Blame Chiat/Day: Or, How Do We Solve The Agency Office Design Problem?

Here’s a recipe for disaster:

1 part novelty

1 part hype

1 part economic efficiency

The result? The open office floorplan!

Yes, the once revolutionary solve-all for workplace collaboration, innovation and cultural reinvention has fallen on hard times.  FastCo.Labs recently ran an article under the title, Death to the Open Office Floor Plan! which does a pretty good job of outlining what many people already know – sitting in a giant room, within earshot (and virus shot) of 40 co-workers may not be best for, well, much of anything. Last month Fast Company ran a piece on the Top 10 things people hate about open office which, after reading it, will likely lead you to utter aloud, “no kidding.”  It all seems pretty obvious really. So how did we in the creative world get here? Blame Jay Chiat. Wired certainly did.

Ok, not really, but certainly his legendary office transformation in L.A. kickstarted the trend. Opened in 1994, every employee got a laptop and a cell phone and entered the workplace, left to fend for themselves. Only a couple of years later, this concept was abandoned “to combat employees’ overwhelmingly negative response.” But Chiat was finished yet, the move ushered in a new era of creative workplace design. Chiat/Day moved to […] a vast warehouse designed for 500 employees by Clive Wilkinson Architects, are a microcosmic ”Chiat town” of private and group work spaces and public ”streets” and meeting places that provide for every kind of company activity. Staff members enjoy kaffeeklatsches in a ”Central Park,” mingle on a ”main street” and have a work space they can call home in surrounding ”neighborhoods.”

That 1998 New York Times piece was followed two years later by an essay in The New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. Now this is pre-Tipping Point Gladwell, but it’s got all the elements of a great Gladwell piece. He brings in some arcane reference points, niche experts and weaves an fascinating story on workplace design, referencing the Chiat/Day office evolutions. Gladwell, as Gladwell does so well, writes convincingly about group dynamics, psychology and human behaviors, all the while lacing it with expert testimony from people like an M.I.T. researcher who found that if colleagues were stationed too far apart, they rarely interacted, and in fact were more likely to engage with someone outside their office (and this was before email and the Internet!) than a co-worker on the other side of the building. And so Chiat’s Office Reinvention 2.0, an urban city concept seems an intriguing one. How we got from there to people staring at screens and wearing headphones is another story. [You can read the full Gladwell piece here].

In a more recent New Yorker piece, Maria Konnikova writes: In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. 

And so creative agencies in recent years have looked for other ways to promote creativity and innovation. Jorge Barba of the Game Changer blog recently wrote about office design and innovation, noting, “Up there with “innovation”, “lean startup”and “design thinking”, the latest word to make it to buzzword-bingo is “Lab”.

Writing for the Influx Insights blog in 2010, Ed Cotton notes that, “[h]aving a “lab” mentality is a must for agencies today.” He cites efforts by BBH and Ogilvy in this area, noting their different approaches to the idea. Creative Bloq takes an even deeper dive into agency labs in this piece, concluding, “If we can learn anything about labs from the agencies we spoke to, it’s that without them you can easily miss fantastic opportunities – not just to identify emerging technology and ideas, but to find brilliant people willing to push your agency to the next level.”

But ultimately it’s not the office layout that determines collaboration. Christening an area as your “Lab” doesn’t guarantee superior creativity. Those attributes are the result of culture and that’s determined by who you hire and the people in charge of leading the organization. Every agency is different – location and clients being just two factors – and who (and how) you hire is a far greater influence on culture that office design.  But even more important is the mindset and actions of the people at the top. They set the tone and if innovation and collaboration are not just what they talk about, but who they are, then the rest of the agency will take their lead.

Is that enough however, or is there another factor at play? More so than office design, is the size of the agency an inhibitor to great work? Maybe it’s not open floor plan per se that is the problem, but rather than agencies try to fit 50 or 60 people into that model. Does open floor plan work better with 10 people or less? Does collaboration in general have an equivalent to Dunbar’s Number? Perhaps, rather than putting the entire planning department together, or an entire agency, in one big room, the answer is to create a series of smaller open areas where teams can congregate is the right option. I’m sure this happens at many agencies, I’ve certainly been a part of ad hoc ‘war rooms’ for big pitches or other temporary projects, but maybe that should be instituted on a more formal, permanent basis.

#Anchorman2 Isn’t A Movie

durango burgundyAnchorman 2 is a Transmedia Experience.

