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Interview with David Nobay

TAXI respects and admires leaders in the design industry. And, one such leader is David Nobay. With all of his creative and inspiring contributions in the industry, Campaign Brief magazine has ranked David as the No. 1 most awarded Creative Director in Australasia.

Having a humble beginning in the creative industry as a junior copywriter in London, David is now at a position where evidently, plenty of hardwork, learning and pure natural talent has led him.

Through the course of his endeavours, David's resume includes having been the youngest Creative Group Head in the Ogilvy & Mather Direct network, launching Wells Nobay McDowall, his own agency in Melbourne, and nutured and directed to a position where it became one of the most awarded integrated agencies of the nineties in Australia.

David has also contributed to Saatchi & Saatchi Sydney's three years in a row ranking of Agency of the Year, as well as AWARD Network Agency of the Year, Creative Magazine Hotshop of the Year, and Gong’s TV Agency of the Year.

D&AD, The Art Directors Club, NY Festivals, London Festivals, Clio, Cannes and The One Show has recognized David Nobay for his major involvement and his continual efforts and offerings to the creative industry.

TAXI respects and admires David Nobay and today, TAXI chats with him.

TAXI >>Hello David. Having been ranked the No. 1 Most Awarded Creative Director in Australasia by Campaign Brief magazine, what advice would you give to the young creatives of today who have just started out in their careers, and what do you think is the most common mistake they make?

David Nobay>>Quantity is the biggest mistake I see with young books. Or rather, the volume of thinly covered, shallow ideas. Someone, perhaps their tutors, perhaps others, are obviously still deluding these young creative people that it’s vital to have a double-digit number of ideas in a portfolio to make it valid. Personally, I think that’s rubbish. I’d rather see one brief, pushed out into every possible media opportunity, than 8 or 10 convenient couplets of poster and TV scripts. Jobs are lean and there’s an excess of applicants out there right now. That’s a real opportunity for the few who realise what we’re really after: someone who has the stamina and depth of creativity to see far beyond the obvious edges of a creative brief. Too many times, the 6 crap ideas weigh down the worth of the few really decent ones.

TAXI >>What’s it like running the agency with David (Droga), Sudeep Gohil and Marianne Bess, all well-reputed to be very individualistic and strong personalities?

David Nobay>>From a day-to-day perspective, I run the Australian agency alongside Sudeep, my Planning Partner, and Marianne, my Managing Director. After David invited me to join him as a Partner in Droga5 Australia, I spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about whom I wanted as partners for the Sydney office, as I knew we’d be working intensely and in a tiny group until we landed some serious business. In my mind, it was vital I chose people who brought something fresh to the mix, aside from my own dubious strengths. Yet it was equally important we had a lot in common when it came to the human side of the equation: life, dreams, politics, humour etc. .

Droga5 Australia is actually the third agency I’ve launched and run in the last 20 odd years. Aside from personal factors, the first two ultimately failed because I had the wrong chemistry of partners. Retrospect is a great teacher. A year on, I know I made the right decision with Sudeep, (or “Cake” as he’s known around the office) and “Mabs”. The partnership is very open. More often than not, vocal too. But passion is what keeps up the energy in a start-up. All of us expect the same level of commitment and honesty from each other. That sense of balance is a real key.

My relationship with David is less hands-on, but no less integral. We catch up every week by phone; usually somewhere between him putting the kids to bed in New York and me crawling to the gym in the morning in Sydney. I’m also a Partner in the New York office, so I try to catch up with the guys there as regularly as is possible given our schedules. The craziness of the Australian launch guaranteed we’d either come out the other end as good mates, or wanting to kill each other. Thankfully, we ended up mates.
I guess our connection is based, more than anything, on a shared sense of excitement for the brand. What it is today, but equally where we want to take it. For David, it’s obviously intensely personal, but that never spills over into knee-jerk subjectivity. I’m grateful for the space and trust he’s given me over the last 12months: he’s always there when we need his ear, but never breathed down our neck. I think the fact that, like me, his role is “Creative Chairman” makes a big difference. To many in the industry, that’s an oxymoron, but to us it’s a natural balance. Merging business and creativity is at the very heart of the Droga5 brand, so it’s natural that it should be reflected in the management.

TAXI >>How do you feel that the technology of today, in particular digital and increasingly mobile media, has changed the face of advertising since when you started your career?

David Nobay>>It’s funny. I started my career 22 years ago in direct marketing; working for Ogilvy & Mather Direct, London, under the great guru of DM, Drayton Bird. In those days, most people in adland dismissed what we did as “junk mail”, but at its very heart, the methodology was not dissimilar to the eulogy you hear from so-called digital gurus today: The science of accountability; The journey to a response; The sense of brand-utility. Attention/Interest/Desire/Conviction/Action.

Sound familiar? Twenty years ago, it was the rudiments of every successful mailpack, but today it’s just as current to the connectivity of the web. Sure, digital and mobile are a much more exciting palette to paint ideas with, but the basic challenge is the same: take people on a journey that’s based on them interacting, connecting and responding.

TAXI >>You’ve mentioned that a career low was being fired from Wells Nobay McDowall for “creative differences”. Can you please elaborate a little on this and how it has affected your career path, either in a positive or negative manner?

David Nobay>>One of the things that David Droga and I have in common, aside from a passion for Australia, is that we both ran agencies at a very tender age. Wells Nobay McDowall in Melbourne was my first foray. Unfortunately, (for me anyway) history suggests that the young David made a better job of it. That’s not to say I didn’t have an amazing time screwing it all up. At that age, arrogance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it gives you superhuman belief in yourself; the kind of confidence you need creatively to take a little agency and make something really happen, which is what we did, for a time. Alas, it also brings along a king-sized ego that creates an emotional blindside the size of Europe.

