PowerStation Studios’ Dave Collins on passion, creativity and designing for a “wow” every time

Dave Collins, Co-Founder of PowerStation Studios, on video games, Skunk Works and not playing it safe.

PowerStation Studios is a global full-service agency that prides itself on helping brands thrive through exceptional, disruptive creativity.

From KISS to Paw Patrol, Call of Duty to Rubik’s, the agency boasts a diverse client list and offers services that spans the entire process, from product ideation to experiential executions.

We caught up with Dave Collins, Co-Founder of PowerStation Studios, to get his thoughts on design, creativity and helping brands soar.

Dave Collins, PowerStation Studios

Hi Dave, great to catch up. To kick us off, what set you on the path to work with brands?
It was accidental! I didn’t know this industry existed at all. It was through a friend who worked at an agency. They were struggling to grow the agency, and, at that time, I had been helping large corporates win big contracts with new clients. That was my first step into this space. I had previously been working in oil, gas and pharmaceuticals; this was a creative industry, and they were dealing with movies and video games – it was a lot more interesting… It didn’t pay as well, but I still stepped over into it!

I realised that on the creative agency side, most agencies are run by creatives – obviously – but what they don’t necessarily have is a business background. They think like creatives, where it’s all about the creative process. Whereas my angle has always been that it’s a given we’ll do amazing creative, but I’m focused on the endgame and the ‘why’ of a project.

At the end of the day, people hire us to make them money, so how do we give them a 5x or a 6x return on the creative that we’re doing. Having that commercial/creative fusion has been the real secret to the success of PowerStation Studios. It’s all about business objectives and focusing on value.

It sounds like a smart approach to have.
Our creative director Tamara Dixon – who is also co-founder and co-owner of the agency – is formerly of Warner Bros, so she totally understands this world and has both a commercial awareness, but also has an instinctive understanding of trends. When we look at trends, we don’t just look at the fashion trends and the graphic trends, we look at tech trends, consumer-centric trends and retail trends.

It’s about inserting brands into consumer’s day-to-day lives, from breakfast through to the evening, and making it attractive to retail because they ultimately want licensed product to increase footfall to get halo spend in their baskets. Of course, graphically we have to be on trend, but we have to understand and honour fandom; not just feed it.

Speaking of fandom, are you often a big fan of the brands you work with?
Absolutely. The reason I love what I do is that I’m a gamer, I love movies, I love toys. I get to play in a space that doesn’t feel like work. I see a Rubik’s Cube behind you; that’s a great example. We’re currently working with Spin Master on looking at where the Cube could go beyond toys, from a strategic point of view.

That’s where I think true brand extension kicks in; how do you really play to a brand’s strengths and extrapolate the DNA into something interesting and unexpected. There’s nothing better than seeing your favourite brand in an unexpected place. Look at the LEGO video games. When they first came out, it was such a side-step, but it effectively saved the brand.

I realise I haven’t actually asked about PowerStation Studios and what you guys cover! We may have mentioned a few bits already but for anyone who hasn’t connected with you yet, how do you sum it up? What’s the nutshell?
We help brands make money through creativity. That’s the nutshell! That spans everything from initial concepts – so coming up with toy designs for a company like Redwood in the US – through to identity – so our first job as an agency was to do the Planes logo for Disney – and all the way to product ideation, packaging, retail execution and experiential.

Dave Collins, PowerStation Studios

When it comes to brands, we’ve done everything from Paw Patrol to KISS and everything in between. About 80% of our business comes out of the US and a huge part of that is brand extensions, style guides and DTR stuff.

We deliberately moved into gaming about five years ago. We saw budgets declining from the studios as the VOD guys came in. I looked at the development budget for Call of Duty – $180m a year – so it was similar to movie budgets, but if you looked at their style guides, it was pretty appalling and very log-driven. So, gaming had bigger budgets and a continual dev cycle.

A big part of our success has been getting into gaming, and the reason those guys work with us is that we can create something from nothing. The problem with video game studios is that all of their dev is based on creating the next game and the next game and the next game – and sales-wise, compared to game revenue, licensing is a rounding error. So licensing is interesting to them, but licensing for them is not so much about revenue and more about honouring the fans.

Can you give us an insight into a video game project of yours?
When we started working with Activision, we helped them hit the buying cycles by creating assets for them way ahead of time. Now they have guides a year before the game is released and can actually work with partners to create product and get it out to market.

Dave Collins, PowerStation Studios

Some brands will have a base to build from – films, characters, worlds – and others will maybe just have a logo. Which do you find yourselves working on the most?
We get used more for the latter. Do you know what Skunk Works is?

I don’t!
It’s a bit of a stretch as far as analogies go, but Skunk Works was invented Lockheed Martin in World War II. The development of new products for the war was taking too long because of the red tape, so he created a group of designers, engineers and scientists who could work without red tape. They were inventing things at a rate of 10 to 15 times faster than you could normally do. We’re a little bit like Skunk Works!

You can get institutionalised when you design inside a company because you’re designing for a “yes”, but we’re designing for a “wow” every time. We know we’re going to bend things further than you’ll want them to go, but we want to push things as far as they can go.

But to answer your question, we prefer it when we don’t have lots to go on. That’s our favourite and we’re very privileged to get to play in that space.

Is there a good example of brand you worked on where you had to build things up from scratch?
Call of Duty. The mission there was to be at retail 365 days a year, as opposed to just around game launches. With Activision Blizzard, we got them in front of Primark and got Primark to see that it’s not just about guns; there’s a deeper story they can tap into. We’ve effectively built a licensing programme from what was a logo and a piece of key art into something that does live 365 days a year and they’ve increased their revenues by 65%.

Most importantly, we’ve got the trust of the studio. Before, consumer products didn’t have any access to the studios, but we now talk directly to the studios and some our creative even goes back in-game, which is even cooler! It’s been a huge commercial successful for the client and creatively was unbelievably challenging because we started with nothing.

Dave Collins, PowerStation Studios

Video game brands still feel fairly untapped generally when it comes to brand extensions. Do you think there remains some big opportunities in that space for studios?
Absolutely. Look at Call of Duty XP. People in LA were paying $400 to watch a weekend of eSports inside with some awesome experience outside. They actually built Nuketown and turned it into a paintball arena. It was insane. You were running around a map that you would’ve only ever played digitally.

It was mind-blowing and you couldn’t help but think, why isn’t this a permanent fixture? There’d be people playing it all day long. More video game brands will embrace live events like this; it’s going to happen.

I want to dive into your presence at trade shows like BLE. You always have experience-driven, cool stands. Why take this approach?
We work in the entertainment industry, so we need to be entertaining. PowerStation Studios doesn’t have a house style; style is our house. You shouldn’t be able to tell we’ve done something; our work should look and feel like the brand in question. Great design should be invisible.

That said, we should have a personality as a studio. We don’t want to be the same as everybody else, and we’re not for everyone. If you like to art direct your agency to the Nth degree, it’s not us. We’re not order takers. We’re here to work with you and blow shit up.

At the end of day, the licensing industry isn’t saving lives. We’re creating fun stuff that people want and I think the industry has taken itself a little bit too seriously recently. We should all be having a lot more fun because it’s a bloody brilliant industry to be working in.

We try to inject excitement and passion into everything we do. I mean look at my schedule for today, I have meetings about Call of Duty, Karma’s World and Monopoly. That sort of diversity is so difficult to find in other industries.

And on the shows, it’s about giving retail buyers an experience. They’re the VIPs but you’re not really giving them a visceral experience with formulaic exhibition stands. They’re not walking away saying “I need that experience in my store.” If it was a brand, I’d be building pop-up shops at these shows.

Dave Collins, PowerStation Studios

It’s a great point. We spoke about gaming earlier, what other industries do you think are ripe for brand extensions?
In times of hardship, we all nostalgically go back to the brands we know and love, so we are going to see the growth of consumer brands that aren’t necessarily entertainment-based or the usual suspects. Trusted brands have a massive opportunity to embrace brand extensions and drive growth at retail.

I also think that experiential retail spaces for brands will grow as an area. There’s a lot of dead retail out there so to do a pop-up makes sense. Brands should have strategies to own and deliver pop-ups. They should aggregate their licensees to merchandise those stores and it’ll also give them a direct relationship to consumers.

We are seeing the growth of direct-to-consumer strategies. There’s more margin in it for licensors and they get data from consumers buying from them.

Dave, this has been great. I’ve taken up lots of your time already so let’s wrap this up with one last question: how do you fuel your creativity?
Our creativity comes from constantly challenging ourselves. It’s easy to play it safe and that’s why we don’t. We say yes to projects and sometimes think ‘this is an impossible mission.’ We want to wow and we want to get a ‘fuck yeah’ reaction.

Being agile and working with different sorts of brands also fuels creativity… And immersing yourself in the industry with regards to what’s trending and selling well, and not selling well!

Working globally helps too. Each territory has its own challenges and design capabilities, and that powers our creativity.

Great stuff. Huge thanks again Dave – looking forward to speaking again soon.

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