Female Disruptors: Michelle Collins of A Non-Agency On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Embrace your instinct and gut reactions because they are critical to entrepreneurs and disruption. We are a unique breed of people who can’t explain why we are the way we are. We just are. The sooner you embrace the skill and natural propensity to understand, harness and take action upon things that others do not, the sooner you will see the success or failure of your choice. Failure is not easy, but it is a right of passage and one that sharpens the instinct if carefully evaluated. I have had the fortune of experiencing both, success and failure.
As a part of our series about women who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Collins.
Michelle Collins is CEO & Founder of A Non-Agency®, a consumer experience marketing design consultancy based in New York, which was ranked #413 on the Inc. 5000 for 2020, and in 2022, among Inc. magazine’s Regionals List for the Northeast. Michelle is an experiential marketer with numerous ground-breaking and award-winning concepts and brings a perspective of both a “creative” and a tenacious dealmaker to the platforms she has created for several of the biggest names in hotels, and fashion, beauty/wellness, art, food/wine and other brands, including Richemont N. America, Van Cleef & Arpels, Kate Spade, Google Play, Phillips NY, Delta Airlines. Perhaps most of all, she is a connector — putting partners together, introducing consumers to brands, investors to ideas and the hospitality industry to guests — all by creating experiences that allow them to explore and discover.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I love storytelling. While I started my career in Journalism and Public Relations, the core of my talent was an ability to connect the dots — discover and share the stories that were compelling. This required a natural propensity for watching people, trends, and an ability to use creativity in order to bring something to life. It’s what experiential, consumer experience and today’s storytelling platforms are all about.
Growing up in Tokyo as a teenager and then the choice to make NYC my career foundation were pivotal. Both cities are never stagnant in all areas of digital, culture, art. NYC showed me the endless possibilities of what meeting people, asking the right questions and then crafting the reason to believe could accomplish. Truly, it’s brought out the best in me that lives each day with ‘Ososreru’ — “No Fear” in Japanese. Literally, the NYC translation of this “why not” ethos drives my business and deal making.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Over six years ago, I took a leap of faith and dared to rebrand myself as Founder of A Non-Agency on a mission to challenge the creative and advertising industries, based on the lessons I learned while working for the CEO of an IT financial services company. I began to pitch luxury direct-brands, daring to suggest that an independent group of expert, creative technologists who were not full-time employees of an AGENCY could deliver the quality, cost efficiencies and innovations these clients were seeking. A Non-Agency was built upon the commitment to sharing and transparency with both talents and clients alike.
Since early 2020, I took another big leap and decided that it was time to solve another problem. I am transforming the concept of travel shopping and how the consumers experience a term we crafted — “hospitality retail.” Curation and the concept of retail has exploded beyond physical stores, online social shopping, and ecommerce. We discover brands and artisans from around the world and local communities who are seeking a unique way to connect with the consumer. By connecting with leisure travelers through our unique Brand Closet Showroom Socials, the consumer is not focused on the shopping experience, but rather on the opportunity to explore and discover, as well as the hospitality experience.. This has demonstrated a significant publicity metric for the hotel partners, while creating a unique value proposition. For the brands, designers and retailers, the conversion records are industry disruptive.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Truthfully, I have no memory of a mistake that I can laugh about. Every step mattered and matters.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
My first client taught me so much. His firm specialized in technology solutions for the financial services industry. And while this had little to do with my business focus then, it became the inspiration for the creation and the innovation I have built to date. He provided me a rich network of the best minds in technology, while helping me understand the world of consultancy in one of the most rigorous worlds where mistakes can destroy a career and an institution.
The foundation of his success and ability to endure the highs and lows of the market stemmed from his deep relationships with the talent, consultants whom he spent time nurturing when they were mid-level talent. They eventually became the best in the industry or the end client. Their loyalty, appreciation and respect for him provided an insight into his shared philosophy about a business built on talent.
Talent is the key and if this is your business, make them the priority.
The second critical thing he imparted to me was that you rarely find exceptional talent through the mass search; the best talent is most often found through your network. Talent should be empowered and not micromanaged. Why hire the experts if you are not going to support and back their unique skill?
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Disruptive can be perceived as a negative in industries or services that have history, heritage and tradition. Innovation has a softer connotation that suggests respect and appreciation of all that was built before and the contributions made by predecessors.
