You are where you work

An agency’s office says a lot about its culture, people and brand. Robin Hicks poked his nose through a few doors in search of the coolest office in adland

As a scruffy journalist who rather enjoys working in modest conditions, I’m quite cynical about the money ad agencies very obviously spunk on making their offices look pretty. Particularly at a time when so many of them are making people redundant.

But since a big problem agencies face is their staff leaving, it makes sense to invest in an environment in which people want to stay.

A cool place to work, I was told last week by the founders of Bohemia, a six month-old media agency that is soon to leave the STW Group nest to find a home of its own, is a bigger motivator than money or job title.  And of course a swanky office offers a client a welcome retreat from the gloom of a business park in the suburbs.

What an office looks and feels like is a big part of the agency’s brand, a glimpse at its culture, a commercial for its success. Agencies in Australia tend to be bad at creating and managing their own brands. But what job are they making of their offices?

Starting with what is probably Australia’s best ad agency at the moment, Clemenger BBDO Melbourne. Does the powerhouse on St Kilda’s Road have a lobby to match?

Two very helpful but intimidatingly good-looking receptionists – one guy, one girl – are cocooned in a perfectly round reception desk. People are darting about in corridors, pointing, running up and down stairs, emerging from lifts, swapping things, looking busy.

I’ve been told that walking into an ad agency should feel like you’re in a double art lesson at school on a Friday afternoon. A fun, buzzy energy about the place. There was a bit of that at Clems, although the days of the creatives playground probably ended when procurement types started poking their noses through the front door.

Clems appears to regard awards with cheeky distain. It has piled most of them into a wheel barrow. The insinuation being that there are too many to fit on a shelf, or to lay them all out on display would pose a fire risk.

Most ad agencies in Australia have lost their swagger. Not here.

The reception desks of Clems and Melbourne rivals Whybin\TBWA and DDB got a nice bit of coverage when two Melbourne creatives dressed in balaclavas besieged their offices in a stunt to get a meeting with a creative director. The duo got a job, but not at these agencies.

At DDB, scarily big flowers at reception don’t entirely ruin a smartish elegance about the place. Shame about what appears to be a beach towel draped over the reception desk.

DDB’s lobby looks like pretty much any other. Except for an entire wall dedicated to the wisdom of the agency’s founder Bill Bernbach. Though much of what is written on the wall reads like a book of advertising proverbs (“Properly practised creativity can make one ad do the work of ten”, etc), there are a few things worth your time reading while you wait.

DDB takes its heritage and brand seriously. The same is true of Spinach, an independent agency in Melbourne whose name came from the founder’s 8-year old daughter.

She had observed that spinach gives you strength, and the same thing could be said of advertising for a client. Hence the names of clients on the side of Spinach cans in the lobby. Cute. As is the super-friendly office dog, seen here taking a well earned rest on the feet of Ben Willee, who joined the agency at the end of last year.

The Works in Sydney has put its story and its clients on a wall.

Around the corner from DDB Melbourne is its media cousin OMD. I have been told (by someone at an ad agency) that media agencies try even harder than ad agencies to look creative and fun, because a lot of what they do isn’t much fun at all. Graffiti is the latest ploy by media agencies to give themselves an edgy look, apparently.

No sign of any graffiti at OMD though. Just a converted power plant. Taking the open plan office to the extreme, OMD Melbourne exists in what was once Richmond Power Station. The sense of space above and around you is seriously impressive, although not for those who like things cosy.

UM in Sydney gets the prize for the most random addition to its lobby…

Now, the home of Melbourne’s most powerful media agency group Aegis. Two smart receptionists on a wide front desk not unlike that in a posh, modern hotel. It’s light, airy and spacious. Business-like.

A Mini parked in the lobby gives the air of a car dealer’s showroom. It’s also a reminder of all the car accounts Aegis has.

Now I mentioned graffiti. I’d be amazed if anyone anywhere had done a better job than Aegis, who hired a bunch of graffiti artists to spray up their car park. All three floors of it.

Ninety artists from all over the world were let loose in January. It was Aegis boss Harold Mitchell who funded the project. I couldn’t help but imagine the man himself wearing a baseball with a spray can in his hand.

The last wall in the car park has been left bare for Banksy, although apparently he won’t do it for less than $500,000.

