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.)

Hughes had long tried to lure Collins to the Richmond, Va., agency, but it wasn’t until late 2006 when they ran into each other as competitors at a Walmart pitch that a casual exchange of mutual admiration soon became a partnership.

The first client they pitched together in 2007 was the Alliance for Climate Protection. Inspired by the thinking in Al Gore’s Assault on Reason and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, Collins says he found the crystallizing branding solution in the “We the people” phrase of the Constitution. To impart the idea that responsibility for the environment is everyone’s, “me” became “we” and the Gore organization’s new logo.

One of the many award-winning projects he worked on while at Ogilvy was BP’s Helios House, a LEED-certified gas station that has become a green design destination in Los Angeles and won a Grand CLIO in Design in 2008. Watching the environmental disaster unfold in the Gulf Coast “has been heartbreaking on every level,” Collins says. The station was intended to provoke discussion and the design to be replicated in other locations, but after corporate changes at the time, the larger plan never materialized. “On the one hand people want to reduce the amount of energy we spend but are ambivalent when it comes to the freedom they enjoy with automobiles. So we decided to go to the heart of the paradox,” he says.

Passionate about using his skills to better the world around him, Collins, who lives by the mantra, “Design is hope made visible,” discussed the global water crises at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a member of the Global Agenda Council on Design. And with the work he is doing using “design as a tool for transformation,” and the network show Collins: is developing, Collins hopes to help bring a greater understanding of the power of design and the meaningful impact it can have on solving real-world business and social problems. Too often people think the role of a designer is simply about “what colors should the drapes be?” he says.

It’s the depth that Collins brings to his projects that repeat clients and past colleagues point to. “Brian has an incredible understanding of brands, not just the visual expression, but the soul of a brand and he’s able to express it in a really powerful way,” says Michelle Bottomley, CMO, Barclaycard U.S., who worked with Collins at OgilvyOne. Recently she began to work with him as a client to “develop an ideal customer experience map” that leverages the company’s partnerships with brands such as Apple, L.L. Bean and Barnes & Noble. “The kind of creative ideas he comes up with are fun, engaging and out of the box.”

Stuart Ruderfer, CEO of Civic Entertainment Group, who is currently working with Collins to launch NBC’s “Education Nation” initiative this fall, says Collins “understands how to use design to rally people behind an important cause.” He’s seen Collins turn a drab New York diner into “the most popular watering hole” at the 2004 Republican Convention and in 2008 export the restaurant/broadcast studio concept to Denver as the “CNN Grill” for the Democratic Convention as part of the “CNN=Politics” campaign developed with Martin. He knows how to create an experience “that is theatrical, meaningful, tells a story and stands for something,” says Ruderfer. “His work has authenticity.”

As he gets ready to move into his new space in Union Square, one treasured possession that is sure to stay close to him is a 1967 map of Disneyland that sits near his colorful collection of books and pieces of past projects. “That’s the happiest place on earth,” he says.

Not only is it one of the most influential pieces of social design ever produced, he says, Disney is a representation of reinventing something with imagination. With the creation of Main Street and Tomorrowland, Disney incorporated past, present and an predictive vision of the future, he says. “Disneyland is a perfect example of building the familiar and the comfortable with the provocative and the surprising, which is what every good experience does,” he says. “The lessons there are remarkable. It reminds me of the power of design, story and technology to create meaning and memory.”

Collins hasn’t run his own company since he was in his 20s and a recent graduate of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in Boston. But he’s excited by the prospect. As he continues to aspire to new career heights, he remains grounded, recalling the comment his Irish grandfather made when he was first named vp at FCB. “Do you think your head will be able to fit outside the door you walked in?” the elder asked.

Collins credits his success to the support he’s had throughout his life. From the aunt who took him fabric shopping as a teenager to create his own colorful fashions and his parents who always encouraged his artistic interests. And the colleagues he’s learned from who supported his work, like Joe Duffy, Chuck McBride, Rick Boyko, Mike Hughes, the people he works with and the students he teaches.

He’s also admittedly extremely lucky. (CLICK HERE to see some of Brian Collins’ best work.)

COLLINS’ GREATEST HITS

TABLE TALK

A Denver restaurant is turned into CNN central at the 2008 Democratic Convention for ‘CNN=Politics’ push:

CHOCOLATE FACTORY

At Ogilvy’s BIG, Collins created a colorful, multi-story candy store that is a Time Square destination:

STEPPING OUT

Microsoft’s first foray into retail came with a new visual identity and packaging, and a 180-foot digital display:

PEOPLE POWERED

“Me” is flipped into “we” to inspire action and emphasize the climate crisis is a shared responsibility for the Alliance for Climate Protection: