Advantage point

In the world of advertising, image is everything. Nicky Churchill looks at M&C Saatchi’s new offices and Helen Jones appraises the design.

Client account

The new office of M&C Saatchi is an imposing 1914 building on the north side of London’s Golden Square. It is a grand structure which was subsequently extended in the Fifties through to Beak Street at the rear. It is these two buildings, now linked by a glass atrium, that provide the acres of space required by this fast-expanding advertising agency.

The newly formed company started looking for office premises in January 1995. At the time, it employed about ten people and was working out of temporary offices in Marylebone Lane. “We needed to move,” explains chief executive, Moray MacLennan. “But we wanted something which it’s very hard to find in London – a building with its own front door and character. We didn’t want a standard office block with a suspended ceiling.”

The company went to property agent Pilcher Hershman, which found the building in Golden Square, and recommended Crispin Kelly at Baylight Properties to organise the conversion and Harper Mackay as the “admen’s” architect.

It was about this time that M&C Saatchi won the British Airways account and staff numbers increased rapidly. The company moved into limited office space in the new building just three months after the project started on site.

“We essentially lived in a building site for nine months,” says MacLennan. “But we didn’t mind. The whole place was gutted which meant we could have exactly what we wanted. Most people would not have had any input into the basic design and standard of a building.”

The general philosophy of the company is that everything is open, leading to a lack of hierarchy and, as MacLennan puts it, a “less secret environment”. This has been interpreted in the building, with long views across each of the office floors and daylight penetrating most of the office areas. “We wanted it as open as possible and were determined to keep the light and height of the building,” continues MacLennan.

“I think it is true to say that there is not a single bad place to sit in the office. It is a unique and pleasant working environment.”

At first-floor level, the senior executives view the working areas through seamless glazed offices which, while giving the transparency of an open-plan office, afford a certain amount of status and privacy to the occupiers. There is no visual privacy, but, as MacLennan says, “you soon get used to that”.

He continues: “The other things which work very well are the internal staircases running up each side of the building.” These connect all the office floors, making all teams and department heads easily accessible. The open theme continues into the vast boardroom. “It seemed a shame to divide it up,” says MacLennan.

But it is perhaps most evident as you first enter the building with the reception area opening up before you. “Although some may think the reception is impractical, with its white floor and white furniture, it immediately signals the intent of the building,” says MacLennan somewhat defensively. And surely that is what advertising is all about – image projection.

Design account

Architect Harper Mackay in essence had three clients on this project – Baylight Properties (the developer), Morgan Lovell (the contractor) and M&C Saatchi (the leaseholder). This could easily have led to confusion and frustration, but, according to project architect Stephen Archer, it worked extremely well, with regular meetings throughout the life of the project. “The amount of discussion held between all parties was immense,” he says, helped by the team at M&C Saatchi, who, according to Archer, had a very clear idea of what they wanted to achieve. “That made for very fluid meetings,” he continues. Certain other requirements such as air conditioning and lighting were set by the main investor and landlord, but they too “were flexible in how it was achieved”.

M&C Saatchi had to move quickly with the licence on its Marylebone Lane office due to run out, which meant that the refurbishment work had to be phased. The first phase provided © them with office space on the second to seventh floors of the front of the building, while the main bulk of the work was carried out – the second floor downwards. The company then decanted into phase II while the upper levels were refurbished.

Golden Square is a listed building which somewhat surprisingly, had no central doorway, the previous occupiers having to make do with two side doors. After consultation with the local planners, Harper Mackay decided to insert a central entrance into the frontage, clear out the whole of the ground floor and sail a glass roof between the two buildings. This achieved the transparency and openness that the client wanted, providing both natural light through the roof to the centre of the building and long views out – on one side the serenity of Golden Square and on the other, the busy crowds of Carnaby Street. However, in order to satisfy the landlord’s requirement that the building could be divided if necessary, the structural glass roof, originally planned at fourth-floor level, had to be dropped down to second-floor height. This generated the layout of the office floors with the agency looking in towards the void.

The “open” theme starts on the ground floor where everything is larger than you would expect – the reception desk is vast and a grand staircase opens up before you. Archer explains that the finishes are as seamless as possible and “we have deliberately gone for a pale look”, using Portuguese limestone and white sofas from Italian manufacturer MDF. The area acts both as a reception space and a work-cum-café area, with a coffee bar topped in black granite and chairs and tables by Philippe Starck for Driade. The other side of the space has meeting rooms behind etched glass walls, while at the back of the reception the TV production office wraps around the lift entrance.

From the reception, a central staircase takes you up to the first floor, where the directors and creative teams gaze at each other across the void of the atrium. This central void brings daylight into the floors, and allowed a series of terraces to be planned for the upper floors. Internally, the partitioning is again glazed, with the senior creatives and directors enjoying the privilege of a joint meeting room with private access from the two offices on either side.

Further up the building are the main work areas where no space planning, as such, could be undertaken because of the rapidly increasing staff levels. The architects instead “built for growth” and blocked out various areas for the different departments. “Every time we did a five year plan, it was broken within six months,” says practice partner Ken Mackay, and apparently it continues with the client constantly reshuffling and moving staff around.

