Your company’s headquarters was designed with a thought behind it. Can you decode the design? Does the architecture portray the company’s power? Does it showcase the company’s hipness? Does it signal a democratic workplace? Does it designate top performers and chart the hierarchy?
Ask Dan Wieden, founder and CEO of Wieden+Kennedy, what he was thinking when he set out to create a new headquarters after his 18-year-old, $780 million ad agency outgrew its comfortable old space in downtown Portland, Oregon, and he’ll tell you without hesitation. “For us, this wasn’t about the riddle of figuring out the cubicles or making the office space different than the next guy’s,” says Wieden, 55. “The job was figuring out how we can help people live creative lives. I don’t care whether you’re a writer or in finance — or simply coming to visit us. If we’re helping people lead surprising, audacious lives, that will infect everything else we do here.”
In an economy based on innovation, what better use can there be for space than to inspire creativity? To translate his purpose into practice, Wieden took three steps — two of them fairly standard and a third that was, well, exceptionally creative. First, he decided to put his new headquarters in the right neighborhood, buying a historical landmark in Portland’s Pearl District, a rapidly changing, mixed-use neighborhood reminiscent of San Francisco’s South of Market in the 1990s or New York’s Soho in the 1970s.
Second, he renovated the 90-year-old building, cutting out its core and creating a six-story atrium where everyone in the company could meet. Wieden awarded the design job to a relative rookie who reminded him of his own jump start to success, provided by Nike’s Phil Knight, who 18 years ago trusted Wieden’s young ad agency with Nike’s account.
But Wieden’s boldest move was to bring creativity into his firm’s headquarters — and he did it with one stroke: He invited into the building the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), an edgy, 5-year-old, contemporary-art organization whose mission is to establish a beachhead for overlooked, underhyped contemporary artists.
Wieden’s aim was twofold. By tucking a fledgling cultural institution under the agency’s wing, W+K could use its real estate to make a living contribution to its community. And, Wieden knew, having a bunch of artists roaming around the building might also contribute to the creativity of his own 250 employees — as well as to his company’s clients.
“I don’t even know how to talk about these things without sounding like some kind of wigged-out Zen guy,” Wieden says. “But companies like ours need to do whatever they can when it comes to establishing and maintaining a strong cultural core that’s based on creativity. It’s not altruism — it’s an investment. And in some ways, it’s extremely selfish. The bet is that there will be concrete rewards and spiritual rewards for us and for our clients, who hire us to talk to people in a way that’s both meaningful and surprising.”
New Space Reaffirms Old Roots
A chance to create a new headquarters building is also a time to take some corrective measures — to fix problems that can grow over time even in the best of operations. At W+K, for example, Wieden had noted that the growth of the company had brought with it the growth of bureaucracy. Such growth also meant that W+K could no longer bring everyone together at a moment’s notice. “You need to be able to have your Woodstock when you want to,” he explains. “What we wanted was a space divided up into quads, or ‘mini-agencies,’ that sat around a plaza — a general meeting place for us to have our big community together.”
To find the architect who could stage his Woodstock, Wieden threw a beauty contest for some of the West Coast’s best-known design firms — but none seemed to offer exactly what W+K was looking for. At the time, many of the agency’s employees had found a hangout at Saucebox, a new restaurant in Portland. One day, somebody from W+K thought to call up the architect who had designed it — which is how Brad Cloepfil, a 44-year-old architect who had recently set up his own firm, Allied Works Architecture Inc., after 12 years of working for others, got the job. “I’ve always made critical decisions based on intuitive chemistry,” Wieden says.
To balance the risk of selecting an architect whose firm had never taken on a project one-tenth the size of its renovation, W+K hired an experienced engineering-and-construction firm. But Wieden did little to constrain Cloepfil’s vision. “The day after they picked me, I came in and it was like I was a full partner in the agency trying to figure out how to rethink a 15-year-old institution,” Cloepfil says.
For his part, Wieden found the excitement of taking a chance with Cloepfil to be a way to reaffirm the company’s roots. “We realized that Brad didn’t have very many people in the office there with him,” he says. “But when Phil Knight hired us to be the agency for Nike, he took a big gamble on us. It seems right to find ways to return that favor. We started with nothing, and maybe we’ll end up with nothing. But we’re going to have a fucking great time in the meantime.”
Creativity Equals Chaos Plus Comfort
When W+K’s employees moved into the new space in early 2000, the impact was obvious — and immediate. “The last job I had was in a nice building in London that had been well designed, but that felt more like a friendly bank,” says Russell Davies, 34, who moved to the United States for the first time to become the planning director at W+K’s Portland office. “The London space was typical in that the peasants worked out in the open, the middle class was in offices, and the overlords were in really big offices.”
The W+K space is not entirely devoid of such class distinctions. Wieden and a few of his deputies work in beautiful offices on the top floor, in what the rank and file affectionately refer to as “the penthouse.” But for the most part, the setup of the employees’ workspaces depends not on what their titles are, but on what they actually do. Writers and others who do highly creative work have glass-walled interior offices with doors — but no exterior windows. People whose offices lack a door sit closest to exterior windows, which feature commanding, wraparound views of Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, the Willamette River, and downtown Portland. Anyone who needs a period of privacy can reserve one of five closed workrooms scattered throughout the six-story space.
