“Boring places breed boring thoughts and boring people,” says management guru Charles Handy, but spaces with “quality and style encourage quality and style in their inhabitants”.
Handy’s maxim can be applied to all sorts of businesses, but it is particularly relevant to ad agencies where the right working environment not only inspires staff, but also serves as a shop window to display their creative talents to clients.
Boring is not a term that could be applied to St Luke’s, the world’s only ad agency run as a co-operative. Housed in a converted toffee factory near London’s Euston station, St Luke’s has none of the trappings you would associate with a top 20 advertising agency. There are no marble floors, no chrome and leather sofas in reception and no glossy executive offices. Staff don’t have their own desks or phones, instead they sit where they like, pick up a mobile phone each morning from a rack in reception and use one of the computer terminals spread around the agency when necessary. Personal belongings are kept in lockers dotted around the building which staff can decorate as they please – lurid pink fake fur appears to be a current favourite.
The agency was formed in 1995 when marketing director David Abraham and chairman Andy Law led a management buyout of the London office of American agency Chiat Day. The fledgling agency changed its name to St Luke’s – the patron saint of artists – and moved into Wolff Olins’ old premises.
“We wanted to do something radical. Many ad agencies have a very hierarchical structure and exist only to benefit shareholders that you never meet or owners with little direct involvement, so we created a corporate structure to match our ideals,” says Abraham. This means that staff vote for their own pay rises and all have a say in the future direction of the agency. It also has a group of staff who are interested in design and take a particular interest in how the agency looks and how people work within the space available.
Abraham says that the way the agency is run means that “we can also open our clients’ minds to new ways of working and thinking”. As a result, each of St Luke’s clients – including Midland Bank, Eurostar, Boots and the Government – is given a themed room to act as a source of inspiration both to the client and the agency team working on the account.
The Boots room is decked out as a teenage girl’s bedroom with pink walls, a set of bunk beds with pink duvets and posters of teen idols such as Leonardo DiCaprio on the walls. The Eurostar room comes complete with train seats and the Radio One room is described by a spokeswoman as a “sleazy kind of Seventies record producer’s room with lots of black leather sofas”.
Staff can work in any of these themed rooms or in “the hub”, which also serves as the reception area; in the staff cafÃ©; in a dark red, quiet room called “the womb”; or in the “chill-out” room in the bowels of the agency. “People might gravitate to their favourite part of the building and some people are less mobile than others, it really depends on the individual but you can’t set up camp somewhere and claim a space as your own every day,” she says.
The agency is growing rapidly and there will come a time in the next couple of years when it will have to seek a bigger building. “At that point we will work with designers and architects, but for now we take the decisions on the building because we are stuck with limited space,” she says.
St Luke’s is not the only ad agency to take an unusual approach in a bid to inspire staff and make them work more efficiently for clients. HHCL & Partners, which is responsible for Tango’s advertising and has a strong creative reputation, uses a system it calls “Romping”, developed by architect Buschow Henley. Like St Luke’s, staff are encouraged to hot-desk and sit in the open-plan areas in which they feel most comfortable, but the agency has also introduced chest-height benches around the building so that people can lean on them and hold informal meetings. Bean-bags have replaced chairs in some areas and some meeting rooms have no chairs at all. “If everyone is standing then it means that a meeting is over and done with quickly and it saves lots of time,” says a spokeswoman for the agency.
Primary colours and hot-desking are a world apart from the cool, elegant new surroundings that Ammirati Puris Lintas enjoys. APL is one of the oldest ad agencies in London and started life as the in-house advertising department of Unilever. The agency has been going through a period of change over the last two years, overhauling its management structure, while attempting to build its reputation for creativity and broaden its client base.
Until January, it was based near London’s Victoria station, miles away from ad land’s spiritual home in Soho. The building, which was shared with a number of other companies, was not only too small, but it was dark and depressing and its shape resulted in long journeys from one end of the building to the other. It also encouraged the practice of empire building by separate client groups – something that the new chairman and chief executive were keen to break down.
APL decided that moving to Soho would send out the right signals to the rest of the ad industry and to existing and potential clients. It would also provide the right environment to mould a new culture for the company.