I have never wanted to spend so much time in a car park.

There are many cool things in ad and media
companies that I find hard to believe get used much, given the hours that people in this industry work. The piano in STW Group’s board room in St Leonards, or the swimming pool in the Sydney headquarters of Australia’s largest PR agency, PPR, for instance. For use or display? PPR has an good view from the roof top meeting room of its converted town house in Balmain. The boss Richard Lazar built the agency himself and owns the building, which gives the sense that this is a company with strong foundations.

Starcom Sydney has what appears to be a well used dart board in a bright lobby marked with Starcom’s explosion-of-colour kaleidoscope logo. An interesting, busy office layout has the air of a classroom.

It struck me as unfortunate, though, that the ‘Come in, we’re open’ sign at reception has strong echoes of ‘The open agency’ positioning Starcom’s sister media agency Zenith Optimedia has just announced.

Differentiation has never been a media agency’s strong point. 

It is not made any easier when your lobby is dominated by a creative agency brand like Publicis Mojo. Here, people gathered for the launch of ZO’s relaunch party in Mojo’s (somewhat claustrophobic) lobby, forced inside by the rain, which sort of spoilt the ‘open vibe’ of the night.

Some creative agencies will just not accept that advertising isn’t cool anymore. Like Adelaide’s Fnucky. Encore writer Georgie Pearson paid the agency a visit recently for a feature she wrote on SA.

The lobby is kitted out like a Burlesque night club. There’s a back-lit bar, porn red neon, a chaise longue and a gleaming polished mahogany floor. Stunning.

But if I was a client, the work had better be this classy, or I’d suspect I was paying them too much.

And the gold cushioned cubby holes with plush red walls. For meetings? More like cocktails and burlesque dancers. But the decor suits Fnucky’s ‘unique’ positioning – it uses a global network of non-advertising talent.

No client will forget paying these guys a visit.

But the office of the future is surely Google.

Although the first thing that struck me is that if I worked here, I’m not sure I could resist using the place like a holiday resort or theme park.

The idea behind the Google building in Pyrmont, the comms manager Henning Dorstewitz tells me, is one simple rule of productivity. People work best when they feel like working. So they should be encouraged not to work when they don’t feel up to it.

This struck me as an extraordinarily relaxed philosophy for a company whose staggering profits in Australia are said to dwarf those of its rivals.

The second thing that struck me was that Googlers were actually using the stuff that I’d probably find distracting. The pool table, the computer games room, the library, the sleep pod, the piano room, the restaurants. Clearly the monthly KPIs Google staff have to meet don’t allow them to sleep on the job much.

The entrance lobby is fairly standard for a big corporate (600 people work here). Company logo on the wall and a slightly sterile, airport-like feel about the seating area. Not the zany welcome you’d expect from Google. It’s when you go upstairs to reception that things get interesting. A gardener comes once a week to water the Google jungle (Goongle?) reception. There is also a tyre on a rope hanging from the ceiling, just as you enter, but I thought I’d have to wait a long time before I could catch anyone using it on camera. Less fun is having to enter your details on a slightly sinister touch screen computer to sign in.

Every Google office around the world has a local theme, hence the down under meeting room. Australiana is everywhere, such as a wall with aboriginal writings by reception. Which is next to a wall with big screens of images of the rotating earth made out of Google data mashups, showing poverty levels, temperature, rain fall, etc in different colours.

The best thing about working here must surely be the free food – which is very good. The Cafe Esky also offers al fresco dining, and a marvelous view of the Fairfax building. Plus there are micro-kitchens all over the building, so it’s impossible to go hungry.

It would be unfair not to show you what Mumbrella House looks like on the inside too.

There isn’t a lobby as such. Guests must stand awkwardly just inside the door while they wait, and inspect the place with a sort of morbid curiosity. This – as some of us have been known to tell our guests – is where the magic happens.

What used to be a Voodoo coffee shop has the dingy air of a cave. Stagnant air is refreshed with gusts of juggernaut fumes when the front door opens. The carpet tiles move. We have a cupboard full of DVDs you wouldn’t give away, piles of magazines, overflowing rubbish bins, a (fake) bloodied baseball bat and an evil back door that slams terrifyingly and locks you in.

To the relief of most who work here, we’re moving offices in August. Not me, I shall miss it.

Robin Hicks


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