I’m sitting at my new desk, on my first day in our new building, writing this. I have to confess, it’s not quite the scenario I imagined.
On 5 October we embarked on a cautious return to the office across the UK. For our London-based agencies and regional headquarters, this moment represented the realisation of a dream: bringing all our agencies in the capital together under one roof at 135 Bishopsgate. A total of 1,200 staff from 11 agencies working in a collaborative space to our McCann Worldgroup mantra: “Brilliant individually, Unbeatable as one.”
Back in September 2018, showing Campaign around what was then a building site, none of us saw in our future a global pandemic or the need for an RTO strategy. Our move was painstakingly planned over two years. But the anticipated celebration and excitement of taking occupancy has been replaced by something more measured – and perhaps even more existential.
Defining the meaningful role for our office
Today, as all our agencies across the UK return with caution to the office, we are using our spaces primarily for activities that benefit from us being together in person, such as creative collaboration and client briefings. And, more poignantly, a destination for those for whom home working has become too hard, too lonely or too difficult to sustain long term.
In so doing, we, like others, have been forced to pause and consider the real purpose of the office in our lives.
The definition of the office is traditionally “a room, set of rooms, or building used as a place for commercial, professional or bureaucratic work”. A physical destination where work is done – crucially, away from home. It was a way of corralling a work force, creating a shared identity and inculcating a corporate culture. I still remember the awe of working in my first office as an ex-student. Everything worked; it was glamorous and fun. It also created a clear divide between home and work. For some, even a double life: a work persona and a home persona.
But in the past six months the notions of “an office job” and being “an office worker” have entirely changed.
The personal and the professional have unavoidably blurred. Despite the physical distance imposed on us by working virtually, there is a new intimacy, necessitating a more empathetic approach. We have been invited into people’s homes, families, moments of joy and difficulty. In some ways – paradoxically – we feel closer.
Reframing our business
The situation has prompted us to redefine what we want and expect the office to do, as well as what role it plays in our business. As a result, the business itself has been reframed across a number of key areas.
The first is culture. The office is often associated with corporate culture. In the past, perks like ping pong tables and cereal bars were seen as “great culture”. They may be expressions of culture, but they are not the culture itself.
True organisational culture is based on the mission and values that unify a workforce.
At MW we have always sought to embed a culture of inclusivity, generosity, bravery and integrity, enabled by collaboration at the heart of our model. In recent times there has been no transformation in values, but certainly there has in execution. Empathy and kindness have been essential for connection as we work in this “new normal”. Self-aware, emotionally intelligent and decisive leaders have enabled their teams to thrive.
We know that diversity is the lifeblood of our creativity. It is therefore imperative for us to recognise that to be our best we all should and can work in different ways. As an industry, we create, claim and deliver value through differentiation, and the importance of nurturing and empowering diverse talent who challenge the clichéd normality can never be underestimated.
Our productivity has remained largely unchanged, and in many instances it has increased – but there is a human cost to this resilience. Mental health has been paramount and we have created forums that enable our people to feel supported across a range of communities. Our commitment to the well-being of our people is not confined to World Mental Health Day or similar cultural moments – it is a long-term, business-critical mission.
In terms of our product, we have long believed that creativity is the only way to survive. But we are redefining what it means to be creative. Clients are valuing intelligent creativity across all disciplines. Like us, they see that creativity applies as much to the way we conceive and iterate solutions to their problems as it does to visible creative product. Our partnerships with them have deepened further – reinforced by mutual respect and agility.
The future of 'the office' and our industry purpose
The question of what is important and what we must leave behind as we adjust to a new "normal" has given us a new clarity. There is a sense of urgency around where we need to spend our time and energy when we come together – whether virtually or in the real world.
We are all running commercial enterprises. But we cannot deny that we also have a platform that allows us to make a positive impact on the culture we are living in. If advertising is a mirror of human culture, if we are working in an industry where we bring our “true selves” to work, and where our product plays an increasingly influential role, then this is our collective responsibility.
At the same time, when we see the younger generation losing faith in the institutions and political bodies we once trusted, the phenomena of advertising as activism and brands as activists are on the rise. A humbling responsibility – and only possible within a diverse and inclusive culture.
The role of the office amid these heightened ambitions is to continue to be a melting pot of creativity and human possibility. It harks back to the role of the agora, the market squares in ancient Greece, where goods were bought and sold, but also where some of the world’s most important ideas were born, including democracy.
As a business with the stated aim of being the number one creatively-driven marketing company – with “Truth well told” as our slogan since 1912 – MW has an interest in both sides of the agora equation. As we help our clients earn meaningful roles for their brands, and loyalty among their consumers, original ideas and commercial sense are as important as ever.
Our own "agora” will continue to be a hybrid, combining individual talent with the power of collaboration. The new “office” can be anywhere we meet to create, think and connect. And when we come together, we will feel the strength of being unbeatable as one collective, diverse, connected, brilliant and brave community. What has given us strength before will keep us strong now – wherever we may be.
Mark Lund is president at McCann Worldgroup Europe and UK