Or at least that’s what it has become. If you’ve been paying attention recently you’ve seen Ron Burgundy, the character created by Will Ferrell in the modern comedy classic Anchorman, all over the place.


In Dodge commercials

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.


On local news in Bismarck, ND

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.


At the Canadian Curling Trials in Winnipeg

If you can see this, then you might need a Flash Player upgrade or you need to install Flash Player if it's missing. Get Flash Player from Adobe.


Of course this is all promotion for Anchorman 2, which hits theaters later this month. But it seems to me it is more than that.  I’m sure Ferrell, like other celebrities will make appearances, as himself, on Leno, Letterman, The Daily Show, etc., but it’s not often you see actors, in character, going to places like Winnipeg or North Dakota, and make no mistake, those locations are carefully chosen. They are chosen so as to be discovered, and shared, by Ferrell’s fans, who are rewarded for scouring the Internet and sharing their discoveries with the community.

No, Ferrell is engaged in another form of storytelling. He’s created a transmedia experience that is well, experiential.  Ron Burgundy now inhabits a sort of pseudo-fictional, quasi-reality that doesn’t just promote the “Anchorman Universe,” but expands upon it.  The Burgundy character is a cartoonish trope familiar to those well-versed in the Judd Apatow school of comedy. He’s the buffoonish man-child, egotistical, self-centered and infantile. In other words, he’s a lot like people you see on TV.

Burgundy’s appearances at various events and within car commercials break the barriers between performer and audience, but not in the same way that say, Garry Shandling broke the 4th wall on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Usually when performers engage more directly with the audience they break character – a knowing wink or nod, an admission that they know this is fiction, and they know that you know. But not with Ferrell/Burgundy. It’s more of a McSweeney’s style of humor. An “I know you know, and you know I know you know, but I’m not going to acknowledge it”-sort of performance art.  By maintaining the illusion, Ferrell/Burgundy pull us into their world while inhabiting ours. Ferrell’s comic forebearer is more Andy Kaufman than fellow SNL alum Chevy Chase.

But like another SNL ‘Not Ready For Primetime Player,’ Mike Myers, Ferrell is gifted at creating characters infused with a certain humanity that makes them believable while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of comic absurdity.  Their genius being the ability to inhabit these beloved characters but not be totally typecast by them.


So we come to the question, what can a brand learn from this? How can a car company or a QSR or a CPG manufacturer leverage this sort of cultural capital?  Surely there is no shortage of brand characters out there. GEICO has come pretty close with the Caveman characters. (Full disclosure, I thought the Caveman-spinoff TV show was cleverly written.) Old Spice achieved a certain degree of transmedia traction with The Man Your Man Could Smell Like via the YouTube response videos.

But most brand mascots don’t have the multi-dimensionality or talent of Ferrell/Burgundy.  Perhaps the best move is in fact the one played by Dodge. Borrow the equity and interest of an existing character. It seems to be working, as sales of the Dodge Durango is up 59%.

With notable exceptions like John Carter we live in a world where the blockbuster hit is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anchorman 2 is going to be a huge hit (BoxOfficeMojo predicts the film with double its predecessors take, raking in a total of $165 million). From movies to video games to awards shows and events, the opportunities for a brand to create a transmedia experience, rather than just a sponsorship or TV spot, are endless. Kudos to Dodge for not simply hiring Will Ferrell, but for understanding culture and figuring out how to triangulate between the product, the character and the actor.


Further Reading:

Transmedia Planning

Entertainment Weekly on Burgundy/Dodge Partnership

The New Yorker Explores the Viability of “The Blockbuster” 

Innovative Storytelling

Great. Fast. Cheap – Pick Three. Marketing Today

This piece was originally written for the Advertising Week Social Club. Lots of great content over there, check it out.


For many years the phrase “Great, fast or cheap – pick two” has been a favorite of mine. A delicious bon mot that creatives throw around amongst each other, rarely however having the courage to actually say it to a client. It was an understood but unspoken truism that was proven correct time and time again.

Thanks, Oreo

Thanks, Oreo

Even as desktop publishing and various technological barriers to entry began to fall, there was still a feeling that truly great work was something that needed to be crafted over time, and that that effort deserved an appropriate level of compensation. The corollary of course would come after a project turned sour. “Well, you get what you pay for.”

I was recently in a conversation with someone at a marketing agency and we were talking about this and he noted that for those of us who work in the social media field the truth was,  “great, fast or cheap – pick three.”  Indeed. The rules have changed thanks to the #1 advertising buzz-word of 2013: Real-Time Marketing.

