Brian Collins: Dream Designer

About two years ago, when Brian Collins was interviewing candidates to build his team at Collins:, the New York-based design division of The Martin Agency, he asked Lee Maschmeyer to explain the difference between advertising and design. His answer identifying how each discipline would approach an assignment to grow market share for a scissor company selling right-handed scissors to left-handed people landed him the job.

“Advertising people would come up with a way to sing the praises of right-handed scissors for left-handed people,” says Maschmeyer. “Designers would come up with left-handed scissors.”

It’s a problem-solving point of difference that Collins has bumped against throughout his career, which includes tenures at Fallon, FCB and Ogilvy & Mather.

Ten years ago, when Ogilvy and then CCO and co-president Rick Boyko launched BIG, the Brand Innovation Group within the WPP agency that produced lauded brand initiatives such as the Hershey’s store in Times Square, Collins and his team had to push through age-old reflexes towards standard advertising solutions.

Only in recent years, as the industry has been forced by the rise of digital technology and media fragmentation to embrace forms of communication once considered “below the line,” has he seen a newfound respect and increased need for strong design thinking in ad agencies.    

“The emerging advertising and marketing model is ‘proof first. promise later,'” says Collins, 50, an ebullient, quick-witted, fast-talking Bostonian of Irish heritage who has a flair for storytelling and can effortlessly shift from a playful, infectious laugh to the serious, informative tone of academia.

“Smarter marketers are delivering brand and product experiences first, and advertising it later, if at all. Within a few short years, a category-leading traditional ad budget may well be a sign of brand weakness, not of strength.  Advertising will be a tax on those who can’t design great digital and analog experiences,” predicts Collins, who teaches courses in design at the School of Visual Arts graduate program.  “Experience — first marketing reverses the equation. Deliver your very best to some, and they will sell the many in ways that no media plan could envision. The media is not the message anymore. Now, the experience is the message that ignites the media.”

After two decades of working inside ad agencies, Collins, who assumed full ownership of the firm at the end of July, will be challenged to deliver on the Charles Eames-preferred definition of design he’s adhered to, “a plan of action,” by building a successful business based on that principle. While the plan with Martin was always to eventually spin off the division into his own company, says Collins, the leap was accelerated by new business opportunities that conflicted with Martin’s growing client roster. Maschmeyer, the 29-year-old Southerner who first caught Collins’ attention with a blog he used to write, Whistle Through Your Comb, is the first to officially join him.

The post-Martin Collins: is off to a good start. The group that has created brand experiences for CNN and Microsoft now has projects in progress for Barclaycard, NBC, a “major retailer” that he cannot yet reveal and a design-themed TV show.

“I know he’ll do great,” says Mike Hughes, president and co-creative director at The Martin Agency, who credits Collins with helping the agency win pitches for Pizza Hut, Moen, Manpower, Tylenol and Microsoft, as well as Adweek’s 2009 Agency of the Year honor. “People expect a design person to be the person who makes things look nice,” says Hughes. “Brian’s obviously good at that, but he is a precise and articulate strategic thinker. He can find ways to figure out the simplest path from where you are to where you want to be.” (CLICK HERE to see more pictures from our Brian Collins photo shoot.)