Disruptive is a positive, however, when an industry has built a culture of monopolization, stagnation and a consumer behavior of expectation without the appreciation of craft and time. Disruption within the retail, hospitality, and healthcare industries, for example, is a good thing and can meaningfully contribute to a positive outcome.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
- Surround yourself with those who are smart and challenge you to think differently. This is not about the degrees they hold or their CV, but about those that have demonstrated excellence in areas that you are weak or lack knowledge in. An example of this was when I was working with a client, small agency. They were growing successfully with my leadership and creative and technology management. But, I was losing my passion and energy for the work. I was feeling burnout. Then, at some point, I knew I had reached my breaking point with a new client project which required more than I could give or had the expertise for.
Initially, I hesitated in sharing the pain point with the client due to the fear that they would then see me as hitting a limit and thus, seek another resource. Instead, I sought out a more senior consultant to support me who could have easily stepped into my role and taken the client. Instead, the client saw this as another plus and likewise, the consultant became one of my most loyal team members. Both viewed my honesty and decision as a sign of strong leadership and creative problem solving.
- Don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable or feel doubt. This is natural and also an opportunity to grow and to transform yourself. Lean into the feeling and the mindset. Take time to understand yourself and the reason for this doubt. Throughout my career and business, these times have pushed me emotionally and physically beyond the threshold I previously thought was the most I could achieve.
A few years ago, I was executing 3 projects for Van Cleef & Arpel and Barney’s which required me to travel back and forth from the East to West coast, while also juggling the Paris stakeholders. These were projects I had worked so hard to win, achieve and deserve. Mistakes were not an option. Then, I received a phone call from a colleague who asked me to consider supporting M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment USA. Initially, I declined. I had no interest in overextending myself physically or mentally. However, I agreed to sit in on a few meetings for the Managing Partners.
Afterwards, I reported my findings to them which included a critical warning that the errors and the process I was privy to were clear signs of project critical mistakes. In short, they asked me to expand my role and to lead the initiative which had to be completed in 3 weeks. To be clear this project had been in process for 3 months and thus, the likelihood of success was slim to none.
I asked myself if I would wonder “What if?” later on and feel doubt for not taking this opportunity. I wrestled with the fear of failure and the repercussions to all of my projects. The deciding factor was the fact that I understood my unique strength. If I was going to break through and establish myself and A Non-Agency, I had to be able to take these risks. I did. We successfully launched Candy Crush Saga for the agency and managed to do this in the impossible timeframe and with Hurricane Michael warnings in NYC.
- Embrace your instinct and gut reactions because they are critical to entrepreneurs and disruption. We are a unique breed of people who can’t explain why we are the way we are. We just are. The sooner you embrace the skill and natural propensity to understand, harness and take action upon things that others do not, the sooner you will see the success or failure of your choice. Failure is not easy, but it is a right of passage and one that sharpens the instinct if carefully evaluated. I have had the fortune of experiencing both, success and failure.
The common attribute in both scenarios is and was my ability to tap into instinct. I knew when a client was pushing us to make poor decisions, but deferred to the wish to be liked versus the talent, expert they hired. I was afraid to speak up for fear of being perceived as difficult. In the end, the experience was a failure and it stemmed from the fact that we allowed the client to shape the direction towards their comfort zone. What we failed to embrace was that we are not the choice you make for comfort. We are transformational creatives who succeed because we have different instincts. It was extremely gut wrenching to be fired. Instead of dwelling on the failure, I took stock of what decisions and indecision led us to the end.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I intend to continue to introduce the concept of hospitality retail throughout the USA, as well as test our curated storytelling and showroom dining experience — ‘Style & Taste’ in Europe.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Females are more frequently criticized for being assertive and decisive. Oftentimes these attributes are described as aggressive, arrogant and unkind.
Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It was a book that was gifted to me right before the opportunity to pitch one of my milestone clients — Van Cleef & Arpels. Doubt is real and so are the inexplicable journeys that unfold during our life — entrepreneur or not. This book sparked my spirit and connected with me on a level that I cannot describe. The visual it embedded in my mind and the essence of the story, the creativity and lessons it sparked in my mind, fueled one of the concepts I presented.
As I presented this concept to the team, I saw their hearts move. I could see and feel them smile from the heart and their energy shift to dreaming versus evaluating. Whilst the concept was not the one they selected, it was the one that they expressed showed them that I understood the Brand and their team spirit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would change the definition of Influencers by applying a different score card.
- How do you serve others — give to others?
- What do you create — not repurpose — your own unique creation?
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
If talent is the core of your business, the following applies:
Pay your talent First. Don’t spend your money on vanity office locations, free candy etc. Spend your resources on the talent.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!