Blowing Out Advertising’s Walls

What’s an ad? Brian Collins runs a studio within a giant agency. By using design to rethink brands, he and his band of creative misfits are changing the answer to that question.


The client’s request to its ad agency started out simply enough: Figure out what to do with the billboard the company had just secured in Times Square. It was the dead of winter 2002 when the brief landed on the desk of Brian Collins, executive creative director of the Brand Integration Group at Ogilvy & Mather in New York. Collins marched a little band of staffers over to check out the site. They stood at the center of Times Square and peered up Broadway to see how the space might look to a tourist from Omaha, Nebraska. They crouched on the sidewalk to envision it through the eyes of a 5-year-old. Then they went back to the office to dream big chocolaty dreams.


Nine months later, with the help of a cadre of architects, special-effects artists, painters, and plumbers, their beyond-the-billboard fantasies came to life when the first Hershey retail store opened at the corner of West 48th Street and Broadway, encompassing a 15-story facade celebrating Hershey’s brands and a street-level shop that’s nirvana for chocoholics. The building uses the visual language of architecture to tell the mythical tale of a chocolate company that set up shop in the city near the end of World War I and awkwardly expanded upward as it grew. With its retro lighting (exposed neon and lightbulbs that regularly burn out) and factory pipes belching colored steam, it’s at once ironic, silly, and instantly engaging. By Times Square’s current aesthetic — huge retina-blasting LED screens and semi-pornographic billboards — it’s a throwback to simpler times. By hip contemporary design standards, it’s cunningly crafted, but isn’t cool.

Collins couldn’t care less. Wrong standard, he says. The real question is, Does it tell the Hershey story? Does it make something happen? “Design is not a plan for decoration,” he says. His goal is something more tangible, the definition Charles Eames preferred: “Design is a plan for action.”

By that measure, the Hershey store is a blockbuster. It gives people an opportunity to experience the brand with all five senses. Candy-themed songs play on the sound system; the smell of chocolate is in the air; every Hershey brand is available to taste. On weekends, tourists line up for blocks to get in, to play with the hand-cranked gizmo that noisily propels a stream of Hershey’s Kisses down a curved ramp from the ceiling into a bucket, or to buy Jolly Rancher candies, Reese’s Pieces, or Kit Kat mugs, pencils, and T-shirts. Did the design produce action? You bet. Hershey says more than 2.3 million people visit every year.

The Mad Genius

The development of a new retailing concept is hardly a traditional ad agency task. But for Collins’s team, it’s par for the course. Known internally as BIG, the Brand Integration Group is Ogilvy’s in-house strategic branding and design consultancy, founded eight years ago to bridge the divide between advertising and design. “Brian’s group deconstructs the visual presence of the brand and re-creates it,” says Bill Gray, president of Ogilvy & Mather New York. “More often, you don’t know what will come out: street art, Web sites, a store, events.”

The ad industry’s plotline used to be a lot simpler: See the commercial, go to the store, buy the product. Now advertisers have to reach consumers in less-conventional ways — on the subway, on the street, on a cell phone, on a mug, on a cab, in a skate park, in a store, on a truck. It’s the perfect moment for Collins, with his affinity for many media and a design vocabulary that ranges from Disney to George Nelson.


Collins understands that the richest ideas often spring from a combustible mix of talents. To that end, he has recruited 30 artists, designers, filmmakers, strategists, writers, and architects, many of whom would normally steer clear of something so chillingly corporate as a giant agency. But at BIG, this team of “creative misfits,” as they proudly call themselves, found a sanctuary where they can do award-winning work for blue-chip clients — among them American Express, DuPont, IBM, Kodak, Motorola, Sprite, and Unilever — without sacrificing the personal voice that gives their work its verve. “Somehow Brian has created this environment where we can live and thrive,” says Leigh Okies, a young designer on the Coke account who has a degree from the Art Center College of Design.

