A view from Claire Beale

An agency's location says a lot about the ad industry

It's not, of course, where an agency is located or what its building looks like that defines whether it's a great company.

Like the cliché says, an agency’s best assets ride the elevator down every evening.

But where your agency is and what type of building it’s in might well reflect how much your holding company owner values your agency’s brand, its prospects and the people who drive its culture. In which case, the map of adland tells a pretty bleak story for some agencies, pushed to fringe locations or bundled into anonymous corporate buildings denuded of character. 

As the geographical shape of the advertising community has morphed, the upheaval has sent some agencies reeling. I can’t remember a time when there was so much unhappiness and frustration with agency offices (contrasting, it has to be said, with the thrill emanating from Ogilvy & Mather as it contemplates soon leaving Canary Wharf). And enforced office moves have also served as a sober reminder that, in reality, many agency chiefs are simply middle managers, with little control over the fundamentals of their businesses.

I’ve got plenty of sympathy for disgruntled agencies forced to give up iconic offices or their own front door. It’s hard to claim to be a distinctive creative business, to expect your people to be imaginative, innovative and inspiring, and yet ask them to work in bland, colourless offices in locations where the creative oxygen is thin. And our industry is losing something rather precious in the process. A walk through Soho a few years ago would inevitably have been interrupted several times by chance meetings with people from the ad business, feeding the sense of a vital creative community that helped shape the industry’s character. That happens less when there’s no physical community. Mind you, ad people don’t get outside as much as they used to anyway.

But there are some really interesting new communities taking shape, with groupings of sibling agencies coming together under one roof and, while not exactly reinventing the full-service model, certainly exploring new ways of collaborating more effectively. Havas has just opened its first village up in Manchester and, by the time the London village opens in 2017, not only will there be a Havas community in King’s Cross but its Vivendi siblings will be right next door. That will surely spark some innovative new partnerships.

It seems inevitable that this type of communal living will begin to erode individual agency brands and cultures. But for many agencies, that may well end up mattering less than whether a new combined culture can be forged that offers clients a seamless top-flight service and keeps staff motivated and inspired.