Anytime advertising powerhouse TBWA/Chiat/Day builds a new headquarters, it makes news. Ever since founder Jay Chiat unleashed his vision for a virtual office on an unsuspecting world in 1994, the agency has linked its destiny as a creative entity to the environment in which its creativity takes place. Chiat/Day doesn't just build new offices: It reinvents itself every time it moves.
Chiat's notion of a virtual office represented a radical shift in the design theory of the white-collar workplace. He consigned the concept of private space to the scrap heap of office history — desks, filing cabinets, family photos, and all. Instead, workers were given cell-phones, PowerBooks, and the freedom to be creative whenever and wherever the spirit moved them. In place of a traditional office, Chiat gave his employees a Frank Gehry-designed "clubhouse" in Venice Beach, California. Here they could hold meetings, exchange ideas, and come up with brilliant campaigns — provided that they could find a place to sit. It was one of the boldest office experiments of the pre-Web era. And it drove a lot of people crazy.
If the Venice Beach office sent people on a journey to the frontiers of techno-nomadism, then Chiat/Day's new West Coast headquarters represents a return to community. Called Advertising City, the facility is located in a 120,000-square-foot former bathroom-fixture warehouse in the Playa del Rey section of Los Angeles. Instead of being a space where virtual workers get together for occasional face-to-face meetings, the new headquarters is a full-blown, self-contained village. Here the agency's nearly 500 LA-based workers "reside" in account-based neighborhoods and can easily walk down their own Main Street or to their own Central Park.
Designed by architect Clive Wilkinson, Advertising City is a logical progression in the company's ongoing experiment with ways to boost creativity. In every part of this workplace — in the gatehouse shaped like a surfboard, in the 26-foot-high wood-slatted conference room, in the indoor hardwood basketball court that doubles both as a Tae-Bo workout space and as a dance floor for company parties — the emphasis is on fun and a sense of play. "We're about two things: the quality of our work and the quality of our lives at work," says Laurie Coots, 42, chief marketing officer (North America). A desire to enhance both underlies principles at work in Advertising City.
Five hundred people isn't an office — it's a community.
Instead of starting off by looking at specific office designs, Chiat/Day focused on big-picture issues: "What makes a ghetto, and what makes a neighborhood? What's the right mix of public space, play space, and private space? These were the questions that we were asking ourselves," explains Coots. Like an actual city, Chiat/Day's new office is divided into distinct neighborhoods. It's no accident, for example, that the "cliff dwellings" where the creatives work are located along Main Street: Creativity is at the heart of the firm's business. Each account team, meanwhile, is organized around a "project den" that acts as a kind of community hall.
Build fences, not walls.
"The way we work is very much a team approach," explains Neal Grossman, 43, CFO. "In experimenting with the virtual office, we found that people tended not to venture very far from their teams. They picked up on a lot of things that they just happened to overhear. Having too many walls and other inhibitors to communication simply isn't productive." Which is why, even though Advertising City incorporates lots of private space, none of its sections seem cloistered or shut off from the rest. The project dens, for example, are made of stretch canvas: Each space is clearly defined, but team members who are working outside can still hear what's going on inside. "It's the neighborhood-fence concept," says Grossman, whose own office is bounded on one side by a playground fence. "You can look over your neighbor's fence and have a conversation."
Manage by design.
"Our mission is 'Change the Rules,' " says Lee Clow, 55, the agency's chairman and chief creative officer (worldwide), as he looks out over Central Park. From the 1959 Nissan surf wagon that's parked on Main Street to the chain-link fence that protects the finance department from errant basketballs, that mission is evident in every aspect of Advertising City's design. The space even includes a billboard — it comes straight out of Chiat/Day's campaign for Apple — that features Pablo Picasso urging staffers to "Think Different." "You can't force people to be creative," says Coots, "but you can create an environment where creativity is more likely to happen."
For clients, prospective hires, and other visitors, the design serves as an elegant summation of everything that Chiat/Day stands for. In fact, one unintended benefit of the new facility is that it has become a magnet for new talent. "This office has really become a great recruiting tool," says Grossman. "It's the Disneyland effect: People's eyes pop open, their mouths drop, and they say, 'Hey, I'd really like to work here.' " It isn't only ad types who have that reaction, says Clow: "Shaquille O'Neal was here the other day, and he said to me%2, 'LeeC I want to work here. What can I do?' "
Eric Ransdell (email@example.com) is a Fast Company contributing editor. You can visit TBWA/Chiat/Day on the Web (www.chiatday.com).
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.