Signs of the Times (Square)

In a candid conversation with Fast Company, Brian Collins, executive creative director of the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy & Mather, expands on the team's approach to architecture, marketing, and storytelling.

by Linda Tischler

Fast Company: What does the Brand Integration Group do?

Brian Collins: The agency's mission to find more, broader ways of connecting with consumers. The 30-second spot is a powerful medium, but media is splintering. We look at a problem and try to see where the brand really comes to life. My job is to work with the agency to find out where the brand really lives? It might be in the street! For Sprite, it might be cooler at a 7-11 in Texas, at a skate park or a concert in LA, or at a beach party. The brand lives experientially. It lives in its packaging. And it lives in promotions. The job of my team is to say, "Where does this come to life? What can we do to transform it so it gains velocity, so it shows up on the cultural map?" You've got to love the Yogi Berra quote, "You can see a lot just by looking."

FC: What kind of people do you have on your team?

Collins: I hire people who are much more talented than me. In every area: Graphic design, strategy, management, and client relations.

FC: What's your role?

Collins: Remember the old Ed Sullivan show with the plate spinners? I want that rather than a job where people are second guessing me. It becomes about second guessing the client, who's second guessing the consumer. And it becomes a house of mirrors. I hire people who inspire me. My job is simple: to find the most extraordinary people I can, and then go out and find the most extraordinary clients. I see them do things I could never do. I never could have redesigned Content magazine.

FC: One of your group's best-loved projects is the Hershey store in Times Square. How did that come about?

Collins: We asked ourselves, "Where does this brand come to life?" In the case of Hershey, it. comes to life in a store. Mostly, it's a Wal-Mart, Target, 7-11. Candy is the first thing kids buy when they get money. It usually happens at a store. In the case of the Hershey store, I think brands risk commoditization because of the brand presentation at the big box stores. You don't have much of an opportunity to create personality at those places, although Target does a reasonable job. You don't have an opportunity to tell your brand story. It's stack 'em high and let 'em fly. In many cases, you're competing on price.

FC: How is the Hershey store different?

Collins: If you go into the Hershey store, what you have is an opportunity to live the brand in all five senses. Music, what it tastes like, what it smells like, what it looks like. You take that incredible experience with you when you leave and go to Wal-Mart, CVS, or Duane Reade. If you've been visiting New York as a tourist, you remember it, and it becomes much more tangible.

FC: What's different about a Hershey store than, say, the M&Ms store in Las Vegas?

Collins: In the case of Hershey, they had incredible mythology around chocolate making that had been highjacked in many people's imaginations. If I asked you to name America's favorite chocolate bar, you'd say Hershey. If I asked you to name the best chocolate factory, you'd say Willy Wonka because of storytelling. It's more memorable. Hershey is the real thing. You can go to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. You can see the factory, the land where the cows graze, where milk chocolate came from. What I was baffled by is that you have this mythology, it's the real thing, and Warner Bros. and Fox is taking it to the bank! You can't buy mythology, but what it does give dimensionality. It makes people remember that this is a real place. There was a real man who built the park, built the schools, built an orphanage. And it smells good. The streets smell like chocolate. It blew my mind. The lights are made of Hershey's Kisses. Unless you've been to Hershey, this mythology wasn't being burnished.

FC: How did you plan to translate that to Times Square?

Collins: Let's look at it as architecture, not as a billboard. What would have been here? They would have been here since 1914. First floor, 1910. Second floor, 1930. Third floor, 1940. Then we didn't have room to go any where. To the right was an old Vaudeville theater. The only place to go was up. We're designing a story. It was theatrical. But we're on Broadway. The second thing was that, looking at Times Square and its history, we decided that it's all about layering. It's about seeing the past under the present. The best shot we had was from 1962, with Howard Johnson's. It's the same sign, so you have the idea of layering. The business problem was that Hershey's really wasn't getting credit from the street for being America's leading confection company. A bigger opportunity was how do we do this? The fact that they emerged over time meant that we could use the iconography from Times Square.

FC: What were the design elements you used to tell this story?

Collins: What made people come to Times Square was that it was the Great White Way. Something spun. Something moved. Giant things! When we looked at the north part of Times Square, it was all digital, all big screens. People don't come to see big TV screens. They want to see blinking lights, things that move. I said, "Let's use no technology that was built after 1965. Let's get things that move, spin, twirl. Let's make it look like it's chaotic." It was built over time, so that as Hershey's continued to grow, they just bolted things on. That would give us permission. We didn't have a budget to do architecture. We just had a budget to do signs.

FC: Wasn't it tough finding architectural elements that existed that long ago?

Collins: It was really great working with the lighting manufacturer. I wanted exposed neon. They said, "No; you've got to put that in casing. It's all going to break. It's going to look ugly." I said, "No; I want it exposed." They said, "People haven't done that in 50 years!" Exactly! When I was a kid, I used to love the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show. Do you remember the end when the lights would come up and the lights would blow out? I wanted that. There hasn't been a sign like that with all the bulbs in New York in 30 years. They said, "Five of them will blow out a week!" I said, "Yeah!" Look: They're blown out here. It looks like they're mistakes. There are cracks in them. That reminds me of my favorite Leonard Cohen poem, "Anthem."

"Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

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