Ted Royer has anIDEA.
Illustrations by Dan Kane
Ted Royer is not Don Draper. And thank God for that. He might have all of the Mad Men antihero's charisma and creative spark, but unlike Don Draper, he has a soul. A funny one, too.
He left behind most of Draper's dependency on alcohol and cigarettes in his misspent youth. Now, with an impish grin and a wicked sense of humor, he's working to make the ad industry just a little better than the reputation for which it's notorious. He's a father of two who colleagues say is professor-smart and can easily switch from talking about the intricacies of Captain America's origin stories to long-forgotten battles in rural France during World War II. The guy's a sponge for information, but a discerning one. He is the keeper of what's important, what he'll obsess over in loving detail, and what may be the inspiration for creative ad campaigns.
His eyes exude a youthful, gentle warmth with well-worn laugh lines etched after years of belly-achers. He's the kind of guy who looks like he has about five ideas up his sleeve when he meets you. The dogged approach he takes to his work is evident when you find him in a rumpled button-down, sleeves rolled up, and the hints of a beard beginning to emerge from a 5 o'clock shadow.
If you're not careful, he'll grab your notebook and start sketching when the spirit moves him. Trust me, it's happened. Rumor has it he's even good with an Etch a Sketch. And who's even good at Etch a Sketches?
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered
Royer's path to becoming one of the country's top ad creatives wasn't preordained by any stretch of the imagination, but he has been thinking about it since he was 8.
"I was watching re-runs of the show Bewitched when it first struck me," Royer says. "Darren had this job where he's always stressing out about making ads, and that was the first time I thought of it as an actual career. I thought that would be kind of an interesting, fun job."
Royer didn't follow any defined sequence, to the extent there is one, to becoming an ad man while at Richmond. He struggled like many students to find what interested him. He had to de-pledge and then re-pledge Sigma Chi for academics. Ultimately, he found his niche in the humanities.
"I had a 1.8 GPA my first two years," Royer says. "I've got to be honest because I want students to know that you can stumble, but then recover and be fine. It doesn't define you if you get bad grades."
Eventually he discovered he enjoyed his classes in history and political science enough to double major. The running joke among his friends – particularly those in the business school – was that Royer would never be able to find a job after graduation.
"At the end of the day, Ted was always searching for something that he could vest all these great things he has inside of him," says Brian Merkel, R'89, who shared a UFA apartment with Royer their senior year. "And he didn't always have that along the way."
In some ways, Merkel identified with that struggle. He was a biology major who didn't want to go to med school. "It's easier and more reassuring if the path in front of you is very clear with very defined steps you take that lead you to a particular outcome," Merkel says.
After graduation, Royer found a job waiting tables at Penny Lane Pub in downtown Richmond, but he also kept perusing the newspaper ads to see what could he make better, who's hiring, and whether he could land a job.
"I was interviewing him, and I think I said, 'Hang on and let me talk to the owner of the agency,'" says Dawn Waters, the former vice president of Caswell Coleman, a now defunct Richmond ad agency. "It seems like you can offer a bit more than just the skills of a receptionist."
And thus Royer landed his first gig in advertising. It wasn't a glorious one. He worked on commission at a tiny, tiny agency that's since become defunct. Waters says she can't remember that he ever answered the phones, but he probably did occasionally. They all had to. The agency was so small the owner used to ask Waters and Royer to bring in friends and significant others when they had clients visiting to make it look like they were a bustling agency. It was all a farce – one that Royer and Waters spent hours laughing at: the fake reviews of ads on VHS tapes, the fake meetings, all of the sound and fury signifying nothing. It was ridiculous, but worth plenty of good laughs once the actual clients left.
"He just wanted an in," Waters says. "And I totally got that. I was the same way just a few years before him. I'm just glad we realized as early as we did that he was capable of possibly more than that. And clearly that was something he became very good at."
"I was terrible at that job," Royer says. "Because I'm just not a natural salesman. But whenever I met with creatives – the art directors and copywriters coming up with the ideas – I thought, that's the job. That's really fun."
The creatives told him he should attend the Portfolio Center in Atlanta. He took their advice. The rest has been a crazy ride since.
"I think he's an inspirational figure," says Merkel, his old roommate. And he's not being hyperbolic. Merkel's now a college professor in Wisconsin, and he thinks of Ted when he's trying to advise and mentor students along different paths. "They're really passionate," Merkel says. "But they can't seem to find an area to plug into with all these things they have to offer. And Ted's kind of a great example of that being OK for now."