BIG is a demanding, high-energy, and frequently exasperating place. At the helm is an exacting master with bleached hair, a manic laugh, and a metabolism that seems stuck on high. Collins’s admirers describe him as “a mad genius,” “an eccentric,” “a force of nature,” “type A personified,” and “a rock star.” At 44, he’s still both whiz and kid. Chris Wall, Ogilvy’s co-creative head, compares him to Tom Hanks in Big: childlike in his enthusiasm and freshness, but with an understanding of markets that is nuanced and sophisticated. “He’s a unique combination of a 15-year-old sophomore and his mother,” says Wall. “At the same time, he’s someone who in 15 minutes can sit down and show you how to reinvent your brand.”

Collins sees himself as ringmaster, enabler, and chief advocate of a band of gifted mavericks; his job is to match them with intriguing projects and then goad them into doing their best work. “There comes a point as a creative person where you become more excited by seeing what the people who work with you do, rather than doing it yourself,” he says.

The work the team has delivered is astonishing in its variety and breadth. For Canadian Dove/Unilever, the team was asked to plan a local photography show around the idea of what constitutes real beauty. Instead, they delivered a sophisticated show featuring 60 images of women shot by some of the world’s best female photographers, among them Annie Leibovitz and Mary Ellen Mark, challenging conventional notions of beauty.

For Sprite, the team took a comment by a young consumer — “Sprite feels like a chill explosion of lemon-lime icicles going down my throat” — and used it to create an array of designs that can morph from cans to basketball backboards to murals three stories high. “The work balances not only what is familiar about the brand but what is surprising,” says Esther Lee, chief creative officer of Coca-Cola, Sprite’s parent.


Most often, an assignment begins with an industry audit that may include ethnographic research or an inventory of products. Then designers start to make things, sharing files, getting things up on the boards for discussion and collaboration in a kind of visual rapid prototyping. Collins eventually steps in, winnowing designs, challenging his people to look for the grander, overarching idea.

While the results may look like the inside of a skate punk’s head, the strategy that informs the final design would satisfy any MBA. “Brian would push us incredibly hard to solve problems in ways that were not only sound from a business perspective but were also creatively fresh, which was nearly impossible, given some of the huge clients we were working on,” says BIG alumnus Alan Dye, now creative director of Kate Spade. “But I’ve never worked with someone so willing to put his neck on the line for the creative work.”

Changing People

Growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the oldest of five children in a large Irish Catholic family, Collins was always something of a gifted maverick himself. A flamboyant child with a precocious sense of style, he quickly found a way to protect himself from bullies. “I was funny, and I could draw,” he says. Upon graduation, Collins headed to New York, where he enrolled at Parsons School of Design, then went home to Boston and the Massachusetts College of Art.

After six years operating his own shop in suburban Boston, Collins went to work for Joe Duffy, creative head of Duffy Design in Minneapolis. The sojourn expanded Collins’s thinking beyond the hip aesthetic that had a stranglehold on the coast. “At the time, most designers were fascinated by grim postmodernist exercises,” says Collins. “Yet here was Joe, off in the West, doing decorative, funny, ironic, delightful work, and it was beautiful.” Like Collins’s Irish grandfather, Duffy believed in the power of storytelling. The experience crystallized Collins’s own design philosophy: “I have no aesthetic beyond telling a really incredible story that people are moved by,” he says.

Collins eventually found his way to Foote Cone & Belding in San Francisco, and, in 1998, returned to New York, drawn by the opportunity to run an innovative group at the agency founded by his longtime hero, David Ogilvy. Over the past seven years, Collins and his team have won innumerable industry awards. Yet asked what has meant the most to him in that brilliant run, Collins picks an example that would resonate with the kid who loved clothes, who struggled to fit in, who understood the power of imagery.


When he came to Ogilvy, he says, its security guards were dressed like zoo attendants: maroon jackets with piping, ill-fitting polyester pants. Collins commissioned outfits that looked like something a concierge might wear at a W Hotel: black jackets, gray crew-neck sweaters, tailored pants. Soon after, one of the guards stopped him in the lobby. “I can take my daughter out for a cup of coffee at Starbucks now and not look like a security guard,” he said. “It looks like I work at Ogilvy & Mather.” The next day, Collins says, you could even see the difference in the way they stood. Something had happened. “That’s how design can change people.”

Linda Tischler is a Fast Company senior writer.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.