Now, the truth is that the majority of brands putting a marker down on ‘fast’ have done so at the expense of good, and many have thrown away cheap as well, opting to eschew the ‘get the intern’ approach and instead hiring a specialist agency.  Of course the brand wasn’t set up for this sort of thing, so legal, marketing, sales and other internal groups hindered the use of the outside agency. But every once in awhile everything comes together and that little part in the middle of the ‘great/fast/cheap’ venn diagram lights up. Oreo now being the primary example.

And so an outlier becomes the perceived default. Now brands are trying to find ways to quickly turn out great content at little cost.  But right now that’s a bit like seeing someone win the lottery, asking them their strategy for picking numbers, and heading down to the liquor store to buy your own winning ticket. If it were that easy, everyone would be doing it.

So how does an agency respond to this?  How do you manage client expectations while still proving your worth, and the worth of the strategy and tactics you’ve sold in? Here are some tips:


Sure events like the Super Bowl or MTV Video Awards are a prime opportunity to strike Real-Time gold, but make sure your plan is bigger than that. Your strategy should be an on-going one, not all or nothing.


Bake the social strategy and tactics into other above and below the line executions. Social, real-time efforts should be one leg of a stool – remove it and the whole thing topples over.


Make sure your definition of “fast” and your client’s definition of “fast” is the same thing. Does one day for you = one week for them? Does one day for you = one hour for them? Either way it can be a problem.

Great, Fast, Cheap may be the present for marketers, just make sure you slow down and think about how you are going to make it happen.


Untethered: How People Will Shape, And Be Shaped By, The #FutureOfRetail

Back in October of 2013 I was asked by PSFK to write an accompanying piece for the 2014 Future of Retail report. My essay, republished below, originally appeared here.


Perhaps more than anything else, the 21st century has been marked by its ability to disconnect long-held paradigms from what were previously perceived to be sturdy moorings. Many of the things we’ve long held as truths, be they in relation to work, family, religion, media or technology have been blown apart by cultural upheaval and scientific advancement. The result has been that people – let’s do away with terms like ‘consumers’ for now – have been thrown into a new reality (or emancipated from the old one, depending upon your viewpoint).  This sort of disruption inevitably benefits some and hurts others, especially in the short term. But as an equilibrium is achieved, people learn how to maneuver in the system.

PSFK’s Future of Retail report, not unlike a William Gibson novel, provides a provocative peek into the very near future. As Creative Culturalist at Y&R New York, it’s my job to observe, and ideally directly experience, these trends and help our agency, and by extension our clients, make sense of them.  Having digested an executive summary of the FoR report, I’d like to propose a sort of macro-macro trend. One that speaks to the larger societal evolution we are experiencing, manifested within the retail category. I call it untethered.

As retailers slough off the physical back end of manufacturing via off-shoring, and outsource other, ‘soft-cost’ functions such as tech support, we’ve seen the retail industry ‘untether’ from local communities in many ways.  I think we’ll see this continue and, combined with other advances in technology, the ‘untethering’ will also appear ‘at the front of the store’ as the very notion of the “store” itself changes.

We’ve seen the dramatic affects on retail as the way people buy products has changed, first from home computers and more recently from their mobile devices, or the ‘showrooming’ trend.  Now as content becomes a sales channel via mobile and 2nd screen technology – the report provides interesting examples of this – the very nature of the ‘storefront’ changes.  Is a shoppable music video a piece of content, an advertisement or a digital shop? The answer is “yes.” Omni-Point-Of-Purchase as the report refers to it blurs lines and removes friction from previously discreet interactions.

An intriguing knock-on effect of this could be how this alters the roles of employee, customer and ‘brand advocate,’ that elusive yet highly sought after super fan that has been the Holy Grail of corporate social media efforts. You could also easily throw in ‘producer’ to the salesperson/customer/advocate mix. Sites such as Etsy now allow virtually anyone to become their own retail brand, further ‘untethering’ the individual from the systems of the last century.

Can a retail brand exist purely in the digital world? If so, what does it mean to be a ‘salesperson’ of such a venture? Does that role cease to exist? Or does that person become ‘untethered?’ Could there be a new role, in the vein of an Avon representative, where you become affiliated with a number of brands, earning money for selling and promoting products? Now a person can use the entire arsenal of social networks and tools to act as a salesperson, customer service rep and brand advocate, and it could be done anytime, from anywhere.

Retail brands have long courted influencers with large networks, but the efforts usually lacked real strategy and it was difficult to track success. Now however the tools exist, from real-time big data dashboards to personalized customer profiles that remember purchasing histories, to allow a new type of employee to really drive the bottom line for retailers, and provide retail value to people.