We're not ashamed to be in advertising. We just think that it can be better – agencies and brands can be more responsible and do better work. We're an ad agency – it's fine to say that. We just want to take the same muscles and avenues people use and do a better job of it. It doesn't have to be only noise or sales.
What Wholesome Looks Like
Royer left Atlanta and eventually ended up in Southeast Asia working for Saatchi and Saatchi Singapore. That's where he met David Droga. As Droga tells it, he hasn't been able to shake Royer since. They were both in their early 20s then, and Droga's seen Royer go from sleeping more in the beanbag chair in his office to becoming the kind of family man most guys aspire to be.
"He was one of 20 very talented creatives even back then," Droga says. "We were both young and naïve, but we were producing work that was great for the region. Beyond just how likable he is, he's exceptionally talented. I just liked his take on the world and creativity, and I just thought it was quite unique."
They both left Singapore – Droga to head up Saatchi's London office, and Royer to South America. Eventually, Publicis, a large holdings company, bought Saatchi and named Droga its worldwide creative director. He called Royer to help do a tour of offices and assess the creative leadership in the different global markets.
In 2006, Droga quit Publicis a few years later to start his own agency – Droga5. A year after that, he again brought on Royer. "I'm an old-school boy," Droga explains. "It was very important to me that there was someone I had a shorthand with, that I trusted implicitly."
The early cast of characters was probably the most influential in shaping the agency's ethic and in positioning it for its growth from a handful of staff to more than 500 today. "Ted's always been someone who sees big picture and is grounded in the humanity of our agency," Droga says. "So that's why, for me, he was one of my first choices to help shape the agency."
"He also doesn't hide the fact that he spent his childhood watching every television show that ever existed," Droga says. "There's a certain innocence and mass appeal to Ted's creative flair. He's also got a wicked sense of humor, which I like as well. He manages to elevate the everyday into something creative, and I like that very much."
That dynamic – turning the everyday into something creative – is exactly what Royer's creative team did for a 2014 campaign with Honey Maid graham crackers that redefined "what wholesome looks like" while connecting it to the company's nearly 90 years of various looks and names.
"One of our creatives, Kevin Brady, was was on the playground watching this heavily tattooed father with a mohawk playing with his daughter. And that stuck with him – how sweet it was. It's so completely normal and wholesome," Royer says. "The face of wholesome is changing all around us, but the principles haven't changed."
That idea became the narrative about Honey Maid on which Droga5 based its whole campaign. The biggest challenge was helping Honey Maid get behind the core message that the company could make a statement about its longstanding reputation for wholesomeness but also have an opinion about the changing face of what is wholesome – that the 50s ideal of a nuclear, white, straight family isn't the only way to be wholesome. And whether you're tattooed, gay, Latino, or whatever, anyone can relate to these timeless qualities of being human. The spots featured loving families just being families. Their identities (gay, Latino, etc.) were embraced as an unremarkable part of being human and enjoying life together as a family.
"It was really different when we launched it," Royer says. "We were the first to overtly say this is [also] good, this is [also] wholesome, to have a brand stand up for that kind of principle."
The campaign inspired a few copycats. When Campbell's Soup began running ads with same-sex parents too, the advertising press wryly commented that Campbell's was pulling a Honey Maid.
"We also see the positive ramifications of our industry," says Droga. "It's not just about producing work and selling stuff. It's very helpful to me when people know that the creative leadership looks at not just the mechanics of advertising, but the power of it."
Campaigns like this one have a special resonance with Royer now that he's a father of two.
"I am far sappier than I used to be," Royer says. "As a creative director and someone who judges work, the heartwarming stuff I was bored with as a 20-year-old I find resonates with me more. And I also have a deeper awareness of what I'm going to put out in the world and what kind of message we're sending."
Royer also tries to bring to life moments he has with his kids – pretending to be a dinosaur with his kids or the vacation home doorway covered with height marks are just two of the images he's eager to turn into something.
"He hasn't lost his personality to become a great father," says the agency head Droga. "It's almost like having children is a crescendo for him."
His sense of humor has only sharpened with age. A few years ago, when he and his wife welcomed their first child, he – true to form – mocked up a birth announcement recreated the famous Vanity Fair cover of a naked, pregnant Demi Moore. The only twist? He cast himself in the lead role for the shoot.
Who Even Uses the Word "Chalice"?
