Monday, 5 March 2012

My biggest and most satisfying challenge at RKCR.

So, Friday was my last day at RKCR.

And when I reflect upon the four years I spent there, probably my biggest and most satisfying challenge during that time was not helping the agency win awards or new business.

It was something far more profound.

When I accepted the job I hadn’t set foot in the agency. I didn't feel I needed to. I’d met Richard Exon, the CEO, and liked him. We shared the same vision for the agency and agreed there was a huge amount of potential that needed to be tapped. That was all that really mattered.

When I turned up in January 2008 however one thing was blindingly obvious. Something needed to be done with the environment.

There were cubicles and corridors and offices and meeting rooms and little cut-off corner areas. On different floors.

And despite its bright primary colours and jaunty angled meeting room windows, it felt corporate and old fashioned.

Worse, the place encouraged segregation. Bigger offices for 'senior' staff making them appear more valued than others. Not good if you’re trying to build one big, powerful, conjoined team.

Also, rather tellingly, when I polled the staff, asking if the place inspired them and they felt proud to bring their mates or their mums into the office the answers weren't positive.

The first mountain to overcome was getting a budget.

The Finance Director went to work and after months of negotiating with head office managed to get a pot of money specifically for the refurb. It wasn’t enough, but it would have to do.

We invited three architects to compete, eventually choosing Spacelab.

They understood the way space could and should be used in an office such as ours, offering opportunities for random encounters as well as space for concentrated thinking.

They also shared my feeling that we should bring back some of the original integrity of the building. It used to be The Black Cat cigarette factory (hence the two big, Egyptian style statues out the front). It was also the first reinforced concrete building in the country of its size with massive beams and uprights.

At my previous agency I’d experienced the benefits of open plan working both culturally as well as operationally.

No walls means no politics - no corner offices for the management; it speeds everything up - if you need to speak to someone you don’t need to get your PA to call their PA and arrange a time, you just stand up and walk over to them; and most importantly, open plan encourages chance encounters, helping make new friends and with them the possibility of fresh cross fertilizing of ideas – you can’t simply walk, head down, from the lift to your office door without bumping into people in the morning.

But… open plan working spaces do have a few issues. And if we wanted to take advantage of its good bits we needed to overcome these.

Open plan working. And the world's largest welcome mat?

Planners and creative people think for a living. And most of them like a bit of peace and quiet to do that. That’s why, traditionally they like offices with nice doors you can close to ward off unwanted visitors.

The truth is, of course, they don’t really spend every second of their day sitting in zen like contemplation.

Much of their time is spent in briefings, client meetings, presentations, reviews, edits, on shoots, paying bills, buying stuff on Amazon and ASOS, buggering about on Facebook, surfing YouTube, up-loading shit to Pinterest and chatting.

There are basically three types of work that planners and creatives do. I ended up created a traffic light system to help define the spaces they needed:

Pootling about on the internet, researching, paying bills, writing emails. Low pressure stuff. This required 'green space'.

Thinking. Discussing ideas. Concentrating. Writing. Meetings. These needed 'amber space'.

Action stations. “You’ve got an hour to crack this!” Total immersion. Do not disturb! 'Red space'.

If we were going to take away people’s walls we needed to provide everyone alternative spaces for these three types of working.

Green was easy. A section of desk and a chair.

To avoid corporate drone syndrome we went for a variety of surfaces, sizes and shapes: wood, steel and laminate, rectangular, round, six seater, 12 seater, 36 seater.

Amber spaces was where things started getting interesting.

We created various areas that could be used for informal meetings as well as places to sit alone and work.

These were:

Areas of the main ‘factory floor’ sprinkled with sofas, arm chairs and coffee tables.

A high level ‘kitchen counter’ to encourage drop-in chats.

A circular booth, furnished in red buttoned leatherette. (This quickly became known as the 'Strip Booth'. Don't know why.).

The Pit, a sunken amphitheatre, with bean-bags, grass carpet, projector and write-on walls.

But my favourite amber space ended up being The Club. A dark, sexy and surprising, wood floored antidote to the stark white and steel of the ‘factory floor’.

For cost reasons I'd been asked to choose from a selection of furnishings from via the 'preferred corporate suppliers'. But these weren't particularly nice, or particularly cheap. For the main space I'd sourced all the old Danish furniture myself from eBay etc, but for the club we needed something a little special.

We called on interior design firm White Linen to help us out. They designed bespoke sofas and chairs covered with lush, dark velvets and found some amazing wallpaper and curtain fabrics which finished the area off nicely.

The Club

The quiet working space, the red space, was the final, and possibly most critical challenge.

We designed banks of smallish work-pods, which ended up being known as Panic Rooms, that were big enough for two. Useful for creative teams who want to shut themselves away and talk the nonsense creative people need to talk with impunity.

Panic Rooms

For the planners, many of whom wanted total silence to operate, we created The Library. A silent space in which to really get down to some top level, high level musing.

The Library

The main works only took six months, but the ‘finalising' took a lot longer.

Magnetic paint, write on walls. Projectors to show stuff we found inspiring. Rugs. Light bulbs (don't get me started on light bulbs...).

Galvanised conduit baby, yeah.

The re-furb was basically a second job for over a year.

But it was worth it.

The new environment made staff proud to work there and clients enjoy being there.

Did it help make the work better?

Who knows?

Yes, it's true that soon after the office was finished the agency won a couple of BAFTAs, its first D&AD pencils, became the most awarded agency in the country and reached the top of the new business league.

But hey, that was probably just a coincidence.


  1. What was the source of inspiration, 'The Architecture of Happiness'?

  2. I wish I could say it was... Never read it, but it looks great! Have you?

  3. In the process…very interesting.
    Did you source any clocks for the place?
    London Paris Wigan. Doomsday. T Minus to deadline and all that jazz.
    Just wondering how the love/hate relationship with time manifested itself.

    1. My plan for time telling really was to use one of the projectors and screen something like Drop Clock which is lovely. Never actually got there but it would have looked cool. And given people something to look at as the hours wiled away...

  4. The library table was great for hiding underneath too.

    1. Ah, THAT'S where you were all that time!!

  5. It looked as good as it worked. A beautiful new culture of collaboration that even the odd light bulb fail couldn't dim

  6. Perhaps the new chap can sort out IT ;o)

  7. I love the idea of the panic room. I have two portable panic rooms I invested in myself. Sennheiser headphones that cover my ears! A bit of Philip Glass loud and keynote and people know not to interrupt me!

  8. Having been involved in this project with Spacelab, it's great to read a comprehensive review from clients perspective, something very rare in our line of work. This was an exciting project to work on, and we still have potential and established clients request to visit the space on a regular basis. We have now also carried out some post occupancy analysis and have statistics which back up the original goals of developing a dynamic and diverse working environment that would create more opportunity for chance encounter.

    I to find myself about to embark on a new chapter in my career, with a lead role at an established practice after 7 years at Spacelab, and will always consider the collaborative process of this project as being one of the most rewarding experiences to date.

    Colin Macgadie (Strategy & Design Director)