"I’m likely to quit the company if they decide to go back. I don’t want to die."
This quote by an employee of WPP in Malaysia, who talked to Campaign Asia-Pacific on condition of anonymity, may sound dramatic. But it speaks to the gravity of the problems that forced WPP to evacuate hundreds of members of staff from a new office block in Petaling Jaya, west of Kuala Lumpur, a month ago. These include major construction faults, vermin issues and deficient safety standards that may well have threatened lives. Agency staff are now operating out of co-working spaces spread around the city, while WPP works with the building owners to review the issues.
In July and August, the holding group moved 13 agencies and agency groups including Group M, Ogilvy and Mindshare Malaysia into 11 floors of a high-rise block, Tower H, in a new 23-acre mixed-use complex called Empire City in the Damansara Perdana district. No shortage of fanfare surrounded the move – a manifestation of the company’s commitment to enabling greater inter-agency collaboration.
A video tour of the smart new office block was shared on Facebook, ribbon-cutting and lion dance ceremonies took place, and employees were encouraged to participate in decorating their new space, for example by sending in pictures of their children to put up on the walls of special rooms for breastfeeding mothers.
Just a few months later, all floors formerly occupied by WPP stand empty.
The big blackout
The final straw came on 13 November, when the power supply for Tower H and two other blocks was interrupted during working hours. Staff were unsure whether this was a real emergency or a practice procedure. According to our source, who works for one of the agencies that recently moved into the tower, back-up generators were initially used to keep power going. (As a side effect, these generators also emitted smoke and harmful exhaust fumes into the poorly ventilated car park, where staff regularly had to wait in long queues because of the building’s malfunctioning lift system.)
Later that day, staff were advised to leave the block when the generators stopped working, meaning the building was left completely without power. Even the lift for emergency fire and rescue services, which is supposed to operate in a power cut, was out of action. Staff were told to walk out of the 20-floor tower down the stairwell and work from home until further notice.
Posts on a private Facebook group of more than 700 Tower H agency staff called WPP Campus Talk, seen by Campaign Asia-Pacific, suggest this evacuation was completely unsafe. The bottom few floors of the building have no windows and were plunged into total darkness because the emergency lights were not working. People had to find their way out by shining lights from their mobile phones. "The problem is that there are five floors which are still technically under construction," our source says. "You had to walk past construction materials, with dust in the air – it was terrible. There was no ventilation whatsoever, no staff on hand, the security or safety staff were not around at all. I think it took something like 15 minutes to get out of the building, which is definitely not the right thing to do in case of emergency or anything like that."
Without security or support staff to guide them, some got lost and found themselves on the dark, partially constructed floors full of building materials, according to posts. Other Facebook posts indicate that a heavily pregnant staff member had to be helped down as many as 19 storeys, as did others with "heavy sickness". Outside, there was not even a head count to check everyone got out safely, our source adds. "This is now a matter of life and death," one employee wrote in the internal group. "Today’s catastrophe is one of many evidence that this building is a deathtrap."
WPP's official statement
Following this incident, WPP has closed its offices in the building while it investigates. In response to Campaign Asia-Pacific’s enquiries, the company sent the following statement:
'We have taken the decision to relocate to temporary facilities to ensure continuity of service and the well-being of our staff while we continue to work closely with the building owners to review and ensure they resolve all issues. We will move back once we are satisfied that all existing issues have been thoroughly rectified by the building owners.'
WPP did not respond to other questions asked. The company has not verified whether all appropriate safety measures were taken before employees moved into the building or confirmed whether any staff members have been taken ill or injured as a result of working conditions.
As the situation currently stands, the silo walls between agencies are firmly back in place, with different sections of WPP scattered across the city, working from whatever co-working office blocks had available desks at short notice.
Rats, blown-out windows, plummeting lifts: a mounting list of problems
The 13 November blackout was just the latest in what seems to be a string of serious issues. Even though WPP moved employees into the new offices in the summer, the whole of Tower H remained something of a building in progress. According to our source, when staff arrived at work every day, they had to climb up two storeys of poorly maintained, badly ventilated stairs covered in construction dust to a lower ground floor (LG) – actually a car park – because the lifts for the first two floors did not work. To proceed to the lobby on the ground floor and on to their offices from LG, they regularly had to queue for up to half-an-hour in the mornings and during lunch breaks, because the building’s six main lifts were both unreliable and unpartitioned by storey numbers, making ascents and descents very slow (see below).
The LG car park where the queuing would take place was, as described, also a poorly ventilated space, where staff were breathing in not only exhaust fumes from cars but also cigarette smoke; smoking apparently wasn’t cracked down on, even though it is illegal in private office spaces in Malaysia, our source says. The one concession to complaints was the installation of "cheap" fans to ventilate the area. Employees continued to have to queue: one staff member commented in the Facebook group that getting into work every day was like waiting for the release of the latest iPhone. Another responded: "Better to get stuck out of the lift than IN the lift."
Multiple comments on WPP Campus Talk relate to fears over the safety of the lifts in Tower H. "I’m stuck in the lift. Send help," one comment on 31 October reads. Another post from 24 August (see below) describes an incident in which eight people became trapped.
