Part 2: How (and Why) I Built a Garden for COLLINS

May 4, 2021
7 min read

COLLINS is a globally renowned strategy and design firm, known for its work with Spotify, Dropbox, MailChimp, Twitch, Airbnb, Instagram, Crane, Robinhood, and The San Francisco Symphony.

When I met the founder Brian Collins back in 2019, I was intrigued by the possibility of growing their editorial voice. I learned about the team’s astounding projects and how they were using design to build new futures for clients in a wide range of industries. I was enchanted by their use of mythology, science fiction, photography, fashion, psychology, technology, and storytelling. Brian felt like the company was sitting on stories that had yet to be told, and he wanted to change the way they talked about their work.

But let's be real:

  • Why would an agency invest in editorial? An agency is in service of its clients. Every hour is tracked and billed. The success of an agency depends on the client list, the work, and recognition in the market.
  • COLLINS did not have any trouble getting new clients or top-tier talent. They were the first design company to win AdAge's “Design Agency of the Year” (and they did it two years running). They’ve been completely independent for over a decade, while most agencies are owned by parent companies.
  • Everyone is too busy to write and resources at agencies are always scarce. 

But I was committed, with Brian’s blessing, to developing an editorial site that would highlight the amazing work that COLLINS is doing and the specific talent and voice that often goes hidden in agency land.

In my first four months with COLLINS, I studied dozens of agencies’ websites, their projects, how they spoke online, their newsletters, their Instagram captions — everything they put out into the world. I studies the COLLINS site with a fine-toothed comb. Whenever I accompanied Brian on his speaking engagements, a crowd would gather around him — everyone from MFA design students, to mid-level designers, to executives at global brands. I began asking them questions: "Let's say we started a publication, to share our craft and the thinking that goes into the work. What would you want to learn? What are you not learning in school, online, or at work? What is ultimately missing from the conversation about design and branding?"

Here's what I heard and how I connected those dots for COLLINS:

Design happens in a black box. It's an industry where so much astounding creativity is happening — yet it mostly remains hidden. I studied dozens of the top agencies around the world, and the breadth of creativity is astounding. These are incredible projects for notable brands. Yet, so much of how the sausage is made is hidden from the world. Whereas some believe they might be protecting (read: hoarding) secrets, I believe there's a benefit to showing the process. As a creative person, I want to learn about these projects, but often there's no real way to do so. You can read the Fast Company article, but that's often a surface-level treatment of the project and all of the moving parts. It's also not their job to tell this story. Their job is to tell the world about the news. There's a missed opportunity to provide context into how this kind of work is made, because so many creative people like myself look at these agencies and wonder how they produce so much great work over the years.

There’s a lack of depth in storytelling: Every agency has the same menu navigation bar: Work, About, Contact. And every agency has “case studies” on its site. These case studies are typically a series of beautiful images showcasing the design system, and there’s some text that glosses over the surface of an entire project. What creative people crave — what clients and executives and potential hires crave — is context. How can we make meaning of this work? What can people learn from this? Is there a story worth telling that inspires or educates or reveals something interesting about you as an agency? And can that moment — that sweet, sweet storytelling — draw me closer to loving, respecting, or wanting to work with this agency?

The team was sitting on a goldmine of stories but didn’t have the pickaxe. Ten years as a fully independent agency is an impressive triumph. Starting a publication for a startup is vastly different than starting one for an agency with 10 years of history. The challenge is digging into this goldmine and extracting the wealth. Early in 2019, I sent out an invite via an Instagram story to come to the NYC office; over 100 people responded and submitted over 350 questions that they would ask the leaders at COLLINS in NYC. That’s 350 potential articles; 350 conversations. Ultimately I wanted to use this moment to answer some questions: What are we making? And who are we making it for? What does success look like?

There was an existing audience. It doesn't elude me that COLLINS has fame and an existing audience. Through all of the different channels available, I had to find the connecting thread of that audience. Who are the people who not only love our work but also will share our stories within their circles? That ranges across the board, including design students, creatives in mid-level roles, all kinds of agency founders, and executives at global brands. Okay, everyone. The challenge — and beautiful constraint — was to tell stories that an MFA design student could learn from and see how the work is made while also speaking to leaders at companies who could be inspired by how we think and who want to be part of future possibilities.

What does success look like for IDEAS? It was vital to define this early in the strategy or else we wouldn’t know if what we were doing was working. Publications in the context of COLLINS are for growing affinity. Yes, we make great work and we also tell useful, resourceful, and inspiring stories about how we think about creativity and design. It’s not about conversions; there’s not a monitor that tracks every bit of traffic from IDEAS and how it might funnel into new business. That kills the soul of the work. Trust the process. (But don’t tell that to most CMOs or brand marketers.)

Luckily for me, there was buy-in from the start. My fantastic collaborators (shout-out to the team: Karin Soukup, Ben Crick, Michael Taylor, Zuzanna Rogatty, Sanuk Kim, Yeun Kim, Mackenzie Pringle, Bryan Chu, Diego Segura, Michael Di Leo, and Brian Collins) saw the possibilities for building our own garden as a way to differentiate ourselves from the competition, tell stories that build community, and earn trust with new clients. It was also a sandbox for designers to make artwork that wasn't client-facing. It was a stage in which everyone in the company had a voice. We called it IDEAS.

We shipped in July 2020. From July to December, we published over 25 stories — from opinions about creativity and design to an interview with Richard Danne (designer of NASA's iconic worm logo). Case studies on the work page now have context with Case Stories — a long-form editorial that shines a light on the leaders who we collaborate with and how the work is made. All of this is for context, not content. We invite readers in and pull the curtain back to show our craft and the critical thinking that goes into these projects.

Since launching, we’ve won new business because of IDEAS. Executives come in and mention that we’re one of the only agencies doing great work at scale and also telling inspiring stories about them. Our stories are being shared among all kinds of creative people. A recent story published had over 30,000 views in a week; 2,000 swipe-ups on a single Instagram story; 1,000 link clicks via LinkedIn. Agencies typically only get noticed when new work goes out and it hits all of the typical newsletters and blogs. Within 24 hours, it’s forgotten. But a publication keeps your voice in the conversation. 

We won AdAge for the second year in a row because of our work with Twitch and our editorial platform, IDEAS.

I’ll say it again and again: Don’t grow your garden in someone else’s yard. Understand your point of view and tell your stories where you can shape not only the narrative, but the future of your own work, ideas, product, and presence. You’ll never regret building that for your product and for your brand. 

You build a garden. You produce unique fruit that only you can because of the soil you’re on, the seeds you cultivated, and the knowledge that you have. You then share that beautiful produce with neighbors and with people around the world. They talk about it, tell their friends about it. Every time they see your logo, they think about the amazing fruit they love so much. This is the idea of a publication and great storytelling. Building an audience is the most defensible thing you can do. 

If you’re Coca-Cola, running ads is the best bet. It is what built their empire. 

But for everyone else, stop growing your garden in other people’s yards.


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