Collins maintains momentum by not 'missing the magic'
Brian Collins loves accents. Just a few minutes into our interview, seizing on my Canadian pronunciation of the word “out” in a question about Collins being named Ad Age’s A-List Design Agency of the Year for the third year running, the founder and chief creative officer of the firm that bears his name launches into a self-described ramble about the “gift” of hearing non-native English speakers’ inflections.
“I’ll tell you why I love accents: it’s because each of those people [with an accent] have chosen to speak in a language that is not their original language. To hear an accent is to hear a desire to live on a frontier,” Collins says with the flair of a classic orator. As is often the case in speaking with him, the path to the crux of our conversation is not linear; we chat about childhood vacations to Quebec, the immigrant makeup of New York City, and “Star Trek” canon as an allegory for diversity—all on the topic of accents. But he hasn’t forgotten my original question.
“We’re stronger by what makes us different,” he says.
Collins the man and Collins the agency share many parallels, chief among them: the so-called unintentionality woven into their creative processes. Ideating freely and thinking with what Collins calls “serendipity,” the equally important antitheses to logic and order, mean that every project the creative firm produces is approached with a fresh lens and ambitious perspective. “People get efficiency and effectiveness completely confused,” he says, and distinguishing between the two—allowing for mistakes, exploring different avenues, bucking one-size-fits-all formulas—has helped his shop thrive.
“If all you do is address the intentional needs of a project,” like budgets, agency competition and media distribution, Collins adds, “then you miss the magic.”
It’s been a banner year for the formerly Manhattan-based design agency, which is in the final stages of construction on a new and reimagined headquarters in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Collins has added more than two dozen new clients to its roster (a full-year agency record), including Amazon, Clubhouse, Netflix and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; at the same time, it didn’t lose a single existing client and continued hiring new staff throughout to reach the 50-employee benchmark.
Despite a 7.4% year-over-year decline posted in 2020—hardly an outlier among pandemic-stricken agencies—the shop’s portfolio has continued to grow with some of the finest work the 13-year-old agency has produced to date, from bringing Robinhood to the forefront of finance to revitalizing the centuries-old Crane Paper company to using sonic technology to help energize the San Francisco Symphony.
That success is something Collins recognizes he’s blessed to have. Originally starting out at the height of the Great Recession with four employees and as many laptops in the back of someone else’s agency, he knows what it’s like to struggle and be “on the flipside” of success in the ad industry. And even thinking back to the beginning of 2020, when some of the agency’s projects were canceled and a few of its anchor clients paused all spending, Collins held his breath—and emerged on the other side unscathed.
On this topic Collins, always an enthusiastic storyteller, gets straight to the point: “We take nothing for granted.”