FEATURE: Design of the times - PR agencies are taking a leaf out of their advertising cousins' books and restyling their work space. Maja Pawinska looks at four of the sexiest offices in the industry where creativity begins at home

Imagine sitting at the same desk every day with a droopy pot plant, magnolia walls covered with peeling year planners, and only having the opportunity to talk to colleagues or get some thinking space in a tiny smoking room or in chilly toilets. Not uncommon, but not the most creative atmosphere, especially if you're in a creative industry like PR.

Imagine sitting at the same desk every day with a droopy pot plant, magnolia walls covered with peeling year planners, and only having the opportunity to talk to colleagues or get some thinking space in a tiny smoking room or in chilly toilets. Not uncommon, but not the most creative atmosphere, especially if you're in a creative industry like PR.

Now imagine working in a bright, light office with lots of flexible, communal space, maybe even a bar or cafe, and specially-commissioned artwork in all areas, not just the bits the clients will see. Sounds more attractive, doesn't it?

PR consultancies are starting to take a leaf out of the book of the advertising industry, and investing in sexier offices with the aim of encouraging creativity, and attracting and retaining the best people in the business. After all, we spend most of our lives at work so it figures that if you're happy and inspired at work, you're likely to stay there.

No-one's suggesting that a few abstract paintings are a panacea for bad management or poor pay, but really taking the time and effort to make the workplace as attractive as possible can work wonders, as the four agencies profiled have found out.

There's still a way to go until PR gets to the same level as ad agencies such as the famously cool St Luke's, though. There is no such thing as your own desk at the five-year-old agency - the only proprietorial space is owned by clients, so a planner, a creative and an account director might all work together in 'the BT room'.

There are no fixed phones, desk diaries or secretaries, and the agency has a big cafe with table football, a jukebox, and subsidised food. There is also an in-house artist whose brief is only 'to surprise', and who creates regular installations.

Marketing director Juliet Soskiss says many advertising agencies have 'brilliant and beautiful' elements, but these are usually only where the creatives work, with everyone else in accountant-style offices.

'The thinking here is that everyone is creative, and we don't try and confine it to one discipline. We're all self-sufficient and very mobile,' she says.

This may be a step too far for some PR agencies, but one of the consultancies busy sprucing up its premises in a pounds 350,000 attempt to find a happy medium between soon-to-look-dated trendiness and a stiltingly corporate feel is consumer hi-tech specialist Lewis.

The agency already has something of an advantage in being housed high up in London's Millbank Tower - if you can't get inspired by one of the best views of Westminster and the Thames then there's not much hope for you in this business.

But Lewis is now improving on its natural assets by building a creative room as a space 'to think about different things and brainstorm,' according to business development director Morgan McLintic.

The area features such quirky imagination-stimulators as a morphed picture of Einstein with his tongue sticking out, a seven-foot model grizzly bear, and a moose's head instead of a coat hook. There are also glass panels inscribed with various passages and the staff's favourite words, which include 'mullet' and 'lard,' apparently.

'PR agencies have a fine line to tread because we need impressive premises to retain good staff, and corporate clients also want to see a bit of glamour - and they are often very different audiences,' says McLintic.

But he points out that the glossiest offices in the world are pointless without good people to fill them and create an atmosphere.

'Although the company is the people, the office is a tangible, demonstrable sign of the success of the company, We used to be above a curry house in Covent Garden but clients loved us because the people were good. Our people are still excellent but the building is now working with us,' adds McLintic.

Another factor in thinking about creating a sexy office, of course, is that the interior design must be consistent with the other messages an agency puts out about itself.

There's no point in having come-hither recruitment advertising if eager candidates get to the HQ only to find a dull office with no soul to it. It's all about agencies reflecting their personality in the bricks and mortar.


Hill and Knowlton leads the way in having probably the sexiest offices in PR - proving that it's not only young, compact and hip agencies who have the upper hand when it comes to funky working space.

The consultancy moved into its offices in London's Red Lion Square after a long search for a suitable building. It took nine months to completely refurbish with architect ORMS.

Chairman David McLaren is evangelical about the importance of well-designed premises: 'I believe passionately that the environment fundamentally influences the way people feel and how they behave.'

The brief was to create an atmosphere that would have a stimulating and energising impact on staff and clients, on a tight budget. The main priority was to have as many shared areas as possible, where specialists from different areas of the business could meet.

The agency has an enormous social space on the ground floor with a bar, which can be anything from a breakfast cafe to a party venue. Part of this is the 'brain area' - an open, shared resource for staff with stimulating media such as dozens of magazines, TV, radio and the internet.

Better client meeting rooms were also important, and the entire basement has been tuned into a suite of six conference rooms. On the working floors, H&K wanted to be as flexible and open as possible - the only doors inside the building are in the conference rooms and the toilets.

'We wanted a sense of energy to come through as soon as you walk in. We didn't want people to be able to label us as a PR agency, but as an energetic and successful company that solves clients' problems with a huge range of ideas,' says McLaren. But at the same time, the building couldn't look too lavish - clients don't want to think that their fees are going on leather and marble interiors.

