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Campus working means holding companies are now more than stock market names

As agency brands consolidate on single sites, holding companies are no longer the dusty back office shells they once were

By jeremy lee

Romantics might get misty eyed for the days when the UK advertising business was largely a cottage industry of small individual agencies, launched by entrepreneurs and located mainly around Soho. But those days are long gone. The realism of agency consolidation, demands for flexible working and the cost efficiencies and collaborative benefits of co-located working mean that most new entrants to the industry are more likely to find themselves working in a steel and smoked glass ziggurat than a quirky but dysfunctional converted Georgian townhouse.

But partition walls do not a prison make, nor sliding doors a cage. Havas was the first to create a campus with its Havas Village in King’s Cross, and all the other major agency groups have followed suit. WPP has become the latest holding company to aggregate more of its agency brands in one location with the opening of its second centralised site on London’s South Bank. This will house more than a dozen agencies including Grey London and Mindshare. London, in particular, is now littered with advertising campuses.

Speaking to Creative Salon, Read said that he wanted his campuses to be “temples to creativity” and that they represented “WPP’s values of being open, optimistic and extraordinary” – shared common values for the agencies therein. But while it was once easy to in some way define an agency’s culture by its geographical location or the quirks of its building, centralised campus working has thrown up challenges for management. Given that human nature is to be tribal, how do you retain and reinforce one agency’s subtle but distinctive culture over another that shares a front door and reception - no matter how strong the filial ties?

Company culture isn’t just about the colour of the walls, sofas or ping pong tables, as Sue Frogley, the chief executive of Publicis Media UK, which has created a campus at Television Centre in West London, points out. Sam Hawkey, the chief executive of Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, which is housed in an Omnicom campus in Borough, goes further. He thinks that being around other great sister agencies will help offices become more magnetic places for people – and as agencies try to entice people back to work, that trumps an individual agency’s culture.

If tribal loyalties are slowly shifting from individual agency brands towards the holding companies that own them and have brought them together, then it’s time for the holding companies themselves to be clearer about their own brand and culture.

It’s certainly true that in the war for talent and consolidated briefs, the holding companies now need to stand for something as much as the agency brands that they own. The pandemic has already brought holding company culture to the fore as each of the groups has worked hard to publicly support staff and clients from the top down. Now the campus approach is creating new opportunities to take that to a more tangible level on the ground.

At the same time, the term holding company – and the implication that these are dusty back-office shells – is itself becoming redundant. Publicis Groupe has already forcefully rejected the descriptor in favour of calling itself a platform and it’s going to be interesting to see how the different groups continue to grow as cultural entities, not just stock market names.

Ultimately, though, it’s the congregations these temples of creativity can attract and retain that will have the most profound effect on how the big groups are perceived, not the campus design.

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