The inspiration for Mother's London work space was born of start-up necessity but has grown to define the company's operating philosophy. The nearly 12-year-old agency began around a table in partner Robert Saville's house, where he would cook up a spaghetti Bolognese while the founders worked late into the night alongside strategists, creatives, sometimes even clients. Before collaboration became the business buzzword it is today, Mother's partners understood that by simply rubbing shoulders they were able to produce better ideas quicker.
Today that kitchen table has grown to 250 feet long, an appropriate metaphor for Mother's extended family of 135 staffers who work in the Biscuit Building, a converted warehouse. The seating arrangements around the massive concrete surface — which can accommodate 200 people — are changed monthly, and agency partners are shuffled into the mix of creatives, strategists, finance and administrative employees determined by the office manager. Staffers' ties to their workspace are a storage trolley, laptop locker and cordless phone.
"It forges a culture of openness," explains partner Matthew Clarke. "We're constantly moving on; there's no time to form cliques and departmentalized bonding. It keeps things really fresh. You might have a senior creative person asking for a suggestion about music and a billings clerk gives him the suggestion he ends up using. Everyone is involved in the creative process."
Mother's unusual approach to its work space is as much cultural screening as it is philosophical statement: Job applicants are shown the work space as part of their interview process.
Mother turned to Southern California's Clive Wilkinson Architects in 2004 to find a way to preserve and enlarge its worktable — a once-quaint idea that nonetheless continues to convey the iconoclastic personality of what has grown to become one of the U.K.'s most influential agencies. The fiftysomething Wilkinson, a South African by way of London, may have first made his name in the states through his work for TBWA\Chiat\Day, but his award-winning portfolio of projects has since grown to include interiors like Google's 500,000-square-foot Silicon Valley campus. Ad agencies, however, continue to capture Wilkinson's imagination, both for their vibrant, eclectic work cultures and their reflection of, and influence on, pop culture. CWA's industry projects have also included FCB in Irvine, Calif., and JWT in New York.
"What was a surprise to me was to realize that advertising agencies have applied more creative thinking to the workplace than architects have," he observes. "I always thought architects knew how to design space, but ad agencies are actually so much better at it. They have to constantly be reinventing because they live and die by creativity. A lot of architectural firms — especially the biggest ones — all have a relatively boring product, in my view. They are mostly valued by their clients for delivery and predictability. In advertising, that's absolutely not the case: Predictability is not going to get you anywhere."
Ad agencies, with their creative focus and unconventional corporate cultures, offer a fertile laboratory to explore cutting-edge change in the workplace. Office design is rife with trendy jargon, but beyond debate is the fact that the environments both epitomize and enable new ways of working. Assembly-line cubicles and closed-door offices have decreasing relevance in a workplace changed by mobile technology and new business priorities that demand greater collaboration.
"It used to be that 90-95 percent of America was based in the service economy that was modeled upon an organizational pattern formed in the last industrial age and based on how people thought about factories and how people were productive in a factory-like way," Wilkinson says. "We've come into a new knowledge economy, a new-idea economy that's definitely moved away from routine drudge work. That means people spend a lot of time in meetings and in collaboration, so when they do concentrate at work they don't need to be around people. The more mobile our tools become, like with laptops, where you can take your work home easily, the more people will be doing their concentrated work away from the office and their collaborative work in the office."
CWA looks for clients committed to adapting work cultures to that more collaborative business world. Some, like Mother and Google, already have a strong sense of their identity but need new interpretations of it amid rapid growth. For others, like JWT — one of the industry's oldest and largest companies — CWA assists as a change agent in the process of cultural reinvention. For Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter, which is redefining its curriculum as an alternative to a marketing MBA program, CWA is helping to create a new approach to industry education.
Wilkinson's 20-person firm in West Hollywood, Calif., shuns a signature style. "That is a way of working that seems to be very reductive. It's just not an exciting or innovative way of approaching things," he shrugs. "The questioning process — the research and the strategic side — is really important."
Mother had wanted a ground-floor space. Lacking that, CWA created a 14-foot-wide concrete staircase that turns into the agency's third-floor worktable, which the firm describes as circuiting through the building's upper floor like a "racetrack." For real-estate developers Maguire Partners, the architects used dramatic curved shapes in the interior to reflect the office's dramatic ocean views. Pallotta Teamworks, a now-defunct Los Angeles charity fund-raising concern, was working on a tight budget, so CWA saved money on construction and operations by creating "breathing islands" that limited air conditioning to those areas where staff spent the most time working. Those tented islands acted as giant air diffusers and provided intimate and distinct work environments.
