On the creative floor: Deutsch LA

Deutsch LA's vast open interior allows room for staff to be inspired and ideas to flourish. But, Mark Hunter argues, this only works when the creative department sits together to form the soul of the agency.

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To say Playa Vista is to Los Angeles’ ad scene what Soho is to London’s would be an overstatement. But, one way or another, we’re all down here: us, TBWA\Chiat\Day, 72andSunny, David & Goliath and  others, including Facebook’s new LA headquarters. Why? Well, it’s certainly not for the restaurants, trust me. What I wouldn’t give just to have a Pret within walking distance!

No, the agencies are here because, this being LA, it’s all about the parking lot. In LA, if you have a few hundred people in your company, you need a building with an equal number of parking spaces. The result (more often than not) is a huge, repurposed, warehouse-like object surrounded by asphalt. Buildings that, from the outside at least, have a lot more in common with a big-box retailer than an ad agency.

The good news about spaces like these is that, while the exterior might resemble a Wal-Mart, inside you get to build whatever you like.

At Deutsch LA, we’ve kept things really open, light and airy inside, which is good because I’m a big believer that ideas are living things that require sunlight and air to grow.

Accordingly, we keep the number of people working in offices to a minimum, with the vast majority sitting and working out in the open in shared cubicles or purpose-built breakout areas. It’s fair to say that ideas have few places to hide at Deutsch LA (except, perhaps, in the old Dodge camper van that one of my teams bought and keeps in the parking lot. I don’t know what they get up to in there, and I don’t want to).

From a style and materials point of view, our creative space has a fair bit in common with the Soviet Union, which is to say that it’s vast and has a heavy reliance on poured concrete. Sounds grim, but it isn’t. The scale of the place is good because it means we get to keep all sorts of gigantic props from shoots in our hallways, and the concrete works because stuff just looks cool against it. Anyway, we offset some of the cold starkness with a lot of warm wood and bright orange things everywhere.

But all of that is just the shell, right? How do we work? When I arrived at Deutsch LA, we entered into the grand experiment of blowing up the creative department (in fact, we blew up all the departments) and instead sat people by account.

The idea was that if everyone involved in a project was situated nearer to each other, there would be better lines of communication and more cross-pollination between the disciplines. The result, of course, was total failure.

There are plenty of theories about agency seating and I’m sure there are abundant examples that prove sitting by account has a positive effect on the work. But my first-hand experience is that when you blow up the creative department, you blow up the soul of the agency. You blow up the engine room. The place where crazy happens. Where inspiration grows. Where you’re allowed to throw a football or drink beer.

Suffice to say that, after a little less than a year, I moved everything back to how it was before, so now all the slobs are back together again. I’m glad we tried it (and not just so I got to appear "modern") because it reinforced something that I always knew: namely that everybody, not just the creatives, needs the heart and soul of the whole operation to be the creative department. And that department needs to be a physical place, not just some amorphous notion.

I was amazed by how many account people and planners told me after we switched back how much they missed walking over to the creative department simply because it inspired them or relaxed them or reminded them why they got into advertising.

That’s the thing about creativity – it has the power to transform how you feel and think and see the world and yourself in it. And that is pretty fantastic. It is, after all, what we preach and sell to our clients. As such, it deserves every bit of special treatment we can give it.

Mark Hunter is the chief creative officer at Deutsch LA