But peace and quiet rarely prevail. The dominant tone of the space is closer to controlled chaos — which Wieden preaches as a virtue. “Right now, we have 250 people working here, but the building could easily hold 500,” says 42-year-old Chris Riley, W+K’s chief strategic officer. Riley, who was one of seven children, clearly knows about bedlam. “Since I’m very involved in business development, part of my goal is to get it really noisy in here. My vision of future success is when it becomes almost deafening.”
There may even be creative benefits to the chaos. “People who study creativity say that the most excruciatingly creative thing you can do is to hold two contrasting thoughts in your head at the same time,” says Kim Lilly, 38, a group account director who works on the Miller High Life account, among others. “It’s something to think about when you’re craving solitude and someone is playing the Grateful Dead. For us, to sit and listen to two simultaneous conversations about Nike and Gamers.com causes our thought processes to work a little bit differently.”
If Wieden had any initial concerns, it was that people were treating the new space with too much reverence. “The beauty and pristineness can be intimidating,” says Davies. “So we weren’t sure whether we’d be able to make the building our own. The trick is to remember that it’s a factory.”
Cloepfil helped by supplying most staff members with 10-foot-long wooden work tables, rather than with standard-issue desks. The sofas in the quads on floors three, four, and five look like they might have been rescued from someone’s den — but they give the place a more casual look. Three direct-draw beer dispensers — or “kegerators,” one of which came from the old office — get plenty of use, as does the new hammock on the roof deck. And the ultimate sign of comfort: People are beginning to write on the walls.
Great Art Makes Great Business
While Wieden+Kennedy’s Portland-based employees have gradually grown more comfortable in their new surroundings, they still do not come close to filling the building. Wieden has given careful thought about who he wants to occupy the rest of the space. So far, a modern-furniture store has moved in, as have a couple of local nonprofits. A new restaurant serving Mediterranean food opened this past fall. But the very first organization to lease space was PICA, which signed up long before the renovation was complete.
W+K employees have been involved with PICA since Kristy Edmunds started it in 1995. Chris Riley has been a board member since the beginning, and Wieden joined soon after that. At the time when the agency was preparing to move into its new space, PICA itself had reached a crossroads. The organization, which has as its charter the establishment of little-known contemporary artists, didn’t have its own permanent exhibition space. Instead, it did shows for a month or two in various empty warehouses around town. The constant search for space in some ways fit the museum’s cutting-edge image but increasingly represented an insurmountable obstacle: The real-estate market was heating up, and landlords weren’t leaving big buildings empty for very long.
For Wieden and his colleagues at the agency, inviting PICA into their building made sense for a number of reasons. The first and most basic one was strictly business: It would help the agency make great ads. “The problem for anybody who starts learning a craft is that over time, the craft creates its own boundaries,” Wieden says. “The craft of advertising is enormously predictable. You can tell just by watching a block of commercials whether they’re appearing during a soap opera or a sports event. But if you can get people to stop thinking about making ads and to start thinking about making pieces of communication, then something fresh is apt to arrive.” That, he says, is what artists do best, and he hopes that their approach will rub off on his creative teams.
Others found more personal benefits. Riley, for example, who helped Edmunds launch PICA, saw it as a way to generate excitement in his life — and figured it would also reenergize his colleagues. “When I started working with PICA, my life turned from dull to exciting,” Riley says. “I had been bored, and spending time with people who work in the arts was a sheer pleasure. The best artists are at the bleeding edge, experimenting with ideas that will define the culture in five years. It changes the way you see your work.”
Wieden and other agency veterans were also tired of making excuses for Portland whenever they tried to persuade someone to move there from London, New York, or San Francisco. “When you think of culture, of outside stimulus, Portland isn’t the first city that pops into your mind,” Wieden says. “The more we can do to encourage the development of the arts here, the more we’ll be able to attract young people who are thirsty for that kind of thing and who are looking for a scene. And when you have Kristy, who’s at the leading edge of that scene, literally inside the building with you, it’s ideal.”
Supporting the museum also represented an ongoing way for W+K to contribute to the larger Portland community. “We’d like to think that we will be able to contribute something other than money to the local economy,” Riley says. “Otherwise, we all end up working in glass boxes, paying our taxes, and hoping someone else will solve our problems. Why am I helping to build this business? If the legacy is a thriving contemporary-arts community in Portland, then I’m happy. We had 900 people turn out recently for a show opening. That’s more than they’d get in New York.” Edmunds adds that it’s a particularly important time for companies to support contemporary art. “Over the past decade or so, Congress has made art synonymous with pornography,” she says, noting the big cuts in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. “A lot of corporate foundations don’t want to touch it with a 10-foot pole now.”
The relationship between W+K, its newly refurbished building, and PICA even involved Edmunds’s participation in the design of the atrium. “They wanted to know how art could occupy this kind of architecture, because if it couldn’t, then they wanted to change it,” Edmunds says. “And I’m just sitting there thinking to myself, ‘Man, I love these guys.’ “
Ron Lieber (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a fast company senior writer. Visit Wieden+Kennedy (www.wk.com) or PICA (www.pica.org) on the Web.