We’ve seen the rise of the curator in recent years. Those clever and resourceful folks with impeccable Pinterest boards and finely appointed email newsletters. In an ‘untethered’ world these people will become ‘retail consultants’ perhaps getting paid a commission from an company, but perhaps also benefitting from a customer subscription service. The purchase funnel is now a purchase network and those savvy enough to understand the game – from all sides – will surely figure out how to benefit from it.

The ‘untethered’ retail environment opens new interpretations and opportunities for loyalty programs as well, another trend noted in the report. We’ve come a long way from the ribbon cutting ceremonies of old. Gamified, social experiences disconnected from a retailer’s physical space (if they even have one), will encourage new and novel partnerships.  There will be an opportunity to re-imagine the loyalty program from the individual to the community – especially in an ‘untethered’ world where people will have a greater need than ever to connect.

In an untethered world the role of advertising, and the advertising agency, will – must – evolve. The same pressures being brought to bear on retail will also be evident in the world of marketing. Communications will need to be further customized, personalized, relevant and delivered in real-time. But the nature of the message will need to change as well. Instead of a brand sponsoring a movie, perhaps a movie will sponsor a brand? Young directors will offer to make films about a retailer or their product, imbed sales opportunities directly within the film and receive a percentage of the sales.

All futures are possible at this time, but this we know for sure – those that don’t embrace the future, be they retailer or person, will find themselves in a world in which they will struggle to succeed.

The Advertising Industry Needs To Stop Trying To Win Wars

This post originally appeared on The Advertising Week Social Club on Oct. 31, 2013

Actually, no.

Actually, no.

Last week I attended TedxLowerEastSide. It was held at the visually stunning Angel Orensanz Foundations for the Arts. The event’s theme was The Hero’s Journey and featured a number of inspiring and fascinating speakers. A particular favorite of mine is Douglas Rushkoff, the media theorist, public intellectual and best-selling author whose latest book, Present Shock, is a must-read for those looking to understand how media and business are shaping the 21st century.  Rushkoff’s insights, and his ability to weave them into a compelling narrative, make him imminently listenable, and I found him to be completely engaging.

In particular he had an extended riff that I thought had real relevance for the advertising industry, though it wasn’t directed at the marketing community.  He spoke of the 20th mindset around “Winning the war on…” Examples of course being the “War on Terror,” or the “War on Drugs.” The “War on…” metaphor works well when the target is, say, Nazism. We’re really talking about a zero-sum game in that example. Once World War II was in full swing no one thought there was an acceptable level of Nazism that we should let exist. It needed to be eradicated and doing so may not have been easy, but it was simple: Defeat the Germans.

But things changed in the following 30-40 years. Actually a lot of things changed – politically, culturally and socio-economically to name a few. So when America decided that non-prescription drugs were a bad thing and needed to be dealt with in the severest possible fashion, the obvious meme –especially if you came from the World War II generation – was to prosecute a “War on Drugs.” So in 1971 President Nixon publically stated we were going to do just that. But ‘Drugs’ are a much more complicated idea, and problem, than Nazism. Not worse, or more heinous, but more complicated. Nevertheless, the War on Drugs continued unabated for nearly 40 years before, in 2009, the Obama administration stated they were no longer going to use that term.

In its place we’ve launched wars on terrorism, poverty and a host of other subjects, and we’ve done so with limited success to say the least.  Rushkoff argued that it is in part this 20th century framework that is preventing us from properly addressing our current challenges – issues like poverty, healthcare and the environment. How exactly do you wage a war on global warming? What does that even mean?  But if you watch the news, especially cable news, you’re bombarded with the “War on…” notion. Politicians use the term in aid of their increasingly radicalized viewpoints. Is a “War on Christmas” or a “War on the Middle Class” really being waged? It may take a very long time before we can understand that the grammar we are using to tackle the challenges we face is ill-suited for the task.

What does this have to do with advertising? Well, words matter, especially in advertising.  And ideas are what the ad industry traffics in, so understanding how words and ideas are used in service of an issue is critical to understanding how advertising works.  I think two of the most memorable campaigns of recent years offer a glimpse at how understanding the difference between 20th century and 21st century solutions can lead to great success and connect on an emotional level with consumers.

