If You Build It, They Will Come
Breakfast creates digital + physical works aimed at evolving the way brands and consumers interact. But don’t call them; they’ll call you.
“There are too many ‘Andrews,’” says Zolty, the co-founder/creative director of Breakfast, by way of explaining his superhero-esque name, which is in fact, his surname. We’re meeting in the Breakfast offices, so to speak, but the space — an expansive floor in a warehouse in the arty district of Dumbo, Brooklyn — feels more like a workshop, one where serious manual labor is underway.
Wooden crates, circuit boards, and various disassembled gadgets are scattered about the space. There are boxes labeled “lubricated chassis with tabs” and “non-lubricated chassis without tabs.” How many agencies have those kinds of things just lying around? Not many, which is just one of many indications that although Breakfast bills itself as a “physical-digital agency,” it makes more sense to think of it as a Research & Development marketing workshop.
During GeoMarketing’s interview with Zolty, roughly five other people are present, all perched at workstations, engrossed in top-secret projects. They’re the kind of creative types who make you wonder if you too could get away with dying your hair purple, and whether you could take apart a toaster oven and reassemble it without a hitch.
Creatives In Toyland
“We came from digital marketing,” Zolty says of himself and fellow Breakfast co-founder Mattias Gunneras. “Michael Lipton was the only [co-founder] with a proper engineering background. He was previously managing the tech team over at Goldman Sachs.”
The founders of Breakfast started the business roughly four years ago because they “wanted to get back to their childish roots,” Zolty says, adding, “We wanted to take toys apart and see what we could do with them.”
Zolty and co. wanted to tap into the essence of what inspired and motivated them to pursue technological innovations in the first place, but they also had a vision of creating, from scratch, digital works that could function in the real world. They set out to create wholly on their own terms, without using anyone else’s software or hardware.
“We didn’t want to be limited by anything,” Zolty says, noting that a frequent method for brands is to employ one company’s software into another company’s hardware; often the hardware chosen is something generic and off the shelf like an iPad. In Breakfast’s eyes, this practice does not lead to “the most beautiful and elegant solution,” says Zolty.
Making Big Points
Breakfast’s projects tend to be big, not just physically, though that’s often a contingent, but also in terms of the ambition that pours into them. They take a lot of time — and money — to execute, thus the agency is not very prolific, with a single work taking months if not years to roll out.
One of Breakfast’s most provocative projects is Points, a high-tech street sign that uses digital data feeds and thousands of LEDs to display location-based info. The information Points transmits can include anything from a local weather update, to a nearby bar offering a happy hour special, to a city’s cultural institution or special event happening at a given moment. The sign’s arms rotate to literally “point” consumers in the right direction. The concept of Points was in existence before Breakfast was even off the ground — it was a driving impetus to form the agency in the first place.
“The thing we like most about Points is that it can become a public Twitter, dare I call it that,” Zolty says, elaborating on the comparison by asserting that as of now, small businesses can’t do much outdoor promotion beyond sandwich boards and flyers.
“If two blocks away from a [Points sign] there is a bar that’s completely empty, that bar can use Points to advertise that it’s giving away drinks for the next ten minutes, or some special like that to get people in there,” says Zolty. “It creates a whole different platform such that you don’t need people ‘following’ you and all that stuff. A city [and its businesses] can talk to their citizens in a way that they currently cannot.”
The Points sign Breakfast has in its workshop is a smaller, travel-friendly version of the real thing, but it’s fully functional and by looking at it, well, you get the point (ahem). During our interview, its arms flash new messages advertising local retail offers and MTA subway information while spinning this way and that.
It’s easy to see how any city could better connect retailers to consumers with Points in place. Points does have a futuristic feel, suggesting it would best fare once the Internet of Things — the concept of commonplace items, from watches to dishwashers, being connected to the internet — is more fully emerged and people are better adjusted to the fact of inaudible digital conversations occurring all around them. There’s also the problem of financing. The cost of building a single sign runs in the six-figure range, Zolty says.
“To actually build these [everywhere] would be seriously expensive,” Zolty says. “Points is currently designed in a way that requires it be made by big molding machines. It also has to work in every type of climate, so it is aerodynamic and can actually act as a weather vein when severe weather comes in.”
Were a city to use Points at multiple locations, which is Breakfast’s ultimate goal, Zolty asserts, a more cost-efficient solution would surely come into play. Of the 20 cities Zolty thinks are best-positioned for Points, 10 have expressed enthusiastic interest. Zolty declines to identify the interested municipalities, but hints that European metropolises might be ideal for Points. The reason, he says, is that most places in Europe, like London, are generally more appreciative of such forward-thinking, aesthetically-minded innovations than the States. Plus, overseas, there’s typically less bureaucracy to wade through when it comes to approving new civic and cultural facilities.
Running A Tight Ship
Breakfast is working on one giant — in size, as well as in approach — project for an undisclosed brand. GeoMarketing was sworn to secrecy not to reveal any of what it saw, which frustratingly, was not much. Once this particular mission is accomplished, Breakfast will likely retire for at least the near future from working for clients, and go back to devoting all its time to solely what it wants to do.
“We don’t respond to RFPs [requests for proposals, which is typically how ad agencies win new accounts and projects], and we’ve never pitched,” says Zolty. “We have enough inbound requests to where we find the people that get what we’re doing and both appreciate and understand it.”
Zolty admits that Breakfast probably could do a better job managing its PR, but that it has no plans to change how it operates. That means it refuses funding, seldom outsources work, and doesn’t want to bring too many in-house people on board lest the focus becomes diffused.
“It sounds a bit ugly to say, but we’re constantly getting calls from [prospective] clients, and really we have to be picky,” Zolty says. “The tables are turned.”