Open-plan evil

I mean, seriously, we all have to pretend that we like it – or be perceived as egotistical dino­saurs – but we don’t really, do we? The proof is that when forced to operate in an open-plan environment, many creatives attempt to block it out, by clamping a pair of headphones on their ears.

Did Zola or Balzac write in an open-plan office? Of course they didn’t. Did Picasso work in an open-plan studio, with a bunch of other artists constantly making ‘suggest­ions’ for his next painting? No.

So why do agency mds think it will be good for ad creatives?

Because they have a fundamental misunderstanding of creativity. Non-creative people see creativity as exciting. After all, we’re encouraged to think of the freshest, wildest, most never-seen-before shit, for a living.

And yet when the md walks around his (or her) agency, he is appalled that the creative department – the depart­ment that, in his view, should be the most exciting bit – is in reality the deadest. He will complain that the creative department is ‘like a library’ or, less flatteringly, ‘a morgue’. And he will compare it unfavourably with the account handling depart-ment, which is ‘buzzy’.

What he doesn’t realise is that if your job is to make stuff happen, you will thrive on buzz. But if your job is to think, then noise and distraction are your enemies.

He believes that the creative depart­­ment ought to be stimulating, in order to ‘stimulate’ creativity. And that is why creative departments are so often blessed with fur-covered pool tables and brightly-coloured beanbags. Especially in the less creative agencies.

But what he doesn’t understand is that the creative process is a staged process: at the beginning, yes, you need stimulation, you need infor­mation about the problem, and who you’re talking to. But the idea gener­ation bit – the crucial bit – is killed by stimulation. The fact is that creative thinking is best done in a quiet space, akin to solitary confinement. Or with one other inmate.

This is why every creative I know hates brainstorms. How did Einstein come up with the theory of relativity? In his own words, “I thought very deeply about the problem for a long time”. That’s right. He didn’t have a brainstorm with Niels Bohr and Max Planck. He just found a quiet space and had a think.

A counter-example occasionally trotted out is that US TV shows like Friends and The Simpsons are created by groups of writers sitting together in one big room. But actually, this is not the case. Each episode has a lead writer, whose job it is to come up with the ‘idea’ for the show. He does this alone. The episode only comes into the writers’ room for feedback, and to add extra jokes. So it’s more like a creative review, than an idea gener­ation session.

Another counter-argument is that open-plan must be great for creatives, since Mother and W&K are open-plan, and they are very creative. Yes they are, but as Ben Kay of If This Is A Blog Then What Do You Call Christmas points out, Mother and W&K are special cases – genuinely creatively-led agencies which work differently on all sorts of levels.

The regular agencies that go open-plan don’t emulate Mother by getting rid of account men, and they don’t copy W&K’s half-agency/half-art gallery model. “Open-plan is a form of revenge,” Kay reckons. “Its purpose is the taking down of creatives by the exact distance of a peg or two.”

Perhaps it is payback, for our years of ‘special treatment’. Or perhaps it’s for cost reasons (open-plan is cheaper). I don’t know.

But I do wonder just where that agency md was, when he thought of the idea to make his creative depart­ment open-plan.

Was he at home, in his open-plan living-room/dining room/kitchen, with his wife sitting opposite him, trying to show him the Flash-heavy website of a spa hotel in the Maldives, while one of his kids is watching Spongebob Squarepants with the volume turned up to 13, and the other is tugging at his elbow insisting that Daddy helps her buy a new puppy?

Or did he go upstairs to his nice quiet study, and shut the door so he could think in peace?

‘James McNulty’ is a creative at a London advertising agency


For a different view on the merits of open-plan, see our Open to Ideas feature.


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