CWA was hired by Google in 2004. Working with strategic design consultancy DEGW, CWA needed to integrate highly focused software engineering workspace with learning, meeting, recreational and food facilities. Making that task more challenging was the requirement that CWA take into consideration existing conditions like inner courtyards and the building's shell. To encourage employee interaction while ensuring the privacy engineers need to write code, CWA gave staffers assigned desks in office pods of four to five people. They are positioned around a "Main Street" in a central atrium with amenities that invite engineers to take a break from their work.
"We created this kind of perimeter glass workroom structure with hotter collaboration spaces in the middle interior of their building," Wilkinson explains.
"It's very important for Google because they have engineers who write code in an unbelievably intense, highly concentrated way, which means removal of external distractions is important. That is specific to their kind of work. I would say that there are not that many people in advertising that have to hide out the way they do for such long periods of time," Wilkinson said.
A completely open space isn't necessarily the antidote to the scourge of the modern office: the cubicle. Originally launched in the late '60s as a productivity tool, it ultimately became devalued as a cost-saving device. Jay Chiat's "virtual office"of the mid '90s — while arguably ahead of its time — proved that a completely nomadic open work space was a challenge for even the most daring of business cultures.
"The biggest problem with Jay's venture into the virtual office was a couple of things: One was the timing in 1995, when this was complete 'life on Mars' to the rest of the world, and we were also living in a much more paper-based business world," says Wilkinson, who did not work on the project but calls it 30 years ahead of its time. "We're moving further and further away from papers being the primary vehicle of business transaction. In 10 to 20 years time we will have a paperless society and people will work much more in mobile fashion. But because Jay's virtual office was so new and he had to change people's habits so radically, it failed. You can't just tell people to stop relying on paper when everyone you're doing business with is heavily reliant on paper. It's not simply a case of people being brave and adventurous — you have to look after their functional and utilitarian needs on a range of levels."
Still, Chiat's experiment with the virtual office was a stepping-stone. "When we designed TBWA\C\D's offices in Marina del Rey, Calif., in '97-'98, they were partially virtual and partially desk based," Wilkinson says. "All the desks were treated as much smaller footprints and more mobile than traditional offices, and the amount of collaboration space was greatly increased."
Indeed, for companies looking to revamp their environment, the first question to weigh is the need for public versus private space.
"It's not just about an open-plan design," says Andrew Laing, DEGW's managing director, North America, who also worked with CWA on JWT, N.Y. "Changing the way you work involves mobility, collaboration, spaces for quiet work and quiet work alongside other people, social spaces."
Even the smallest things matter.
"There were important details to decide, like the height of walls between workstations," says Neal Grossman, COO at TBWA\C\D, which settled on 4-foot-high walls in its L.A. office. "We didn't want them so high that we couldn't have a conversation with a neighbor, but when you sit down you need privacy."
Says Wilkinson: "The reasons people go to work have changed. They go to work to meet and to collaborate, to brainstorm, to argue, to sometimes do research, to do a whole range of activities they don't necessarily think about as work in the traditional sense anymore. They're not going to work to produce something in a predictable, old-fashioned way."
In February 2004, Mother moved from London's ad land in the city's West End to no-man's-land, the gritty East End neighborhood of Shoreditch. (The area has since drawn other ad agencies. And last year members-only club Soho House opened a location on the top floors of Mother's building.)
In previous locations, the agency used a camping trailer, parked inside its offices, as a primary meeting space. In keeping with Mother's transparent work environment, CWA created meeting areas formed by six-inch wide strips of translucent plastic and rubber. They are see-through but soundproof. To mitigate noise in the cavernous space, CWA covered ceiling light fixtures with sound-absorbing foam and hid them behind archival Marimekko fabrics, creating a large art installation of 50 years of the Helsinki company's design work.
The biggest challenge with Mother, however, was its extremely tight budget of about $50 per square foot.
"Paint can be very cheap and our work is always confronting fairly extreme budget conditions. We never have clients who are very rich and say, 'We only want the best, give us the best.' We're always under parent-company budgets, so everything always has to go as far as it can," Wilkinson says. "That's another reason we do use color, because sometimes paint is all we can afford."
For many clients, the design process begins with a frank self-assessment.
