Open to ideas: inside the modern ad agency

Today’s advertising agency is determinedly open-plan with the accent on collaboration and sharing. It’s all a far cry from Don Draper’s wood-panelled Madison Avenue den

Picture the average ad agency. What springs to mind? Table football, perhaps. Vinyl toys. Motivational statements displayed artily across walls. A glitzy bar area, maybe. Clichés these may be but spend time visiting agencies around the world, and a certain uniformity of style is revealed, which seems surprising in an industry so rooted in inventiveness and new ideas. And yet, below these surface appear­ances, a deeper form of thinking can be discovered, with advertising agencies often proving to be among the most carefully thought-out architectural spaces in business.

“I see advertising agencies as the leading edge of workplace design,” says Clive Wilkinson, whose architectural practice has created spaces for agencies including TBWAChiatDay in Los Angeles, jwt in New York and Mother in London. “Because what tends to happen in ad agencies tends to filter down to everyone else eventually.”

If this is the case then we can all look forward to working in environments centred around social interaction and community in the future. Long gone are the days of the private offices and hidden spaces that are so crucial to the plotlines of Mad Men, and even the creative department has these days been forced down from its ivory tower and integrated with the rest of the team (although we will return to this point later). Openness is the order of the day.

“We work very collaboratively, we don’t have any offices, that’s very important,” says Mark Waites, a founder at Mother. “The creative director will sit next to the junior from finance. We change [seating plans] every two or three weeks, so you’ll be sitting next to someone different from month to month. It was really ‘no walls, let’s not have anything that restricts the flow of information and our ability to share’. I’ve worked in agencies where everybody worked in little pens, or everyone worked in their own offices, and it’s nice to create a place that’s got a different vibe to it, that’s got a different energy to it.”

Wieden + Kennedy’s offices in London are similarly mixed up, and the agency has carried this ethos over into an additional space it has recently extended into, which is conveniently positioned across the road from its original premises. “It’s all very fluid,” explains Sam Brookes (managing director of the new education programme, Platform, at Wieden +Kennedy London), of how the seating plan in the agency is arranged. “The office has got a lot of people now who are multi-skilled… so we’ve always been mixed. And we’ve always had a policy of no walls. No one has an office, no one has a closed door, because we’re a very open environment. And a very honest workplace.”

When Wilkinson began work on the JWT New York office (which was completed in 2008), the new management team, led by Rosemarie Ryan and Ty Montague, also encouraged an open door approach. “I guess the board had decided that JWT had been a bit of a moribund company for a while,” says Wilkinson. “It was one of the oldest advertising companies… and their high point had been in the 60s or something, a long time ago. They had two good people at the top, and it was Rosemarie who said

‘I want everyone out of offices’. It was a completely cellular building, really really backward. So we stripped out every floor and put people in the open.”

This commonality of approach doesn’t mean that all the agencies have become homogenous, however, with subtle differ­ences in culture and philosophy exerting a huge influence on the atmosphere at each individual company. Mother’s aforementioned approach of having ‘no fixed abode’ for any period of time inevitably impacts on the agency’s style of working, for example. “They had this legacy of everyone working around a table and they just grew the table, which is both a joke but also an amazing experiment,” says Wilkinson of Mother’s approach. “I think it’s very good on the interaction level, but it so denies the nesting instinct of humans I don’t think it works for everyone. I think jwt and ChiatDay are much more inclusive in that respect – every­one has a desk.”

At the Wieden + Kennedy network there is a culture that exists throughout its offices, despite individual agency quirks. “I think there are basic principles,” says Dan Wieden, founder. “We believe that each office should be run by two creative people and somebody that knows business and client services. Also, the one given is the idea of a picture wall [with images] of all the employees that inhabit the place…. It’s not only an honour to have these folks working together, but it also underlines our basic philosophy of how you create an organisation that encourages individuals to be fully and uniquely them­selves. I mean totally explore who you are and what you’re capable of, but be respectful of the rest of the people on this wall and try and see how you can come together as a group and solve problems.”

Wieden also stresses a flexibility of approach, which has led to a recent decision to buck the trend of mixing all employees up, regardless of discipline, in the W+K Portland office and return to the model of having the creative department separate. “One of the things we’re trying out is putting the creatives basically all together,” he says. “And that’s just honouring the creative department’s request to see if that will work. We don’t get stuck on philosophy – we try things out and if we want to change we’ll experiment and try something different.”

Interestingly, TBWAChiatDay, one of the first agencies to embrace the ‘hotdesking’ phenomenon, has long abandoned that way of working. When Clive Wilkinson designed its Venice, California office in 1996–98, he was requested to place all the creatives together, albeit at the centre of the office space rather than stuck away in ivory towers. “There’s a legacy of trying out endless different variations of who goes where in ad agencies and I don’t think anyone’s neces­sarily ever cracked it,” he says. “The reason that the creatives are separate at ChiatDay is that their internal culture, and them learning from themselves, is so important. Their thinking is that they are underchal­lenged or understimulated if they’re just put in with teams of people who are doing much more routine work.” So perhaps the long-time division between the creative depart­ment and everyone else is not quite over yet.