Ultimately, something had to give; culminating in me being walked out of the very agency I’d help build. In retrospect, I learnt some huge lessons that I believe accelerated my career as a Creative Director; not least, a healthier respect for the power of the team around you. Winning awards is easy compared to building a team of creative people who truly believe in you and your mission. The “Melbourne Disaster” tattood that into me.

TAXI >>You’re an inspiration to many in the industry today. Can you tell us a bit on your first memory of how you decided that advertising would be your chosen career path?

David Nobay>>Advertising was never my chosen path. I went to art college in Liverpool because I loved to paint and draw, and planned developing my stuff from there at St Martin’s in London. Thanks to a little too much weed and student partying, I totally mis-read a college prospectus and ended up interviewing for an Advertising college. When they saw my huge A1 portfolio of pen and inks and oils, they were as confused as I was, but took pity on me and gave me a practical exam right there.

Turns out that my life drawing skills made me a natural magic-marker illustrator, and I got a place on the spot. After 6 months of drawing up everyone else’s concepts, I switched to the copywriting course and, well, the rest you know. In my experience, most people who become successful in this business have similarly tangent tales. Given how eclectic the media base of the industry has become, I think that’s more true today. I always get a bit wary in interviews when young applicants claim to have always wanted to get into advertising from the cradle. Bit tragic.

TAXI >>Out of all the people you have worked with, can you tell us who has been some of your biggest inspirations, and why?

David Nobay>>I’ve already mentioned I started in the business working under the DM legend, Drayton Bird. He’s left O&M now, but I hear he still does international seminars. I haven’t seen him for decades, but in the beginning, he was a huge mentor. Drayton had made a large fortune out of DM, and gallivanted around London on a spray of Champagne mist and Rolls Royce fumes. He was a rogue in a thousand dollar suit. Wildly funny and scarily smart. If anyone could make direct mail sexy, Drayton could. After that, I moved to Asia, where I worked briefly in the midst of the inimitable Neil French. His work inspired me to write copy that was witty and smart, first and foremost. Get that right, I discovered, and the selling part would look after itself. I blame my later addiction to cigars on Frenchy too. Fortunately, I never succumbed to a ponytail.
More recently, my career has been influenced greatly by three guys: Tony Granger, Bob Isherwood and, of course, Mr Droga.
I worked alongside Tony at Bozell in New York, during its very brief, but electric heyday. He rekindled a love of great print in me. I also witnessed at first hand his legendary focus. Once Tony is locked on a target, you better join the good fight or get out of the way. That kind of discipline is rare in the creative business. It was Tony who introduced me to Bob, after he made the move to Saatchis in London (ironically, to take up the seat David Droga had just vacated).
Like everyone who’s been lucky enough to get to work closely with Bob Isherwood, I have nothing but very deep affection, respect and loyalty for the man. His departure from Saatchis has left a chasm-like vacuum at the network, regardless of the spin. Bob was as much our spiritual leader on the Worldwide Creative Board as anything else. I hear he’s now working with the White House. It’s almost enough to make you believe in politics again…
Completing the chain, it was my relationship with Bob that really formed the bridge between David and myself. We had both sat on the Creative Board alongside Bob and he shared a real friendship with us both. That link helped to oil the wheels when I made the decision to leave Saatchis to launch Droga5 in Australia. You could call it, 3 degrees of Bob.
TAXI >>Having described yourself as having the “patience of a gnat and the memory of a goldfish”, what do you think marks you apart from your peers in the industry?

David Nobay>>I guess that suggests most Creative Directors have low reserves of patience and memory. Maybe it’s true, although given the amount of moving parts entailed in the average piece of creative these days, I’d say my strengths of patience have improved a bit since I originally made that remark.

Personally, I don’t know what marks me apart. Not really for me to say. I have some strange tattoos. A grey beard, bizarrely twinned with a dark head of hair. There’s some other stuff, but then it starts getting a bit weird.
TAXI >>Congratulations on winning the VB account recently. As a foundation client for Droga5 Australia, what do you envision for the brand’s future and how do you think your agency can help to contribute to this vision?

David Nobay>>Winning VB, Australia’s biggest beer brand, straight out the gates was obviously a defining moment for us. It marked a client/agency partnership that still blows me away. Those guys have put so much faith in us, and after a year, I’m relieved to say the relationship is stronger than ever.

Given the prominence of the win, I know a lot of people in the industry were expecting us to pull off something big last year, but the truth is that we’re dealing with the re-invention of one of the most iconic brands in Australian history and that puts us on a timeline that doesn’t include doing anything rash; hence the wait.
TAXI >>How important do you think is the role of governmental support with regards to the creative industry, and how do you feel the Australian government has succeeded or failed in this aspect?

David Nobay>>Two years ago, saw the introduction of a new Government here in Australia, under Kevin Rudd. He promised a fresh level of openness, ideas and inclusion not dissimilar to some of Obama’s hopes for the new US landscape. It was interesting that Rudd’s first term was marked by an invitation to all corners of the country to come forward with ideas. In itself, that may seem like rhetoric or spin, but increasingly we’re witnessing an increased value on the power of transformational ideas as a genuine engine for government.

Potentially, that puts those of us in the commercial ideas business on a much bolder stage to demonstrate the worth and validity of what we do. I know it’s an area that Droga5 want to play an increasingly central role in, as I’m sure many new agencies do. These are scary times for many. But for those of us who are comfortable with the currency of ideas, it’s also the most exciting period in our history.agency team.

TAXI >>What is the WORD, which you think would reside and reverberate in the creative world for the next 10 years?

David Nobay>>Momentum.


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