If the 20th century was about Victory, the 21st is about Sustainability. How do we achieve balance and learn to live within our means. Dove has built an entire brand around this understanding. Where most beauty brands encourage you to “fight aging,” Dove produced the Campaign For Real Beauty which encouraged women to appreciate and be happy with themselves. No “War on Wrinkles” or “War on Cellulite.” Women had been peddled that for decades and it was a war they were not winning because it’s a war that cannot be won. Dove is about sustainability, not victory.

Similarly, Dos Equis created an iconic campaign in a way that upended the traditional approach to beer, that most masculine of categories. The Most Interesting Man in the World campaign was witty and clever, but for all that, could have easily fallen into the one-hit wonder bin of advertising history. But here was the key line: “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.”

Don’t always drink beer?! As a product spokesperson, it was assumed that TMIMITW not only drank Dos Equis, but probably poured it on his cornflakes and used it when brushing his teeth. That’s how you win the “War on Budweiser!”  If that wasn’t enough, when he did drink beer, he only preferred Dos Equis. So, if he came to your party and you didn’t have Dos Equis, but did have Sam Adams, yeah, he’d probably give you a raised eyebrow, but under the right circumstances he’s pop the cap and take a swig. There’s an unspoken understanding of sustainability here. A realization that you can’t fight a “War on, well, everything that isn’t Dos Equis.”

I think people understand this. In fact, I think we are becoming wary of the “War on” mentality that as a culture has led us where we are today.  Yes, the NFL, that most militaristic of sports is still the top dog, but look at the rise of action sports, where often it is artistic interpretation over ‘winning’ that was the genesis of the sport. Actually, it wasn’t even a sport, it was an activity until the people who run the networks and hold the economic levers got a hold of it.  My son is more interested in playing the co-op mode of video games than killing his buddies.

So, will the advertising industry take the cues from Dove and Dos Equis? More signs are pointing to yes. Chipotle’s recent efforts rather explicitly speak of sustainability rather than trying to fight a “War on Taco Bell.”  But I don’t think it requires a product or brand that is specifically focused on sustainability for the creative concepts to have that sort of motif.  It’s about connecting with people in an emotional way that communicates a truth about the world we live in today.

#AWX Recap 1 – Considering the Client-Agency Creative Partnership

Last week was the 10th Annual Advertising Week here in New York City.  I wasn’t able to attend as many events as I did last year, but would like to share my thoughts on a couple of panels I did attend. This post originally appeared on TheAWSC.


Advertising Week kicked off Monday with the usual bevy of panels and events throughout midtown Manhattan. I had hoped on attending several of the talks, but, as is often the case, work found of way of altering my plans and my schedule. But I was able to make one session, and it was one I’m glad I caught because it touched on a subject I don’t often hear discussed. Entitled Unlocking Client Creativity, the panel, moderated by Jennifer Rooney, CMO, Network Editor, Forbes, focused on how agencies and brands can work together for greater creative output.

Having worked in the agency world, across various industries, for more than a decade I can tell you that this is a vital issue, and one that is rarely focused on.  We’re all familiar with the usual paradigm: Agency bleeds and sweats, then presents the ideas to a client who, not unlike the Roman Emperors of ancient times, gives a thumbs up or thumbs down to the ideas. It’s been this way, well, it’s been this way as long as there have been agencies and clients. I think we all pretty much take it for granted that that’s the way it’s done.

I’ve been involved in my share of agency-client brainstorming sessions, but these never quite feel like a real stage for true creative ideation. It’s more of a team bonding exercise, or a way for the agency to show that they really value the client. Everyone leaves saying what a great time they had and how terrific the session was, but I don’t think I’ve ever really seen breakthrough ideas come from such an arrangement.

But this session was about getting deeper than that. It was about true partnerships. How in-house agencies can work with outside agencies; how (and when) it might be appropriate to engage ‘the crowd;’ and the importance of setting up methodologies that can help keep things on the right course. The panelists included execs from DDB and their client, Glidden paints, as well as Nancy Hill, President and CEO of the 4As, as well as Terry Young, CEO and Founder of Sparks & Honey.   Young made a point that I thought was quite important, noting how crucial it is for client-side decision makers to be involved throughout the process, rather than just at the end. Nothing’s worse than spending weeks on an idea only to have it killed by someone who hasn’t been invested in the idea at any point along the way.

I can see why co-creation with the client would be a challenge. Do they have the resources (time, skill) to participate? Will ego (on both sides) sabotage the whole operation? Does compensation need to be factored differently? Fair questions, but in an industry where some things are broken, and others are being significantly disrupted, it’s worth considering an idea that, if correctly executed, could lead to more work being sold.