the typical New York breakup, in a way,” he told me. “ ‘You care too much about your job, and you are always working.’ ” He gathered up his laptop to show Jonny Bauer, the chief of strategy, the revised version of the rough cut of “Bullshit.” “We’ll come back to this,” he said of the breakup, “because I tend to come back to it by accident throughout the day.”

All things considered, Panariello appeared in fine form. In Bauer’s office, he hooked his laptop up to the television screen above Bauer’s Knoll credenza and waited for his artfully scruffled colleague to sit down. “Jonny is so cute,” he typed, the letters appearing on the television screen. “But he wore those jeans yesterday.”

The new version was an improvement, Bauer agreed. “The animated parts where the technology is explained are really long,” he commented.

“I know,” Panariello told him. “But we can’t remove parts of the story. Because science.

Afterward, there was a conference call with Toyota’s public-relations firm about getting media attention for the campaign. “It’s all very old school,” Panariello said, pressing the (now-fixed) mute button as they droned on about The Wall Street Journal and Time. “Where’s Wired and Fast Company or Gawker? Or Mashable?”

New media was the better way to go, the Droga5 people thought, in part because they were more likely to make a big deal about Toyota’s goading of Elon Musk. In a perfect world, Musk would respond, setting off even more media attention. With the Honey Maid ads, which they knew were going to elicit a hostile reaction from conservatives, they’d commissioned a pair of artists to make an installation with all the hate mail they’d received, spelling out love. “What if Elon came out and said, ‘I changed my point of view?’ ” Panariello mused. “Do we offer to do a joint press conference? Do we gift him a car? A special cowhide-seat edition? Do we name a station after him? If it’s really negative, how do we react?”

By late afternoon, when the team gathered in the conference room to screen the latest version of “Bullshit,” Panariello was fully worked up. “I’m gonna get all hot and bothered and take off my jacket,” he said. “By the end of this I’m going to be — ”

“Hello?” Toyota crackled onto the line.

Doug Coleman’s voice rang through the speaker: “I think it’s really cool, and I love it,” he said.

Panariello humped the conference-room table.

“It’s completely night and day from where it was,” Coleman went on.

Panariello playfully fingered the butt of the cow frozen on the big screen.

“There’s this one area that is slightly flat,” he went on.

Another Toyota executive joined in late. “Have you guys talked about how odd the music is?” he asked. “I think the waltz seems really out of place.”

“That was part of the reason we were into it,” Panariello replied. “It was sort of intentionally mismatched, like it was charming.”

“I didn’t think it was charming,” the voice replied. “I just thought it was annoying.”

“Okay then!” said Adekoya.

“Thinking objectively about it, we’ll have to take all of this onboard,” said Panariello, taking down notes. The call ended. Lifting his head from his computer, he looked stricken. “How do I get my ex off of Gchat?” he asked the room.

“Good haircut,” Gibson greeted Panariello when he arrived in his office Monday morning.

“I’m a different person,” Panariello replied, running a hand across the side of his head. “I feel a little more crisp and a little more alive.”

It was clear, after the screening, that Toyota was not in love with “Bullshit,” which had prompted the team to do some soul searching. Could the Droga5 team have miscalculated? Was the idea, in actual practice, not as clever as they had thought? Was it too much of a stretch? “On a personal level,” Panariello said, “I was like, ‘Oh my God, is this my fault? Because I have been too busy crying?’ ”

The members of the team, along with Bauer and Heymann, gathered in David Droga’s office for what Panariello termed a “reckoning.” “I still like the idea and I know the footage is in there,” Droga told them. “It’s just buried.” They’d gotten so consumed by trying to tell the story and please the client and capture the details, they’d forgotten they were supposed to be making something entertaining. “It’s, like, bullshit!” he told them. “Just get to the story. And find little pieces of humor, because this is a ridiculous thing to do to prove a point.”

There was one more thing. “I think you should center the asterisk in bullshit directly over the cow’s asshole,” he said.

“You say that in every campaign,” replied Heymann.

Gibson and the creative team spent the entire weekend editing. The animated sequence was gone, to be its own video to be hosted elsewhere on the website, because in retrospect, duh, this is the advantage of having a limitless internet canvas — you no longer have to cram everything into one commercial. Panariello and Adekoya had screened it for the company from his apartment on Sunday night, and they were finally happy. He reached for his phone to read an effusive email from Coleman that said — wait a second. There was a text from Coleman. “He says, ‘Can we talk in 20 to 30?’ ” Panariello narrated. “Why does he want to talk in 20 to 30? Is it because he has something to talk about? I don’t want to have something to talk about.”

As it turned out, Toyota’s corporate public-relations department had an issue: the bullshit quote from Elon Musk. Droga5 had gone back and forth over how to refer to the Tesla founder, and had finally decided on “prominent electric-car CEO,” which was cheeky, they thought, but in a friendly way. Now the higher-ups at the company were saying they didn’t want to refer to him at all.

Panariello relayed the news to Gibson.

“But that’s the whole idea,” Gibson said. “The fact that we did this, that is the idea.”

“I know,” said Panariello. “I told Doug we need to have a little sell-in around the idea.” He chewed his lip. “What worries me is that what’s going to happen is if you look at it in isolation, that person is going to be like, ‘No, let’s not, it’s too risky.’ ”

“We need to push them, Steven,” said Gibson. “ ’Cause that’s the tension in this whole campaign.”

“This is a crucial moment,” Panariello said to me. “It happens at the crest of almost every campaign. It’s like that person on the roller coaster who wants to get off the roller coaster when you are on the way up. It’s like, ‘We’re not turning this thing around. It’s too late. Bitch, you are on the ride.’ ”

Of course, there wasn’t really anything they could do. It was Toyota’s ride. The last-minute showdown was “a brawl,” by Panariello’s account. Droga5’s contacts at Toyota had been unable to sway the PR team, which insisted on removing not just the oblique reference to the speaker but most of the quote from the opening titles. In the end, the only word that appeared on the screen as Scott Blanchet said “some have even gone so far as to call [bleep]” was “bullsh*t.”

The day of the launch, Panariello flew to California to experience the release of the video alongside the client. That morning, there had been a brief outage on YouTube, but by the time he got to Toyota’s offices, things were humming along. The homepage of Forbes.com was set to be taken over by a banner advertisement, and while there was the dreaded pre-roll, Panariello had prevailed over the PR firm to give an exclusive on the video to Mashable. Somehow, a handful of new media outlets had even managed to make the connection between the video and that comment Musk had made in that old video.

And as for the disagreement with Toyota, there was no sense in dwelling on disappointments. Panariello had moved on to other projects, like the account for Scion, Toyota’s youth brand. “It’s one of those things where you are in the thick of it so much the smallest change is like someone asking you to remove your eyebrows,” he said. “Like you can’t possibly live another day. But then you look back and you’re like, ‘Oh, I look okay without eyebrows. I’m still hot.’ ”

*This article appears in the May 4, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.