The Power of Place, part 2 – How a design strategy powered a global strategy design

Jim Meredith enjoys a chat in the "Creative Lobby" of Team Detroit headquarters

As you all know, we put ideas into operation with the hope that they will have lasting impact. Despite our purpose and intentions, most architecture and design projects have a finite conclusion – the doors open, the client moves in, and they and we are off to our other business. What we’ve done exists on the landscape for its and our lifetimes, yet it seems relatively rare that we get insight into how what we’ve done affects the lives of those who experience the places we’ve designed.

I was pleased, then, to find this story in the New York Times this week. Ostensibly about the promotion of a key creative person at an ad agency, key pieces of the article told a story about the resonating beneficial influence on the business performance of a company for whom I, in a former position, led a team to design a regional headquarters. The article is a great testimonial to the power of what we do in advancing strategies that help design resonate with business benefit well beyond the project itself.

Uncovering what “job” the client actually wants to do

I’ve probably talked too much about the Detroit WPP project, but I like it as a clear example of a great way to practice. I was Principal-in-Charge of the Detroit project which was conceived by WPP as a relatively simple collocation project. WPP had grown through acquisitions and, as a result, in major markets, came to hold a number of different agencies who had leases in different buildings in different locations with different terms. Bringing different agencies from different locations together into their own suites in one building would simplify lease terms and CRE complexity.

But I was interested in a different approach. Our mission is to link workplace design strategy to our client’s business strategy design. At the time of the project, about 2005, the advertising and media businesses were experiencing a revolutionary fragmentation of the Mad Men model of business and were challenged by internal competition among advertising, media, planning and other disciplines seeking relevance, influence and dominance of the marketing agenda. So I was deeply interested in working with WPP executives to take advantage of this “collocation” project in Detroit to actually generate and test a new business model, and one that could be facilitated by a radical new approach to workplace design.

A window into the process

Almost every day during the site search and design phases of the project, I would join an executive of one of the agencies in his office, or he in mine, and we’d scribble diagrams on a whiteboard. We began by discussing the concept that bringing the agencies under one roof was an opportunity to “tear down the walls” between the businesses and develop a “new lexicon” for both the business and the places and spaces where it would operate. The objective was to find ways to enhance the creative output of the companies and deliver higher value at lower cost to its clients.

Each of the agencies was, in a sense, complete. Each had a full palette of administrative, creative and production functions. There was, however, a great range in the size of the agencies, from 65 to 650 people (the companies under consideration for collocation collectively employed more than 1300 people), so the strengths of these functions in each of the agencies varied as well.

Collocation could, it seemed, easily allow an integrated concept of back office functions like HR, finance and IT to enable greater strength and improved efficiency for all. But we also quickly began looking at integrating other functions like research, media and others, and eventually creative as well to test the potential of an integrated approach to deliver higher creative value. As this developed, we began to also challenge approaches taken in earlier projects in other cities where collocation simply meant each agency having its own suite but together in a single building with a single lease.

Linking strategy design with design strategy

Eventually, we had an emerging new business concept in mind, as well as the realization that the extraordinarily dynamic business conditions meant that the shape of organizations that moved in to the building would not be the same as the ones with whom we began the project. The design, then, had to accommodate ongoing organizational redesign and continuing rapid evolution defined by market and business conditions.

We began to work with a radically open concept that would adhere to certain guiding metrics of the WPP CRE program as well as the lingering cultural and identity concerns of the agencies. I developed, nonetheless, a “two seats for every employee” design program. Visualizing that the emerging design of the business – my client began to call it “integrated creative communications” – would find success only through a (then non-existent) collaboration between agency teams, I reasoned that only through an agile physical place that enabled the socialization that would nurture a sense of shared values and the development of a shared culture would this success be achieved. So in addition to a home base for 1350 people, there were also 1350 seats in a variety of different kinds of settings for the combined staff to get to know, and trust, each other and start to combine disciplines and expertise and begin to work together.

Allowing time to activate

Although initially resisted by the executives of the agencies for logical arguments about brand identity, interagency competition and proprietary information, they nonetheless agreed to let the design concept develop to reflect the emerging business concept, even as it was developing.

“I think I was pretty skeptical” of the Team Detroit concept at first, Mr. Barlow said. “You’d walk in a room and say, ‘He’s with Y&R; he’s with Ogilvy,’ and you’re all sitting together. It was weird.”

As results were achieved, Mr. Barlow said, it became clear that “the whole would be equal to more than the sum of the parts.”

Within 3 months of moving into the building, the agencies dropped all resistance to the business concept and rebranded themselves as an integrated operation named “Team Detroit.” The business concept (and the spatial concept) is now the model for WPP’s work globally, as the article discusses.

The project has won design awards and has been published in various places before. But this article from the New York Times today is a better testimony to the power of what we do when we help organizations develop and articulate strategy designs better, and then develop design strategies that deliver measurable business results.

[Quote from “Selling Ford Around the World, From Detroit” by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times, November 12, 2010]

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