It's no secret that beer ads trade in ridiculous action sequences or play to tired stereotypes of idiotic guys robotically in search of women and dumb fun. Others paint an overly sophisticated veneer of beer's classiness. But it's just beer.
That's where Royer and Droga5 guided Newcastle, a company and area of England with a reputation for being straightforward and honest. Royer's creative work for Newcastle Brown Ale was based on the premise that all beer marketing is a load of hogwash; Newcastle's ads would come from a place of real honesty and offer a new perspective on the stupidity of most beer ads.
"The first brief basically said that the world is full of bollocks, and it needs a dose of honesty," says Droga5 client Charles Van Es, former senior brand director fo Newcastle Brown Ale. "We're going to be refreshingly honest with you. No more bulls--t. We're going to give it to you straight."
Van Es says the work that Droga and Royer came with was refreshing, direct, simple, and very funny. Their ads poking fun at Stella Artois and its "chalices" went viral online. They took on the insanity of the Super Bowl, coming out of the gate with a series of ads hyping and talking about the mega, big Super Bowl spot that never was. In an ad spot last year, they rented space to other companies, mocking the fact that spots cost a fortune and limit ad buys to companies who can pony up the ridiculous prices.
"The interesting thing about advertising is that you have to have a good sense of humor, but you have to figure out the stuff that works for people," Van Es says. "It has to be universal enough to reach a big audience.
"What I think is very special about Ted," Van Es says. "is that he's invested in genuine, authentic creative work that is mostly truly trying to do something different and not just delivering another campaign."
Designed Not to be Forgotten
When it comes to creative campaigns, Royer's also not afraid to boldly go where others have gone before. No one really wants to talk about toilet paper. If it works well, you don't notice or appreciate it. It becomes an issue only when the roll runs out or the sheets disintegrate in your hands.
Last year, Royer and Droga were working on a pitch to Quilted Northern and attempting to find a cool, fun way to express what the brand was all about: pride in technology, a venerable name, etc. But they realized that in reality, Quilted Northern's highest aspiration is never being noticed. Its product is designed to be flushed down the toilet, literally.
The team began thinking about the things you can't forget in the bathroom. And the fact we all have strange knick-knacks or pictures in our bathrooms. From that, a campaign of dark humor was born from the perspective of the long-suffering, beleaguered bathroom objects who see and smell everything. You've probably seen these on air: the framed picture of grandpa, the porcelain figurines or children's toys lamenting years of olfactory suffering.
The risks were great with that campaign. It was a completely different direction for a Quilted Northern, a company that prided itself so much on the manufacturing process of its toilet paper that it put "quilted" in its name. But ultimately, they took a chance and gave the order to run the ads. Their market share rose among key sellers, and brand awareness is at a 20-year high. The spots went over so well Droga5 will shoot a second series of them.
Most of Droga5 and Royer's work won't soon be forgotten. And it's clearly being noticed and talked about. Ad Age has named Droga as to its agency A-list five times. And Royer was recently named one of AdWeek's indispensable executives this year. Part of this praise is because of the way they approach their work – it's not just about the message, it's about the power of the medium itself.
Royer has won too many additional industry accolades to count or list, but what's most impressive are the causes and clients he likes to land. Pay equity for women? He's worked on it with the National Women's Law Center and speaks with the passion that comes from having a small daughter. Income insecurity at retirement? He's worked with Prudential on it. And he's managed to tap into the human experience in ways that resonate with individuals and help move us forward, whether through graham crackers or beer or retirement planning. It's a long way from the cynicism of Don Draper about the world. And it's a far cry from those even within the industry hesitant to own the work they do.
"We're not ashamed to be in advertising," Royer says. "We just think that it can be better – agencies and brands can be more responsible and do better work. We're an ad agency – it's fine to say that. We just want to take the same muscles and avenues people use and do a better job of it. It doesn't have to be only noise or sales."
The company's success is proof of that. Droga5 has grown exponentially over the eight years since its founding. Royer's been a big part of that – with an infectious laugh and personality, he helps excite people about the work the agency is doing. And, after all of this success, his teddy bear personality has remained constant. He's still the guy who wants to make you laugh harder than you've laughed before. He's still humble, understated and kind, on the floor, pretending to be a dinosaur with his kids.
"At the end of the day, I know this sounds lame, he's just a f---ing good, old-school good person," says his partner David Droga. "I think everyone is happy for his successes. Not just because he's likeable, but because he earns it. You like the good guys to win."