New York City and Times Square are still the beating heart of immersive retail and future-forward marketing, say some of the ad world’s most influential movers and shakers.  Stores may have closed and many workers fled NYC for greener pastures, but it’s never a good idea to count New York out, according to a panel of NYC ad execs at The Drum. 

Van Goh Nordstrom
Retail will become more immersive — like the Van Gogh exhibition. Photos: Phil O’Brien

Regardless of the many depressing closing notices that appeared in 2020 and 2021, there are still signs of hope — and after a long COVID slumber, many can’t-miss immersive retail experiences have returned, as recently profiled in The National Retail Federation’s roundup of newly opened immersive NYC stores. 

W42ST spoke to New York CEO of VMLY&R Beth Ann Kaminkow about her predictions for the future of retail in NYC. The VMLY&R brand family has committed to staying close to the center of NYC retail, staking out a Times Square-adjacent office space at 3 Columbus Circle above the Nordstrom Men’s Shop and across from its flagship store. Kaminkow says that VMLY&R considers 3CC the agency’s own flagship, housing the entirety of its family of brands and developing a proprietary flagship experience space “that allows for clients to think through the entire consumer experience or brand experience through a consumer journey, and through its point to commerce in a really interactive, immersive way, that is almost like you’re going through the Van Gogh exhibit.”

She added: “You’re in a dimensional space that you can make feel like any individual retailer, or you can make feel like a metaverse — there’s so much that you can do to surround the client in a much more deep and fully immersive way.  We have the ability to collaborate in ways that use the best of the technology that we’ve learned through the pandemic, with the best of what we know to be the physical environment.” 

Times Square 3D Advert Tiger
Times Square remains a beacon of billboards in NYC. Photo: Mickey Blank

Retail experiences with passionate, built-in audience bases like the Stranger Things Store (currently open in Times Square at 200 W42ST — corner of 7th Ave) Lego (636 5th Ave in Rockefeller Center), Bridgerton (popping up at Bloomingdale’s 100 3rd Ave at E59th St) and Harry Potter (935 Broadway at W23rd St) demonstrate the power of combining virtual reality with tangible, in-person merchandising and the impact of a massive volume of New York visitors broadcasting their impressions worldwide. 

Such a level of reach requires purposeful design, says Kristi VanderBosch, US president of agency Oliver. Experiences “are meant to be shared with the masses who aren’t there in person, as anyone who wanders by or seeks out the experience. How do I tell all the stories about what happens in that space to the tens of millions of people who aren’t there physically? It’s about programming it as though you were an editor, so that it’ll be a living, breathing thing,” VanderBosch told the panel. 

Stranger Things Times Square
Stranger Things has combined a retail store with an experience at Times Square. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Kaminkow notes that at VMLY&R, there is a concerted effort to reimagine the purpose of physical office space in the city. “We’re actually thinking about the office model a bit more like a Soho House,” says Kaminkow. “If you think about Soho House membership, people choose to leave their apartments and pay money to be part of those environments —  to have the stimulation, to hear external speakers, to have the access to cool employees and people who are doing creative things. So if you think about the community that is part of our agencies, it’s really no different.” VMLY&R has also begun organizing employee outings to nearby NYC cultural institutions, restaurants, and cafés to support the neighborhood economy. 

Other agencies are keeping their NYC offices but rethinking the role of a flagship hub — Muzumdar noted at the panel that AnalogFolk plans to adjust their office to reflect short-term hoteling for hybrid workers to use the space “for different reasons, and spend that money in different ways to set our teams up for success.” 

Others still noted the need to remain in NYC as a testament to an agency’s prominence in the commerce space. Kristina McCoobery told the panel — “If you were to look at the footer of any major brand – or, frankly, major agency – that doesn’t show New York as one of their main cities, you’re going to get a head tilt from the world. ‘You’re not in New York? Why aren’t you good enough to be in New York?’” 

Ross Martin noted, “If you’re not setting up shop in a city where people want to be, with a climate and context for people to be what they want, you should close up shop and get out of that city really fast.” 

While some execs were quick to point out the “touristy” reputation of the area, Invnt COO Kristina McCoobery says Times Square is the ideal place for the marriage of cutting-edge adtech and built-in audiences, citing the “destination advertising” of Time’s Square’s 3D Fortnite x Balenciaga ad. She predicts a future of “massive services with incredibly engaging virtual reality and augmented reality.” 

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The concept of destination advertising is nowhere more prevalent than in the recent public unveilings of Non Fungible Tokens (NFTs) throughout Midtown. From creative director Jonathan Rosen’s NFT collection debut via the Nasdaq Billboard, to the most recent and upcoming NFT.NYC conferences in Times Square (featuring none other than Quentin Tarantino and NFT Restauranteur Gary Vee), it’s clear that both creatives and cryptophiles are eager to invest in a neighborhood where you’re guaranteed to reach consumers day and night. And besides, we’ve already learned how strange and barren Times Square looks without ads!

Other parts of Midtown received a decidedly cooler reception from the panel. Hudson Yards and its massive retail complex, says Known agency president Ross Martin, is a “ghost town that tried to be the new heart of New York, with no beating heart,” as major closures like the Hudson Yards Neiman Marcus Flagship would seem to corroborate the notion of a very expensive experiment gone wrong. However, the reopening of performance venues like The Shed and newly minted hospitality experiences like Peakaboo may keep the ‘Yards alive to fight another day. 

Hudson Yards
Hudson Yards — “ghost town that tried to be the new heart of New York, with no beating heart,” Photo: Phil O’Brien

The intersection of technology and physical environment seemed a key talking point for execs parsing out the future of work at NYC ad agencies. “Agencies have proven that they can work remote, it works,” said Croud’s US Managing Director Kris Tait, “but is ‘just working’ enough?” Determining the future of work requires looking past the binary of remote vs in-person workplaces, said AnalogFolk Managing Director Kunal Muzumdar. “The question should be, ‘how do we take those elements and put them together in interesting ways?’”

Jason Harris, co-founder and chief executive officer at Mekanism emphasized the confluence between the energy of the advertising world and the energy of the city. “People get into advertising and marketing because we are misfits, but also very social – we love the interaction,”  said Harris. “People go to New York for energy… you have to figure out a way to get people together. Otherwise, all that’s left is the grind, and that’s not why people love advertising”.

Kaminkow would agree, declaring that despite the initial exodus of NYC workers, where “A lot of people were kind of afraid — ‘Well gosh, if New York talent can go live anywhere, what’s going to happen to New York agencies and New York communities?’ But we’re finding the opposite to be true,” noting that the agency is still experiencing an influx of new talent eager to connect with a density of other creatives. 

NFT Advert Times Square
NFTs have become a significant part of Times Square advertising space. Photo: Phil O’Brien.

And for those who’ve left New York? Kaminkow is confident that they’ll return to the agencies and city they call home. “Most new Yorkers wake up after a while in the mountains or in Florida or wherever they are — and they miss the beat of New York. To be a creative individual, you feed off and thrive off all manner of things that you see and absorb on a city street — and so you also thrive on the fact that, even if a city that you love isn’t thriving the way and isn’t as vital as you may remember, you get inspired by being part of the pioneers to bring about that Renaissance.” 

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