Tuesday, December 10, 2013

What Your Office Environment Communicates

There are two kinds of environment in business.  The office where you work and your own personal space within it.

The uniformity of most of the open plan offices leaves much to be desired.  For the most part they are big, personality-less spaces.  But some offices are over designed.

In the mid-1990's, when the wonderful Agency Ammirati & Puris was merged by Interpublic into Lintas, which became Ammirati Puris/Lintas, the Lintas offices were completely redone at the behest of Ralph Ammirati and Martin Puris.  What they did became legendary.

The new offices copied the Ammirati offices, but were very different from Lintas. Everything was white.  Everything was precise.  Furniture was uniform and specifically chosen – no one could have their own favorite chairs unless pre-approved. Personal artwork, to be placed in private offices or on the walls of people’s cubicles, had to be pre-approved. Picture frames were regulated.  There were even clear dots on the sides of window frames indicating the level of where blinds had to be placed; they could not be higher or lower, even those offices on the east and South sides of the building which got huge amounts of sun.  There were actually office services people who policed the offices every day, including the blinds.

The first time I ever heard of this was when I visited CBS.  CBS had just moved into the offices it occupied on Sixth Avenue and Lou Dorfsman, the design guru who developed the CBS eye logo, dictated what could and could not be in offices,  all of which, like Lintas’in the mid 1990’s, were painted white. CBS offices were uniform and stark.
I once worked in a firm that was run by a protégé of Lew Dorfsman and he went so far as to tell executives that their desks were too messy, even before they went home. When clients visited the offices, he was tyrannical about neat papers on desks.

I always felt that this kind of graphic dictatorship was antithetical to creativity. In fact, at ad agencies, my opinion is that this kind of uniformity is boring and sterile.  I never did ask a client how they felt about it, but I heard from a lot of creative people about the absurdity of the design edicts. And that applies to personal offices as well.

Then, recently, I read a study which was reported on the web by MSN (which is my home page) which proved my thoughts and feelings right.  It appears that, according to the study published in Psychological Science the conclusion was that it is better to have a messy desk at the start of a project (a clean one at the end).  The messy desk, among other things, promotes creative thinking and new ideas.  Sounds right to me.

I would extend that to personal offices which are cluttered and well worn.  Those who know my office know that it is homey and loaded with my “stuff” and exudes my personality.  It also allows people to be comfortable and open with me when I am interviewing them.

 My Office
Not surprisingly, most people don't decorate their office space.  But for me, an office is where I have to spend eight to twelve hours every day, so I make it my second home.  I have done this my whole career, even when I was an account executive (occasionally it got me in trouble, but that is another post).  People always complimented me on my space, even when I was young.

If I were a client looking to hire a new agency, I would look for an agency which exudes energy and creativity.

What does your office say about you?


  1. I still remember the old days of Deutsch, when I received a post-it on my black leather pencil cup one morning, informing me it was not an approved pencil cup and the approved ones could be obtained at the mailroom.

    Exactly what you want to greet you when you just put in an 80-hour week on a pitch.

  2. There was a guy at Ammirati who's job it was to wipe down the walls daily to remove any scuffs or marks, especially by the elevators.

    1. Lance, that is amazing. In my opinion, a totally wasted resource which didn't contribute to the strategic or creative product or even client retention at all.

  3. When I was a client of theirs in the mid-2000s, Mendelsohn-Zien's offices in LA were similarly rigid and monochromatic. Colors (Black, White and Chrome), desktop clutter and even blinds were regulated, even amongst the creatives.

    Because direct overhead lights were not allowed, the office was almost unbearably dark except for those offices and spaces that backed up to the windows (which, to be fair, had spectacular views of Beverly Hills and downtown LA in the distance).

    I recall one post creative review debrief with my AE in her office when I adjusted the blinds to keep the sun out of my eyes. The look of abject terror on her face was both off-putting and hilarious. My response when she explained her reaction was "F&$# that. Blame the client if you catch grief."

    1. Mallthus: Love your story. I can never understand putting form before function or style before substance. I like your attitude.

  4. I had the good fortune of launching my ad career at Ted Bates, SSC&B:Lintas, and Marschalk Campbell-Ewald. Great agencies with very attractive offices. But we were always allowed to personalize our individual space as long as we kept things reasonably neat for appearances. My personal space could generally be described as “organized chaos” but people visiting my office always found it a fun place to be, with my giant personally autographed poster from The Cars rock group, which proudly hung on my wall behind my desk, being the most popular feature. This all created a wonderful sense of ownership, family, and belonging for everyone. A place where one could imagine spending the rest of their agency career. But those days are long gone.

    With the agency M&A frenzy of the 80s; declining client loyalties in the 90s; and the new financial realities of publicly held shops versus those still privately owned since then, everything changed.

    Whereas the old expression that our inventory rode up and down the elevators every day was regarded by all as a positive statement about the value of our people, the new paradigm relegated us to literally becoming “inventory”. Just another creative or account widget, easily replaced … or not!

    Having witnessed these changes, my attitude about my office space has evolved to that of a Spartan, recognizing that I might soon be gone. So now I keep just one simple yet beautiful 5x7 picture of my daughters on my desk … nothing else. And that’s OK, because it serves as a positive and daily reminder to me that the only things that really matter, and the only things I can truly count on in my life are the girls in that picture. Bill Crandall

    1. Bill, I'm with you exactly. I used to have pictures and memorabilia on my desk and walls. After schlepping this stuff among jobs for years, I'm down to one 5x7 pic of my wife and boys, to remind me what it's all for.

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  6. Paul great post. I have a pretty cluttered desk. But as suggested above, this is not to me a sign of a cluttered mind but rather, a creative one thinking about and melding ideas from all sorts of things at once. Of course that is me and my opinion regarding my own self professed semi brilliance. :-) But I'm happy to see it reflected above. Hey that reminds me of something I was working on, let me see if I can find it, it is here somewhere... Oh well I'll find it later I am sure!

    Happy Holidays and keep up great blog (one of not that many truly good ones in our space) in 2014! EH

    1. Thanks, Eric. I was going to answer you and I wrote something witty on a piece of paper, but I cannot find it on my desk....


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