Campus Culture

How do you maintain an agency culture in an era of campus working?

Holding group aggregation has become the norm, but it's still crucial - if less easy - to maintain individual agency culture

By Jeremy Lee

Havas was probably one of the first holding companies in the UK to start the trend of assembling its agency brands on one site - in its case a new development at King's Cross.

It wasn't long before other agencies sought to rationalise their estate portfolio and take advantage of new developments that became available. WPP-owned Grey and Mindshare are the most recent, moving to Rose Court - a new campus on London's South Bank not far from WPP's corporate headquarters (and home of Wavemaker and Ogilvy) at Sea Containers House.

Campus working may have been pioneered by the US tech giants but it is being embraced wholeheartedly by agency groups. As well as obvious efficiencies, campuses allow for closer physical and intellectual collaboration between agencies that are all part of the same group.

But the advertising industry continues to be made up of proud and distinctive agency brands, all of which were born and evolved through individual circumstances (no matter their shared parentage).

In an era of communal working, maintaining this edge is important - not just for existing and prospective clients but also for staff as they drift back to the office. So how do you go about it?

Mark Read, chief executive, WPP

We want our campuses to be a “temple to creativity” and to represent WPP’s values of being open, optimistic and extraordinary – which encapsulate common values that all our agencies can share.

Being there should encourage our people to be open and collaborative, to be optimistic and positive about the future and to do extraordinary work, particularly when they come together.

Sue Frogley, chief executive, Publicis Media UK

It’s important for agencies to have their own space to show their personality and character. This was our approach and why each of our agencies have their own floor that is unique to them. That said, company culture is less about the colour of the walls, sofas or ping pong tables and more about how people feel “at work”, whether that’s in the office or at home.

Culture is driven by people and ultimately comes from the top. It's about how people are treated, valued, included, and encouraged to have a voice. Consistent, transparent, and empathetic leadership, as well as good two-way communication is key. Those that have built a solid culture early on, will find it easier to maintain in a campus environment and in today’s hybrid world.

Sam Hawkey, chief executive, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO

You have to use it as a driver for the culture rather than one that fights against it. We, like many agencies, are working on our space in terms of how it looks, what makes it useful, how we add more fun and fundamentally how it becomes more magnetic. And being around other great agencies can act as fuel for that. Seeing and hearing what they are doing and how that can influence our people to make our work better. Use it that way, and we’ll worry less about maintaining agency culture but using the campus as another reason to work here.

Justin Pahl, chief executive, VMLY&R

I don't believe company culture should rely much on location. For me, it's about the relationships people create. You can tell a lot about someone by how they treat people they don't need to be nice to. The same goes for culture. How do people treat each other when the boss isn't in the room, when a global pandemic upends our work habits or when your space is being refurbished, and everyone moves to the shared landing of your two floors – which is our current situation.

If people's daily interactions contain kindness, challenge, inspiration and learning and if leaders celebrate their people for their individual skills and talents, then they will foster a great culture no matter whether in a campus or entirely virtual.

Having moved to Sea Containers just over a year ago, I think there is a lot to say for what a campus has to offer to our people and our clients and the vast awesomeness of different specialisms that live inside of it. We enjoy it every single day. And I believe it's been reciprocal; just ask all the people who, although not part of our agency, regularly attend our traditional Crisps Thursday on the warm invitations of our Front of House, Gillian.

Rob Doubal, CCO, McCann UK & co-president, McCann London

The short answer is consistency, clarity and purpose. Knowing why you are meeting up, and being clear about what your agency purpose is, means people can enjoy coming together whilst also enjoying some autonomy of time. We prefer ‘ways’ of working to ‘days’ of working - allowing teams to determine how they want to work, and then providing the space, time and motivation to support it.

Our online agency-wide conversations at ‘King Kong’ sessions have been a great way of creating a sense of shared culture. If you have ambitious people, who are set on making the best creative work of their lives, it means coming together to share, laugh, explode and create is something they want to do naturally.

Laura Jordan-Bambach, president & chief creative officer UK, Grey London

It felt like a new beginning when we moved out of Hatton Garden after 15 years and into a new and exciting building with extraordinary views and great green credentials.

Our studio is made of people who make our culture: a creative, diverse, inclusive and innovative culture that spreads all over the 1415 sqm floor we’ve been able to design from scratch with creativity at the centre.

We’ve always been in a building with other companies and never lost our pirate spirit and identity. But this time it’s so much better as we are closer to the tech, media, design companies, to name a few, which whom we partner and collaborate with for the benefit of our teams and clients.

Xavier Rees, CEO, Havas London & Havas CX helia

As the first holding company to move all our London-based agencies into a single ‘campus’ – five years ago, via our King’s Cross Village – I can certainly outline what’s worked for us. Critically, our agencies aren’t competing with one another. Instead, by intentionally having just one specialist agency per discipline, we’ve created a trusting environment where we all know we’re stronger together. This collaborative dynamic, alongside shared spaces, events and experiences, has helped facilitate a genuine and potent building-wide culture. Before we moved in, we carefully designed the inner workings of the building for agency life. And it shows.

Simultaneously, autonomy and individual agency cultures are powerful, important to talent, and shouldn’t be discarded. It’s why we made the strategic decision to retain individual agency brands and leadership teams, who are free to build the culture that’s right for their agency.

We’ve found the right balance. Those companies which have co-located agencies not for strategic reasons, but financial ones – whose models aren’t rooted in collaborative, complementary specialisms, but replication and competition – might struggle. At the very least, they’ll fail to maximise the advantages such proximity can bring.

Paul Cooper, chief operating officer, MediaCom North

A key consideration now regarding agency culture is how to facilitate hybrid working – regardless of whether or not the business is using a shared working space. In today’s climate to attract the best talent, we need to focus as much on offering flexibility in both the working day and location as we do on a competitive salary and career progression opportunities.

At MediaCom, we are engendering collaboration time in the office – encouraging colleagues to regularly group for activities that aren’t screen based. One example is Connections Week when each office will come together to collaborate, learn and have some fun.

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