"We encourage our clients to look at who they are, how they work, how they see themselves, how they want their staff to see themselves structurally in terms of product and meaning to the broader world." Wilkinson says. "Most of them are more than ready to do that. Ad agencies always embrace it very strongly — they're extremely sensitive to the cultural issues of themselves and culture in general."
JWT is perhaps the best example of corporate rebranding among CWA clients. Rosemarie Ryan, co-president of the agency's New York office, recalls interviewing architects about how they would re-create JWT's workspace to reflect the changes she and JWT Worldwide CEO Bob Jeffrey and co-president, CCO Ty Montague envisioned. "Clive's approach was different from the others," she says. "He asked us 'What are you trying to do? What do you want to be? Who are you?'"
A veteran of Chiat\Day and Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, Ryan says she hasn't worked in a traditional office since 1989. Her first impression of JWT recalled a midtown "accounting firm on a bad day," with uninspiring long, gray-carpeted corridors: "It was daunting how siloed and isolated the offices were because of the layout of the building. You felt cut off, unwelcome. Bob , Ty and I shared a new vision of the space. We wanted a place people wanted to spend time in, someplace transparent and fast — walls and doors slow people down."
CWA opened up JWT's atrium so staffers could see what their colleagues were doing. The agency's main production areas are now spread across three floors to keep people moving. A central staircase gives it a sense of energy, Ryan says. Although there was little light originally, CWA hired a lighting specialist to make it appear more like daylight.
Ryan says the new environment, which also includes a cafe, is divided equally between personal and private space, but visitors wouldn't necessarily assume that. "There are not so many people working in their spaces; they're in these other areas discussing things. That fosters a sense of collaboration in which people aren't afraid to share a point of view, to speak up and offer an opinion," she says.
The benefits of JWT's more open work environment include fewer e-mails and more face-to-face contact, a development both Ryan and Jeffrey describe with relief.
Gone are JWT's old-school offices. Jeffrey and JWT CFO Lewis Trencher are the only execs with offices, albeit ones with glass walls. (Jeffrey now says he wished he had dropped the wall and just kept a conference room.)
Jeffrey says he wanted JWT's new environment to support a stronger creative culture at the agency. "We needed to create a space people wanted to spend time in in order to create ideas people want to spend time with," he says, echoing JWT's corporate mantra.
He says CWA's design of the 250,000-square-foot space considered large enough for 900 employees strikes the right tone. "We needed to have a sense of scale because we are a big agency, not a boutique," he says.
Details like the display of JWT's global photo collection support that headquarters presence in a global network.
"The visual message of communications is a very powerful one," underscores Wilkinson. "Our involvement in most of these projects is to be a change-management agent. JWT's leadership had already decided they wanted change."
Communicating that change internally is more subtle than the public face put before clients and competitors.
"I believe you shouldn't be marketing to your own people the way you do the outside world," Wilkinson says. "The brand to the interior world is a much deeper, more self-defining thing, and it needs to be less superficial than a set of corporate colors and a few silly icons."
CWA has proven that making that kind of connection to users of a space is not only good design, it's good business. Southern California's Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising now has nearly 400,000 square feet of space completed or on the drawing board with CWA. Since 2002, when the firm finished a redesign of the school's Irvine, Calif., campus — which serves as a recruitment and tour facility for prospective students — enrollment has jumped 400 percent. The school's L.A. Annex Studio resembles a "chic boutique hotel," says Annie Johnson, CFO. It has a pool, chaises, couches and low tables, and is a fashionable backdrop for students. "They never want to leave. The spaces are always full with students working," she says.
Similarly, Rick Boyko, the former Ogilvy & Mather North American creative chief who heads VCU's Brandcenter, says that since CWA redesigned the school's space, the students choose to hang out there. "Before the place had wide hallways, everything was gray and beige with offices. The students didn't stick around. They used to go to coffee shops, restaurants, home to work," he says. "Now they're here 90 percent of the time with their peers. It's a fun space and they want to be here. It's better than most ad agencies."
Boyko wanted CWA to create a more collaborative learning space to prepare students for a new era of agency and client roles. But corporate America, challenged in the new economy to think more creatively about its own business problems, may not be far behind.
"During the last five years, American companies are becoming more open; their organizations are realizing technology enables them to work differently and perform better," Laing says. "Inevitably they ask: 'Why do we have the same office space designed for the way we worked 30 years ago?'"