The design of an agency, if done well, should clearly reflect the personality of the company. Nowhere more is this apparent than at KesselsKramer’s now-iconic office space in Amsterdam. Designed by fat in 1997-98, the office is based within an old church in the centre of the city. Kessels­Kramer unusually owns the building, but as it is the equivalent of a listed building, it was restricted in terms of what it could do in the space. Not that this held them back.

“It was immediately clear from our working relationship that we were kindred spirits, and that they were interested in doing something a bit different,” says Sean Griffiths at fat. “The first concept we showed them was a picture from this book on Russian wooden architecture, which showed two bear hunters standing next to this weird shed structure on legs where you store bear skins. Back then an advertising agency was all black leather and chrome, and thin Venetian blinds. We wanted to do something that was completely the opposite of that, and when we showed them that image and said ‘that’s our concept’, they just loved it.”

Nothing is ordinary in the church, which includes a giant children’s fort, a Baywatch Tower and a meeting room with a giant, boardroom-size picnic table (“the idea behind that was that it’s actually quite uncomfortable to sit there for a long time so meetings don’t last too long,” says Griffiths). Staff in the office have grown used to expecting the unexpected. “Things seem to appear and accumulate over­night,” says Chris Barratt, a strategy director for kk, who is now based in the London branch of the agency. “I once came in and there was a giant leather panther, I have no idea where it came from. And at some point it disappeared and I have no idea where it went. It tends to be that kind of space.”

The church is a reflection of Kessels­Kramer’s equally unconventional approach to advertising, and has therefore proved a useful tool for defining which clients may be a good match for the agency. “When potential clients walk in, they know if they’ve come to the right place,” says Griffiths. “The wrong sort of client would go ‘hang on, this is crazy’.”

Mother’s offices had a similar effect on clients in their early days. Their unusually designed space on St John’s Street in London included a caravan as a meeting room and a set of large red Chinese lanterns that led to the office regularly being confused with a Chinese restaurant. “Clients would come in for the initial chemistry meeting and some would take one look at the place and they’d know instantly that they wanted nothing to do with this madhouse,” says Mark Waites. “We wouldn’t even get to pitch for their business because they couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was very divisive, it was almost like the best new business tool we’d ever had because other clients would come in and they’d instantly think ‘I want a piece of this, I want to work here’. It’s very strange office spaces like that, they do take on this life of their own.”

As the ad industry is all about promotion, this is a point that has not gone unrecog­nised. One of the quickest ways to attract attention as a start-up is through having a quirky space that sets you apart. When Nothing in Amsterdam launched earlier this year, the agency received huge coverage for its office interior, which is constructed entirely out of cardboard. Gummo ad agency, which is also based in Amsterdam, attracted attention with a similarly distinctive approach, by buying all its furniture second-hand and then painting it a uniform shade of dark grey, giving the office space the feel of an art installation. Other agencies simply see the advantage of creating an unusually beautiful office environment, as demon­strated by Loducca’s stunning building in São Paulo or TBWAHakuhodo in Tokyo.

The advertising industry’s focus on community within its agencies has also (perhaps inevitably) led to an increased desire to interact with the world outside its walls. Wieden + Kennedy’s new building in London has been designed with a large communal space at its centre for use by both its staff and clients as well as for events with the wider public. “The idea was somewhere we could invite people from outside of advert­ising to come in to share their creativity in different ways,” says Sam Brookes. “Whether that’s in films, in shows, exhibitions, whatever it might be – we wanted something that we could connect to the outside world.” The agency also plans to run a small retail store from the building in the future.

Other agencies encourage the public in through exhibitions. Mother is now regularly hosting art shows in its vast reception area, while KesselsKramer’s London office in Hoxton Square doubles as an exhibition space and also a store that sells the kk staff’s extracurricular creative ventures, including books and product design. BETC in Paris has a permanent art space in its basement that shows innovative contemporary art projects, and the agency has also begun experi­menting with other neighbourly schemes, such as running a community garden near the agency. Continuing on the environmental theme, betc plans to intro­duce a hive of bees, now an endangered species, on its spectacular roof terrace in the spring.

This emphasis on interaction between agencies and other creative industries, as well as the local community, seems only likely to increase in the future. Gone are the days where success was expressed through chrome-encrusted ostentation. The new advertising status symbol is more likely to be the possession of a great set of ‘break-out spaces’ in the office than a Ferrari. With an increasingly diverse media landscape to work within, advertising agencies need to be flexible and interactive. And as the industry itself evolves, so will its homes.

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