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Get creative to lure workers back to the office

The look and feel of agency offices can help define the work that comes out of them

While employers wrestle with ways to entice workers back to the office, many employees find they can do without Pexels/Cedric Fauntleroy
While employers wrestle with ways to entice workers back to the office, many employees find they can do without

As the Covid-19 pandemic drifts into the past, the return-to-work versus work-from-home debate rages on. 

Numerous studies have found that a significant proportion of the workforce is happy doing their thing unsupervised. 

However, their employers are looking for ways to make them come back – the bad ones so they can keep an eye on them, the good ones so they can keep company culture creative.

But what sort of office do people want to return to?

Ad agencies have been asking this question for decades. Creative types need space to let their artistic fires rage, but they also need collaborative environments to flourish. 

The first days of lockdown showed great creativity in isolation, with art directors and copywriters adapting to being on their own. Memac Ogilvy in Dubai produced an automotive ad without its producer leaving the house, using a little Honda Civic and a lot of ingenuity.

But water cooler moments are just as important, and great ideas seldom occur in a vacuum.

One of the most famous advertising slogans of all time, “The world’s favourite airline”, for British Airways back in 1983, would have been something else without a classic cliché of collaboration.

When the BA line was originally drafted, it was for “The world’s number one airline”. The copywriter took it to the head of the Saatchi & Saatchi agency, Charles Saatchi, who was playing Scrabble with creative director Jeremy Sinclair. The boss was engrossed in his game until he snatched up a pen, crossed out “number one” and wrote “favourite”.

That subtle tweak wouldn’t have happened if Charles Saatchi had been tackling today’s Wordle in his bedroom.

When it comes to designing offices to engineer collaboration, ad agencies have long been at the vanguard.

Los Angeles-based Chiat/Day, famous for creating Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial and the Energizer Bunny, lays a sound claim to have invented hot desking.

In 1993, more than 1,000 employees moved to an office building designed by architect Frank Gehry to look like a pair of binoculars. Its sit-where-you-like strategy was a disaster – with senior managers pulling rank to commandeer meeting rooms as their offices, juniors getting into territorial punch-ups, and whole teams unable to find one another for days.

The Chiat/Day HQ probably did more than any other agency office to feed the cliches of beanbag rooms and other pointedly unconventional design choices that provide fodder for agency-bashing to this day. However, this has not stopped other industries mimicking the marketers.

Social media companies have taken more inspiration than warning from the design-outside-the-box approach. By making the office “fun”, workers are more likely to stay longer and do more work before they burn out.

If you take a walk through Dubai’s creative, media and digital agencies, their managers will proudly show you how they are unique. There is a conference area that converts to a basketball court at TBWA/Raad. There is an impressive – and often updated – art collection at OMG, and there is a hidden bar in … well, it’s hidden for a reason.

Other agencies use props and paraphernalia from their favourite, most loyal or best-paying clients to add character and show their commitment to the brands they have built.

In some agencies, design elements have become inseparable from the agency. If you walk into an office of Leo Burnett in Beirut, Jeddah or anywhere else in the world, you will find a bowl of apples on the front desk.

The look and feel of offices is arguably more important for the creative industry than other sectors. Not only must agencies demonstrate the essence of their philosophy to clients, but they must also instil a sense of collective self among the staff. This works at both international and local levels. 

Décor is one of the few things an agency has to distinguish itself. It has its furniture and computers, of course, and larger agencies will have proprietary software to set them apart, and the data that helps planners gain audience insights.

But that package is secondary to the business’s main asset – its people. Where those people sit can define how they are seen, how they feel and how they think.

The agency office is one of the few ways its leaders can help prompt staff to create good ideas and influence the spirit of those ideas. The rest is down to the mystic forces of creativity.

Austyn Allison is an editorial consultant and journalist who has covered Middle East advertising since 2007

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