Reimagine the office as much as you like, but don't imagine many people fancying coming back

Jeremy Lee
Jeremy Lee

The battle between agency 'culture' and business bottom line is already being lost.

Having effortlessly shifted from “pivoting” to “reimagining” in a speed not dissimilar to that of a sourdough rise, who says the ad industry isn’t au fait with client corporate management speak and is therefore undeserving of its place at the “top table” (and that’s another "ewwww" for that)?

Now that staff are being advised to stay at home by the government just days after being told to go back to work, offices lie empty again – the only noise likely being the supercharged air-con units continuously pumping in cold, fresh air as per the government’s recommendations. Take that, Extinction Rebellion.

For some smaller London agencies, the reimagination of the workplace has been the excuse for some downsizing – an opportunity to find space more suitable for the Covid era (and possibly cut the rent bill back and for management to do a nifty pocket tap on the bottom line, à la Sunny off the lamentable new Asda ads). St Luke’s and Elvis have both upped sticks to new premises.

For others, such as Pablo, it has meant giving up leases completely and embracing WFH as something many people will prefer to do until medical science finally sorts out creating a vaccine to save us all. It is to Pablo’s credit that it is donating the money saved to Shelter to help those more permanently without a home – this sum will be in the tens of thousands, I’m told.

Leagas Delaney, too, has given up on its central London HQ. Whether the practicalities of a diaspora of talent spread throughout London and the home counties work with the longer-term needs of clients is an issue that other agencies (and clients) will be watching closely.

For those holding companies that recently opened lavish campus sites – think Havas Village, WPP’s Sea Containers, Omnicom’s desolate Bankside location and Publicis Groupe’s Television Centre site – the promised back-office savings and cross-pollination of ideas from a centralised office look a little fanciful.

And no matter how much noise they make about the importance of preserving “agency culture” (free breakfasts and you can bring your dog in on a Friday?), it will probably take more than conceptual arguments to get all but the most compliant staff to potentially risk their health on busy Tube lines just to keep some HR flunkeys happy. Some serious reimagination is needed here.

How strange it seems that it was just a year ago that the whole concept of flexible working and work/life balance rose to the fore with Starcom’s “flexigate” internal staff email complaining of empty offices on Fridays. It may have triggered an industry debate, but the question looks like it has been answered – at least until the boffins have a vaccine ready.

Jeremy Lee is premium content editor at Campaign

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