At the top of the building is the partners’ area, which undoubtedly has the best daylight and views in the entire office. Again there is a profusion of glass evident both in the partitioning and table and counter tops.

The bulk of the building work was completed some months ago, though Harper Mackay is still working with M&C Saatchi on some of the interior layouts. “It’s a kind of watching brief,” says Archer.

Design appraisal

Helen Jones

Advertising agencies are glamorous and sexy, full of bright, thrusting young things in designer labels, bursting with ideas – at least on the surface. Just as much of the industry’s glamour is superficial, so too are many agencies’ offices. While the reception area may reflect an agency’s status, behind the scenes staff may be working in badly lit, poorly ventilated, Seventies monstrosities.

Reception areas set the tone and can impress clients by reflecting an agency’s personality and the quality of its work. Advertising agency reception areas tend to fall into two camps. Many of the well-established agencies (often part of an international network) are housed in unsuitable buildings but make the best of a bad lot through subtle lighting, leather armchairs, pot plants and stylish ice maiden receptionists. They are serene and calm and have the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club.

Then there are wild and wacky “third wave” agencies. Their reception areas are usually decorated with primary colours, impressive but extremely uncomfortable steel furniture which you’re not certain whether to sit on or admire, 2m-high papier mâché cacti, TVs blaring out MTV and, in the case of St Luke’s – which is responsible for Midland Bank’s and Eurostar’s advertising campaigns – sculpture created by the latest artist-in-residence. These offices tend to be open-plan and have more of a buzz because you can see people working.

What all these agency reception areas have in common are coffee tables, copies of advertising trade magazine Campaign – unless it happens to feature an account loss by the agency in question on the front page – and huge displays of flowers, lilies in the larger agencies, gerbera, sunflowers and thistles in the wackier ones. But, most importantly of all, there are displays of work – usually posters and a video loop of TV commercials.

Which is where M&C Saatchi’s reception area is different. There is no work on the walls, no TVs or video loop, not even any of Charles Saatchi’s extensive art collection, just pristine white walls. It’s very different from Maurice and Charles’ old agency Saatchi & Saatchi on Charlotte Street, where the rather tired reception area is covered in award-winning work.

M&C’s reception is vast, cool, white and serene – the receptionists are all clad in black, whether by accident or design. It’s all a bit Zen and reminiscent of a swish private hospital. The sofas are squashy and cream and, like the walls, may not look so good after a few months of wear and tear. The floor is highly polished and in the winter may become very slippery.

However, the space is large enough for M&C Saatchi to perform some of the stunts for which Maurice and Charles were famous at their former agency. In the past, to win a car account, Saatchi & Saatchi turned its reception area into a car showroom and thus clinched the business.

Behind the reception area is a café which wouldn’t look out of place in Soho. The black granite bar complements the white walls and white chairs, although again, these may look a bit grubby after a few months. It is in the café area that the agency really comes alive. It’s packed with staff sipping cappuccino, talking about work. It gives the agency a buzz and sense of activity which is lacking from the front reception area. Above the café is a glazed roof giving it a light, airy feel.

Leading from the café is a flight of stairs to a mezzanine level which leads on to a series of decks. The use of white paint, large windows looking out on to Golden Square and Carnaby Street and glass walls, gives not only a sense of space and light but also brings to mind a vast ocean liner.

On this mezzanine floor are the senior executives’ offices. Rather than being tucked away on the top floor, they are at the heart of the agency and their offices have glass walls so that they can see what is going on and the staff can also see them working. It is intended to reinforce the staff’s sense of belonging to a team that is working towards a common goal. Senior executives also have the use of a boardroom, which I was not permitted to see because it was in use. I was assured that it had a great view.

However, it is on the upper levels where staff carry out their day-to-day tasks that the pristine, Zen-like aura of the reception area begins to fall apart. Art work and videos are stacked up on desks and any other available space, files and paperwork spill out of filing cabinets and it looks like any other frantic office environment. On some of the glass walls staff have stuck pictures and notes – a practice the agency is trying to discourage.

M&C Saatchi’s premises manager Rob Squizzoni says that the plan is to remove all paperwork to specially built storage cupboards that line many of the walls and to ensure that things are not stuck on glass walls. Quite what the creative teams – who in most agencies are renowned for their untidiness and their posters, postcards, books and other sources of inspiration – will make of that is anybody’s guess.

The new M&C Saatchi building is light and airy and is a pleasant environment. And it is an improvement on the offices of the agency they left behind. However, unlike the creative work that the agency produces, it is all fairly anonymous. The company needs to stamp its personality on the building. Perhaps it could make a start by displaying some of its campaigns and then work up to the car showroom.

Credits

Architect: Harper Mackay

Fund: Scottish Providence Institute

Developer:

Baylight Properties

Fund’s representative: Hunter & Partners

Services Engineer:

Rybka Battle

Structural Engineer:

Battle McCarthy

Occupier: M&C Saatchi

Contractor: Morgan Lovell London

Costings

Gross Area 5500m

Total cost 4.2 million

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