Close-Up: Live Issue - Why postcode really matters to agency culture

Do ad agencies really have to offer a creative working environment to produce their best work? Kunal Dutta investigates.

Emerging from Canary Wharf Underground's steel-clad depths up towards the sunlit canopies nearly 30 metres above, you can almost feel overwhelmed by the surrounding buildings and the global capitalism they represent.

Since its roots as an 80s regeneration project, Canary Wharf has grown to rival London's Square Mile and hosts some of the world's biggest multinational brands. Among them are HSBC, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Reuters and, in Cabot Square, The Ogilvy Group.

For some time, the WPP-owned agency has been seen as something of an oddity stationed here, but why? After all, it shares some of the characteristics of its neighbours: a multinational outfit, comprising 13 operating companies and more than 1,300 employees.

The real issue, it seems, is a mix of both the service-sector in which the group operates and the logistical distance from the rest of its supply chain. Unlike its corporate cousins, the ad industry enlists services across arts and commerce. For every business consultant, technical bod, financier or lawyer, the industry also calls on the services of designers, directors, editors and photographers. You won't find too many of these in Docklands, which is probably why the agency is in negotiations to take three floors in London's County Hall.

But should location matter? Nick Howarth, the group chief executive of Clemmow Hornby Inge and an ex-Ogilvy employee, believes Docklands promised much when it was first presented to agencies in the early 90s. "The prices were cheap, square footage astronomic and there were four or five agencies that did consider moving there," he says. "Had those deals gone through, the area might well have grown up with strong media clusters rather than the financial hub it is known for."

Instead, London's West End has fostered that identity, although there are a number of agencies further west - Lowe, JWT and Leo Burnett - which would argue that their neighbourhood rivals Soho.

CHI on Rathbone Street is just one agency stationed in the advertising hubs of Soho and north of Oxford Street. This has long boasted the likes of Saatchi & Saatchi, TBWA\London and M&C Saatchi; an area bolstered by the film community of Soho, the eateries along Charlotte Street and instant access to the West End's nightlife. It is a factor that has also leveraged an agency's ability to attract talent. "When you're trying to get the best staff, convenience and location is a factor," Moray MacLennan, the M&C Saatchi European chairman, says. "We're in a young industry, where people want to be in the heart of town, with access to what it offers."

Alternative areas are also growing in stature. Helped by a decade of gentrification, as well as an artistic and cultural explosion, parts of East London such as Shoreditch and Clerkenwell are attracting a new breed of creative company. Mother is one. Sited on Redchurch Street, its partner Stef Calcraft concedes that his remit is to foster creative thinking that draws its influences from outside the media heartland. "We're not anti-advertising, but we didn't want to be in the middle of the ad village either," he says. "Clerkenwell and Shoreditch harbour other creative communities. It adds a certain energy to the place we work."

It is a view shared by Wieden & Kennedy's managing director, Neil Christie, who last year moved the agency from Great Titchfield Street into a disused factory space in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane. "We were looking for an emerging area which had a vibrant creative culture that would stimulate and feed into the work we do," he says. "The character of our agency has grown from the location we're in and the way we've used the space."

But geography alone will not make an agency: the building itself matters. "Regardless of where you are, you aim to build an environment where everyone will be happy and as good as they can be," Howarth says. "Even with 180 people in the building, we've retained the atmosphere of a start-up. Across five floors, you'll find no compartmentalised structures, and the movement is pretty fluid."

M&C Saatchi is an example of how design can project an agency's culture to clients and staff from the moment they set foot in the building. "One of our defining principles is brutal simplicity and thought," MacLennan says. "We wanted to express this in a design that was clean, simple, minimalistic, without being gratuitous and that wasn't going to date." One London planner recently described sitting in its reception as the equivalent of "a waiting room for heaven".

Calcraft believes good work can only come from an interior that fosters creativity and collective thinking. "Ideas thrive in environments that are outside of the everyday. A space needs to encourage that," he says. Despite an exterior that may pale in comparison with some of the larger network agencies, Calcraft believes that the building is the best expression of Mother's culture. "We all work around the same desk, it's bright and colourful and there are no barriers or cliques," he says.

St Luke's, which for a number of years has used "brand rooms" to foster creative thinking across different client businesses, also shows how agencies can use space to encourage new ways of thinking.

But an eye-catching reception or idiosyncratic working environment is only justified by the quality of work coming out of the agency. As one planner puts it: "No amount of outstanding theatrics can make up for a weak pitch strategy, just as a half-baked creative idea can't hide in beautiful offices."

As agencies look to integrate digital into their traditional offering, more will look towards new ways of harnessing potential across departments. TBWA\London is reorganising its agency to mix skill-sets, while DraftFCB will merge two former agencies into one new building in Victoria later this year.

While breaking up old orders should be encouraged, care must be taken to ensure that the efficiencies of an ordered workflow and process aren't hindered by the endless quest to carve new pathways towards creativity. Art and business is, after all, a delicate balance.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

LEO BURNETT

Address: Warwick Building, Kensington Village, Avonmore Road, London W14 8HQ

Moved in: April 2004

Nearest Tube: West Kensington

Local amenities: Daphne's, Harvey Nichols, Brook Green, Chez Kristof, River Cafe, Kensington High Street

Time to Soho: Nineteen minutes by cab

USP of area: "Sandwiched between Earls Court and Olympia exhibition centre. Close to Kensington High Street. Easy access to Heathrow for international clients." - Paul Lawson, managing director, Leo Burnett

WIEDEN & KENNEDY

Address: 10 Hanbury Street, London E1 6QR

Moved in: Easter 2005

Nearest Tube: Liverpool Street

Local amenities: The Great Eastern Hotel, Vibe Bar, 300 curry houses across Brick Lane

Time to Soho: Fifteen minutes on the Central Line

USP of area: "The absolute cultural crossroads between the modern and the bohemian. Has all the facets of early Georgian London and is a cultural melting pot for different artists, cultures and styles." - Neil Christie, managing director, Wieden & Kennedy

M&C SAATCHI

Address: 36 Golden Square, London W1F 9EE

Moved in: 1996

Nearest Tubes: Oxford Circus, Piccadilly Circus

Local amenities: Soho, Charlotte Street, The Ivy, Andrew Edmunds, Fitzrovia Tavern

Time to Soho: n/a

USP of area "The vibrancy and amenities of London's media heartland." - Moray MacLennan, European chairman, M&C Saatchi.

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