Our source says: "The lifts would occasionally have the lights go off or would suddenly drop a few feet while going up; there’s no handrail. And even when the lift stops at a certain floor, it’s an inch too high or an inch too low sometimes to the floor level. There was one time it was really raining heavily and water somehow got into the lift, which is absolutely crazy – how the hell does that happen? Among other things, it is absolutely crazy. I don’t feel safe using this lift. People have joked about one day this thing is just going to fall. A few times it has jerked an extra few feet, people were just like: 'Nope, we’re all going to die.' There have been a few blackouts of just the lift."
The buildings’ problems even started to affect business when, during a client meeting, one of the office windows reportedly "blew out" because the glass wasn’t reinforced. "When clients visited and they saw the mess as well, they said: ‘You know what? Never mind, we’re not going to come. You can come to our offices instead'," our source says, adding that there have been reports of "hairline cracks" spreading across several panes of glass in the windows of another agency office.
Further problems mentioned both by our source and in the employee Facebook group include fire doors that didn't shut properly; a rat that was "running around the air ducts of the entire building" for two weeks and apparently ate some office papers before it was caught; a flood in the LG car park on 26 October that led to people "panicking and running" to get their cars out (see posts below); a mosquito infestation on one floor that caused a dengue fever scare among employees; and a centralised air-conditioning system that was so loud that employees had to shout over each other.
"It’s already hard enough to hear a person in the same room, let alone attempt mission impossible to present work," one employee wrote on Facebook. "It sounds like a jet engine in there all the time. It’s deafening," our source notes.
'We believe it is safe'
While many of the above problems can be laid at the door of the building developers, a company called Mammoth Empire Holdings, our source says the senior WPP employee who was in charge of negotiating the campus agreement on behalf of the company, James Woodburn, has been giving staff reassurances on Facebook that the building is safe despite not being present at the site for much of the time.
Woodburn, who has held the role of head of real estate, regional director, at WPP Asia-Pacific for more than eight years, according to his LinkedIn profile, wrote in a post on the Facebook group in response to questions about safety on 31 October: "If you mean is the building safe – we believe it is safe. That is our major priority." Woodburn also wrote in the same post that WPP has received "CCC" – the Certificate of Completion and Compliance – for "stage 1 tenancies", which he explains are "an independant [sic] inspection of our tenancies and fire systems".
In a later post on the same day, responding to further comments from staff, Woodburn wrote: "It is safe. I am however acutely aware of the issues arising that make it feel unsafe. All key fire service systems were witnessed as operational before we allowed the move to proceed. We can only receive final certificates of completion after our works are finished so there is a lag in this coming but we have not been advised of any issues so they will be issued. For now our focus is on driving the owner to fix issues that arrise [sic] and work in prevention. I am working on this for you all and hope for support as we press the owners."
"[Woodburn] is not even here and he’s telling us it’s safe and it’s clearly not," our source says. "He only comes down when something bad like [the blackout] has happened. He came for official opening of the place, which was like three months ago, and now that this has happened he has come down for a while."
Our source says they have heard that WPP will decide what to do about the site following a meeting with all agency heads. In this person’s mind, the answer is clear. "To be honest, it’s obvious. Just abandon the site, build a whole new place. All our lives are in danger. I’m likely to quit the company if they decide to go back. I don’t want to die. That’s basically how bad it is."
Tower H: a nightmare block in a falling-down ghost town?
The staff member who spoke to Campaign Asia-Pacific says the safety deficiencies don’t stop with Tower H but extend to the whole complex. Empire City is a RM5bn ($1.2bn) development launched in 2011 by Mammoth Empire Holdings, which reportedly has a reputation for unreliability among Malaysians.
Back in 2015, the future of this ambitious new development seemed bright. American socialite Paris Hilton flew in to host 3,000 guests and VIPs at what was dubbed "the party of the century" at Empire City, and the rest of the development was due to open soon afterwards. But problems have been building for some time. WPP’s own move into Tower H was delayed by some months, according to our source, while MEH raced to finish work.
The rest of the complex, meant to consist of 12 high-rise buildings sitting on top of a connected "podium" that includes a four-level shopping mall, is partially finished and way behind schedule. The completion date, which had already exceeded its 2014 deadline by the time of Hilton’s party, has been pushed back and back, causing the developer some serious cash flow challenges.
A partial opening was slated to tie in with the 29th Southeast Asian Games, held in and around Kuala Lumpur in August 2017, because the ice rink at Empire City mall had been chosen as the venue for the ice hockey and figure-skating competitions. The rink itself succeeded in opening one day before the opening ceremony, but more than a year on just a fifth of the mall is operational, its roof is dotted with broken glass panels and it is not due to be completed until the end of 2019. In a long-running thread about Empire City and its issues on the Malaysian internet forum loywat.net, one visitor in July 2018 wrote of their visit to the mall: "Couldn’t wait to get out of this place. It’s so so bad."
To raise the cash to complete the remaining buildings, MEH confirmed at the end of November that it had been forced to sell the 65-acre plot of land next to Empire City that was marked out for a second complex, Empire City 2, where a theme park and concert halls, as well as more offices, were planned.
For now, the windows of the WPP campus still look out onto the skeleton frames of other towers, waiting to become hotels or more office blocks. "When we walk around the complex, some people have told me bits of buildings have fallen off from the other buildings," our source says about the first Empire City. "I just want to share my story because, honestly speaking, I don’t want to go back there."
A version of this article first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific. If you work at WPP’s Petaling Jaya campus, or would like to comment on this article, we’d like to hear from you. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.