Creative: Tales Of The City

TBWA/Chiat/Day Moves From Virtual Office To Urban Landscape
More than 25 years after joining the agency, Lee Clow finally has his own office.
Sitting in his 100,000-square-foot warehouse space in Playa del Rey, Calif., the chairman and chief creative officer worldwide of TBWA/Chiat/Day is content. For years, he has been pushing the agency to create his personal vision of the ultimate creative environment, even keeping an architect’s model of the proposed space.
The model is now a reality. His new office overlooks an indoor garden with trees dubbed Central Park, not a messy cluster of desks like in the agency’s previous space, the famous Frank Gehry-designed Binocular Building in nearby Venice.
Nearly five years after founder Jay Chiat made headlines with his “virtual office” concept–an office with no personal work space–Clow has set a new goal for the former Chiat/Day: In an industrial-looking warehouse in a beach city near L.A.’s airport, Clow wants to create a place that will take the agency into the next millennium: Advertising City.
“The most essential thing we do is create the environment we work in,” says Clow. “I want everybody in this company to feel they work for a highly creative company.”
Bob Kuperman, TBWA Worldwide president and chief executive officer of the Americas, who previously shared a project room with Clow, says agencies have to build places “where we can all come” together. “You can’t expect somebody at home on the telephone to create great advertising.”
With the West Coast move under way, Kuperman is also overseeing TBWA/Chiat/Day’s relocation in New York. This October, the agency departs its downtown digs for 488 Madison Ave. Kuperman says his directions to Gensler Architects in New York were brief. “I want an Armani suit, something stylish, comfortable, with a lot of elegance and class,” he says.
If the saying “Nothing kills the human spirit faster than a dead room” is true, then TBWA/Chiat/Day hopes the creative spirit will soar in its newly constructed California space. Part warehouse, part virtual office, with elements of Gotham City and Logan’s Run thrown in, the agency’s new space resembles a town, complete with buildings, streets, basketball courts and billboards. On opening day, Sept. 8, staffers used the concrete floors to rollerblade throughout the agency.
Call it Advertising City, an “ideas factory” or a campus. Just don’t call it the “linear” sequel to the virtual office, says Laurie Coots, chief marketing officer of North America, who implemented the rollout of virtual in Venice in 1994. While the agency kept the positive elements of virtual, such as the project rooms and cellular phones, staffers now have their own personal workstations, computers and phones.
“We’ve taken the best of virtual, the best of the warehouse and the best of everything else and put it together,” says Coots, “It’s a result of 30 years of R&D.” Kuperman notes another difference between 5353 Grosvenor Blvd. and the Binocular Building. “The best thing about it is it works,” he says. “Jay sometimes built things that looked great but didn’t work.” While the lessons of the Virtual experience still infuse the agency’s thinking, the real inspiration may be the Venice warehouse space that preceded it. Chiat/Day veterans remember the whimsical one-floor madhouse with fond memories.
Clow believes the openness of a single floor fosters a creative environment, boasting more interaction and cooperation. “We were stacked three stories high. The facade was great, but the space was ordinary,” says Clow of his old building. “It wasn’t the space to be creative in.”
To design the new space, TBWA/Chiat/Day and architect Clive Wilkinson turned to urban planning rather than agency design. “The good thing about a city is it’s always changing,” says Coots. “We looked at what you need to have a healthy city: community space, park space, shared concerns. You all need to share the same air.”
The agency hopes the different department “neighborhoods” will develop their own distinct personalities. “If it works, we’ll get little subcultures like you see in New York,” predicts Coots.
The structure blends the old with the new. After abolishing personal workstations in 1994, the agency is now designing its own. Each staffer gets a NEST (New Environment for Strategic Tasking) and a “hatchling”–a movable cart that stores work files and personal belongings. The agency even cut a deal with office furniture maker Steelcase to market TBWA/Chiat/Day’s design to other companies.
The $1.3 billion agency has earmarked 80,000 square feet of the total space for its 500 staffers; the rest is used as a workshop and storage area. No word on cost, though CFO Neal Grossman says it’s far less than the $16 million to build the agency’s former digs. Within the space are three tiers connected by a series of steel walkways, stairways and a see-through elevator.
At the center, the most dramatic element of the design, is the creative department. It serves as the downtown from which all “neighborhoods” radiate. Roughly 40 of the agency’s 60 creative staffers occupy the cliff dwellings, which rise three tiers on either side of the new Main Street and are painted the same yellow as the ABC ads. Clow and his top creative directors–Rob Siltanen, Ken Segall, Jerry Gentile, Chuck Bennett and Clay Williams–occupy ground-floor offices facing their teams.
The creative department was given its central location for a reason. “It’s the nucleus of everything we do,” says Clow. Along with prime real estate comes responsibility. “The creatives have the best space,” says Kuperman with a smile. “But if they don’t produce, they get shipped to the back.”
Just before the opening, one creative team is already checking out its new home. “It’s very cool,” says art director Joel Reissig. “You look around and say, ‘This could only be a creative office.'” The surfboard table, Tilt-a-Whirls, an old Datsun truck and the punching bags remain, but the new elements are on a grand scale.
Among them: a nearly full-size basketball court–“my cause cƒlbre,” says Clow–emblazoned with the Jolly Roger logo at center court with an 8-by-6 projection screen overhead; Central Park, an indoor garden with 12 ficus trees; an outdoor billboard looming over one corner of the agency which will display rotating creative work; the agency’s first restaurant, Chaya Playa; a focus-group facility; and Oz, the main conference room with a 35-foot ceiling. Under construction is a yellow Gatehouse, which will serve as the agency’s main entrance. It connects to the main warehouse through stadium-like tubes.
Surrounding the creative center are the account teams for clients such as Nissan, Apple Computer, Sony, Taco Bell and ABC. On the outskirts of this new frontier are a series of dens. The successors to the shop’s former project rooms, the dens are surrounded by giant white sails with tackable walls inside.
One key element missing from this brave new world is Jay Chiat’s modern art pieces. Instead, the agency has decided to showcase its own work as art, such as a 1,000-gallon fish tank left over from an Energizer shoot. “We are media artists. Why shouldn’t we celebrate our own art?” asks Clow.
What has Clow learned from the virtual experience?
“When you ask people to work as hard as we do,” says Clow, “they have to feel like this is their second home.