Creative Creative Works My Creative Career

My Creative Career: Shelley Smoler, chief creative officer at Droga5


By Amy Houston, Senior Reporter

May 4, 2023 | 9 min read

As part of our My Creative Career series, Droga5’s first female creative chief talks about her journey to the top.

Shelley Smoler

Shelley Smoler

By her own admission, Shelley Smoler – who grew up in South Africa – has always been in her own little artistic world. “My Dad used to call me an astronaut because my head was always in the clouds, drawing things.”

Early on, she knew she’d like to pursue some type of creative career but had no idea what that might look like or how to make money doing it. Her father, an engineer, wasn’t as keen and encouraged her to get a degree in something that would potentially be more lucrative.

She initially studied psychology but then followed that with an honors degree in design. Fortunately, during her university placement, she was put into an advertising agency which is when her attention became laser-focused on the creative department. “I wanted to come up with the ideas. I got obsessed with it,” she recalls. “They moved me over and I loved it. I was hooked.”

Smoler would spend hours poring over annuals and at every opportunity, delving into the ad world to learn as much as she could. She even wrote her thesis on South Africa’s advertising industry. “It was about how we should stop drawing inspiration from the Western world and come up with our own style,” she continues.

“As a reference, I used this one book that spoke a lot to that. It was called Marketing Through Mud and Dust by Muzi Kuzwayo.” As fate would have it, when she finished her university course, she read that Kuzwayo was opening an ad agency in Johannesburg.

Smoler ended up penning the author a letter, detailing how much the book had meant to her and how much she would love to get into advertising. The letter landed her first job at the fledgling creative agency King James in Cape Town.

There were around four people at the beginning, she remembers. They each had to wear many hats but it was great as they got a feel for every part of agency life. “I was half-creative-producer-PA-everything,” she laughs. “I grew with it and could focus more on the creative side.”

Her mentor during those early years was her executive creative director, Eoin Welsh, who taught her everything she knows. “He was a bit of an advertising legend at the time. It was an incredible opportunity and I loved it from the get-go. It was never a job; I didn’t see it like that. It was my life, all-encompassing.”

After four years of learning the ropes, Smoler made the move to TBWA Hunt Lascaris and stay there for almost six years. “That’s when I transitioned to thinking about advertising as a very local industry to a much more global platform.”

The creative’s ambitions began to grow, she realized the global nature of the industry she was in and just how exciting a prospect it was to bring some different, new ideas, to it. She refers to her thesis and her core beliefs that everyone should have their own unique style. “When I truly embraced that, that’s when it started getting noticed internationally.”

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International acclaim came in 2009 for her work on a billboard campaign for The Zimbabwean Newspaper. It featured walls adorned with real banknotes to highlight the damage President Robert Mugabe had caused the South African economy. It would go on to win a coveted D&AD black pencil. “I think it’s the most iconic piece of work I’ve done because it probably had the biggest impact on the world,” she says.

Newspaper - 01

Transcending the world of advertising, the work sits in the British and also the Design Museum. “It created change, it helped lift the import duty and get the paper back into the hands of the people who actually needed it.”

After a stint at TBWA, she left her home country for BBH in London. That role would introduce her to a new mentor, David Kolbusz. Each person she has encountered along the way has left their mark on her somehow, she adds.

“I’m like a sponge, I absorb everything around me,” Smoler quotes John Hegarty as saying that you shouldn’t play music on your way into work but listen to the world instead. “I draw inspiration from everywhere, from magazines, books and galleries to music and film. There isn’t one source of inspiration.”

Eventually, she followed Kolbusz to Droga5 in 2017 and, after his departure last year, she was appointed as chief creative officer – its first female creative chief. To this day, she continues to champion diversity in everything she does and "loves work that doesn’t fit into one category.” She credits a campaign made for Uniqlo that featured singer-songwriter Solange Knowles as breaking that mold. “It was part art installation-part music video. What I love is that it was for mass market fashion, but it got into Vogue with the rest of high fashion.”

Second-hand luxury clothing app Vestiare Collective is another client that’s work she highlights as special to her. Its purpose-driven messaging features very fashionable puppets while remaining lighthearted and entertaining.

“My career doesn’t feel like a career,” Smoler says. “It blurs the boundaries between my passions and my job. Yes, it's how I make a living but it's something I live and breathe.” Creativity is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle, she explains. It’s the way a person thinks.

The job hasn’t come without its challenges, though. Creativity, by its very nature, can be a personal thing. “Advertising and the work we do can be quite subjective. It’s going to evoke different emotions in different people which makes it harder to see your point of view. Not everyone will agree,”

“But that’s when you know you’re on to something good when it’s objectively well received by a whole range of very diverse people. It’s a human truth that resonates with different people.”

It’s challenging but gratifying, she explains. For her personally, the biggest hurdle to overcome is diversity within the industry. “There are so many brilliant creatives that don’t know advertising is an option. By hiring from the same institutions, the same kind of people and the same mold, we’re creating a lot of the same work,”

Her focus this year is looking for talent outside of the usual places. She even suggests that she would be open to hiring comedians, chefs or musicians adding that her own creative partner of 13 years was an architect. “It helps our industry when you get people from different walks or life, thinking of things in different ways. It’s not just art directors and copywriters that are creative.”

To anyone looking to get into this industry she advises that they don’t stop learning. “Never feel like you have the answer, try to find different solutions from new angles and fresh eyes.”

Like this story? Read our interview with Uncommon's Nils Leonard about his creative path.

Creative Creative Works My Creative Career

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