On Brand or Off Brand: Advertising Agency Office Design

Advertising agency office design has always fascinated. Even before joining the industry I interacted with agencies and appreciated the creative effort to dress up their workplaces. Office design is a complex puzzle of practicality, utility, image, productivity, and more. The intended result in the case of advertising agencies is to communicate the brand and culture of the business.

I have been involved in the design and decorating of six agency office spaces. These required attention to layout, spaciousness, flow, natural light, sound control, collaborative spaces, and break facilities. Unfortunately, individual work areas often get short-changed to accommodate a certain desired impact.

Ironically there is precious little differentiation among competing agencies when it comes to office design. I have been in over 100 offices of various advertising, branding, public relations, digital and media agencies. Based on my observations I can conclude they are not immune to trends and these trends force them to look the same.

Sadly too many agency office designs have one imperative…impress the client who may visit once a quarter for a few hours. As you can imagine, this will comes at the expense of employees who spend 60+ hours a week in the space. Office design is an opportunity to tell an agency’s story but a few macro trends are driving a lack of differentiation.

Look Like a Restaurant

I have done a few double-takes when entering an agency office. In some cases I thought I was on the wrong floor in the wrong building. Tons of agencies are striving to look like a high-end restaurant, a hip lounge, pub, coffee bar, summer patio or all of the above. A designer told me this directive originated from agency leaders who believed the millennial workforce wanted to be in a bar at all times. I am not talking about just the office kitchen or eating area. This design dominates the entire space. It also has a productivity factor…it is employed so the staff do not leave for a bite or drink offsite. Staff should be encouraged to get out, observe, and interact with people who may buy their client’s brands.

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Let Nature In

Green is good. Natural light reduces stress. Plants give off good stuff. Mild scents can peak senses. So agencies are going far beyond a dying cactus in the lobby or faux barn wood wallpaper to dress up spaces. It now means whole trees along with living and breathing spaces. Klick advertising in Toronto has to prune their walls. Bigger agencies are creating college like campuses for more outdoor space and to mirror technology companies.

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Try to Be a Startup

Advertising agencies are going through a confidence and identity crisis these days. No one claims to be a traditional agency. Employee morale is at an all-time low according to the recent CampaignUS Morale Survey. On the same day Work Not Work published their own survey of the 50 companies where agency creatives would most like to work. Twenty-four of these were not in the advertising industry. Agencies were once the coolest places to work but have been usurped by start-ups, technology companies and hip brands. So it is no surprise that agencies try to look like Google and Facebook. But let’s be clear…a foosball table does not a culture make.

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Nothing is Permanent

Clients come, clients go. Employees get hired, employees get let go. Expansion and contraction demands flexibility. This is the nature of the business and has become a hallmark of agency office design. Beyond breaking leases and giving up whole floors this trend comes in the form of no permanent layouts. Products designed to have every element move into place and fit together are at the forefront of agency office design. In other words, modular and movable components offer cool combinations for an ever changing workplace. However, it adds to employee anxiety. If you can move my desk, you can move me too.

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A Few Themes

This last trend must have started with the naming of boardrooms but it spread…and spread. Now floors and areas are themed by color, texture, artwork, furniture and more. The idea is to tell a story but too often it is contrived and force fit. I once recommended theming areas after the brands the agency served. Then I was reminded of Mad Men and the character Roger Sterling’s theory, “The day you sign a client is the day you start losing them.” So committing to that design is risky. While working for Interbrand I came up with the idea of leasing street level store front space at the base of our New York office on 5th Avenue. This was around 2005. The idea was to open a shop that sold our client’s products and promoted their services. Needless to say it did not happen but it is still a cool idea. If any agency wants to do it I will gladly take 15% of the gross as payment :).

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8 replies
  1. Hans Becker
    Hans Becker says:

    Great post. It would be fascinating to do a study and find out how often employees are physically moved within an office. Then determine the impact on individuals and productivity.

    Hans Becker
    Globex Tradeshows

    Reply
  2. Taylor Christopher
    Taylor Christopher says:

    One other trend is the schizo one of agency executives getting or not getting their own offices. Everyone tries the open concept and it never works because privacy is still a consideration.

    Reply
  3. Johnny Copywriter
    Johnny Copywriter says:

    Even the ones that bring in nature do not look warm. I would not want to work in a lounge…it would drive me to drink. I guss this proves, like Nike, Lululemon found out, that you cannot cover up a sweatshop. Where are the chains and drinking troughs?

    Reply
  4. Pete Hooker
    Pete Hooker says:

    Excellent run-down. I have found that agencies also try to make it like a cool college. It ends up kind of Walt Disney and never feels right. Too much copying going on so they all look the same.

    Reply

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