The agency found a Thirties Ministry of Defence building on ten floors in Soho Square and architect ORMS developed a solution for the 2.5m project. Architects Yen-Yen Teh and Alistair Downie say that one of the biggest problems was that APL’s management wanted to develop a one-agency culture but was constrained because the building is on ten floors.
The obvious thing would have been to put the directors on the top floors, but ORMS suggested having presentation and meeting rooms on the top floor, with the agency bar and cafÃ© on the floor below with access to terraces and balconies. In this way, the best spaces were given to all staff and clients rather than a select few. “I want to see the wine bar area in use all day, so that people can sit with a coffee and take time to talk about things with colleagues. I also want them to use the basement atrium area – called the ‘winter garden’ – with its banks of TVs to watch ads and see what the competition is up to,” says chief executive William Eccleshare.
The main working areas cover floors one to six and Eccleshare’s office is on the first floor looking out across the square with huge windows. “I wanted to be visible because it sends out a statement about the agency,” he says. The reception area on the ground floor is also highly visible and includes an informal meeting area with glass tables and black and chrome upholstered Cinema chairs from Lammhults supplied through Coexistence.
Downie says that the most crucial aspect of the project was to retain a sense of space and light after the dingy offices that staff had put up with before. The answer lay in sliding doors made of etched glass and “internal partitions separated from external walls by glass slots. This means that light from the large windows flows through the space, uniting the cellular and open-plan areas,” he says. The glass doors are complemented with white walls and cherrywood floors to give a crisp and sophisticated feel.
Only project rooms and the tea areas are painted in bright colours. “Large multinational clients can be conservative. They like their agencies to be go ahead and leading edge, but are suspicious of anything overtly luxurious or ostentatious,” says Oliver Richards, the ORMS director in charge of the project.
Pride is something that Paul Simons, chief executive of recently merged agencies TBWA and Simons Palmer Denton Clemmow & Johnson, wanted to instil in the staff of the newly formed agency TBWA Simons Palmer. “We had to bring the staff of the two different agencies together under one roof and we wanted them to bond as a team in the new agency,” he says.
TBWA was formerly based in a building in King’s Cross – “most of the staff hated the area,” says Simons – and Simons Palmer was housed in a very cramped building in Soho.
Simons and the architect Barr Gazetas found a former Inland Revenue building on Whitfield Street which was big enough to house the merged agency and close enough to Soho.
“What we really wanted was a big buzzy reception area where there were always lots of things happening and which would serve as an area where both the TBWA and the Simons Palmer staff could socialise and get to know one another better,” says Simons. He envisaged “a cross between the Virgin Upper Class lounge – relaxed and friendly, but clearly upmarket – and All Bar One”.
Barr Gazetas recommended knocking down the walls of the old Inland Revenue reception area to form one large open-plan space with a reception desk at one end and the rest given over to a cafÃ© which can be seen from the street. This is furnished with brightly coloured chairs and tables from Indecasa and soft seating from Hitch Mylius, supplied by Vitalis, and examples of the agency’s work, including Apple, Nivea and The Sun, in kitsch gold frames. Clients are encouraged to drop in and use the cafÃ© in between meetings and there is an informal meeting area at the back of the space. It also has a pool table and darts board as well as an area containing video games – one of the agency’s clients is Sony Playstation.
The original building had a very low ceiling which Simons says was very claustrophobic. “I wanted the ceiling raised but was told it housed all the heating ducts and stuff so we decided to get rid of the false ceiling anyway and make a feature out of the pipes. We made a virtue out of a problem,” he says.
The work floors above the cafÃ© and reception area are a mixture of open-plan and cellular offices. Frosted glass partitions are used throughout the building to ensure a degree of privacy and to maintain the flow of natural light. Meeting rooms are simply painted in vibrant colours and Simons is currently working on a plan to turn the roof area into a terrace for the summer.
He says that the most important aspect about the new building is that it has made the two agencies bond as one team. “I think that is down to the cafÃ© bar – when we first moved in we had a free bar every evening and that certainly helped people get to know one another.” He says that the only problem is that, because the bar looks out across the street and is extremely lively at night, the agency has had to employ a security guard to turn away the general public who want to join in.