One of the most well-known elements of the offices is its artwork, including the giant sculpture made of discarded keyboard keys. This was created by design company Make and hangs over the stairwell in the lobby.

Portraits of all 300-odd staff by young artists are in the process of being painted and peppered around the building - H&K wants everyone to have a sense of pride in the company and the offices.

Creativity is central to the way H&K works. It already runs the Blue Cow workshops for staff and clients to explore new ways of thinking (flagged up with a life-size blue cow on Astroturf outside the offices). Now it is in the process of building the Greenhouse on the top floor, which will be a space dedicated to brainstorming and creativity.

Its offices have been featured in US magazine Interiors, and in skate style title Level, and this winter it was chosen as one of the 'Digital Office Collection'. This was an exhibition of the most visually exciting and inspirational places to work in the UK, put together by The Times and office technology company Gestetner.

The building is only available on a five-year lease, and lesser men might quake at the prospect of starting from scratch again. But McLaren says he can't wait. 'It's an opportunity to do something even better. Next time I'd like to let people create their own work spaces to a greater degree,' he says.


Something had to give at PR21 when CEO Beverley Kaye found herself getting increasingly depressed by the brown smoked glass windows at the offices in central London. Eighteen months later, the office is unrecognisable.

'It's not good enough for a couple of conference rooms to be tarted up for clients. No-one would have noticed a new paint job and carpets, and we didn't have the luxury of starting from scratch because of budgets,' says Kaye.

The priority for the company was the communal areas where staff worked, and a number of designers were briefed to come up with ideas.

The agency wanted to create somewhere light and airy, that spoke about the company being transparent and honest, working as a team, and which reflected its personality.

Decent furniture to deal with the junk, and a chill out area were also high up on the list. Another factor was that it couldn't be so awesome that clients would think it had cost a fortune.

A working group was put in charge of the project, and conducted a focus group to see what staff wanted and needed. The design company that got the job was Tilney Shane.

The agency now has a cafe area which acts as a meeting point and an area where staff can have a break away from their desks.

'We built the cafe area because we have to take responsibility for people being tidy, and if you have a nice environment then you get rid of the rubbish. We had awful grubby little kitchenettes scattered around the building, and people used to eat at their desks because there was nowhere else,' says Kaye.

In reception, a plasma screen shows examples of work, so if any of the staff are doing something really great, everyone knows about it.

Hot-desking was not considered as an option, since Kaye says: 'People deserve privacy and personal space at work - it needs to feel like their professional home'.

Kaye says the agency now has a much more positive atmosphere, that people collaborate in a more productive way, and that teamwork is better.

'It's a lot happier, and we work in a more fluid way. When interviewing people it says a lot for us, instead of apologising about a dodgy stairwell. We're proud of it, and it's a great way of pulling people in,' she adds.

PR21 is another agency to have its interior recognised outside the industry - it was shortlisted in the best office design category in the British Institute of Facilities Management awards.


A disused church may not be the most obvious location for a PR consultancy, but for Cake, The Mission Hall in west London perfectly reflects the ethos of the company.

Mike Mathieson says when he started the search for the premises, 'We wanted something out of the ordinary, that would be impactful and that we could grow into. As soon as we saw it we knew it was the one.' The church, complete with stained glass windows, had been used as an office before but needed to be gutted and refurbished before Cake's team - then numbering 18, since grown to 50 - could move in. The consultancy firm used was Space Engineer.

The agency has kept the brick interior and vaulted ceilings of the church relatively uncluttered with artwork, although there are lightboxes displaying work of which it is particularly proud. There is a copper and red theme throughout, including copper-coloured Amtico floor tiles.

It is an open plan office, and Cake likes to avoid hierarchy as much as possible, so there is no glass in the windows of the directors' offices.

Downstairs there is a very long hot-desking table where members of the events team who are constantly on the go, and freelances drafted in to help with the summer music festivals can plug in laptops. Upstairs there are individual desks and four meeting rooms for the PR team, although there is a distinct lack of grey partitions and striplighting.

Because of the increase in the number of staff the space has to be used carefully - and looked after. On the last Friday of every month, work stops at 1pm and everyone helps clear up the office.

'It's a dramatic building, and it's important to keep it looking like it should,' says Mathieson.

Internal feedback is that the same things staff love can also be the things they hate: 'Being open plan takes a certain sort of individual. There's always a buzz, with people celebrating, radios, and shouting from the mezzanine to the floor below. Everyone knows what's going on, which is a great vibe, but it can be a downside if you're really trying to concentrate.'

Clients can see how dynamic the agency is, and Mathieson believes it reflects the agency's values of transparency, openness, collaboration, and creativity.


Like Cake, Firefly has also gone for the open plan option. The hi-tech specialist shuns hierarchy as far as possible and all the directors sit on the same floor as the other staff.

When the company did up its Fulham offices (handily just down the road from the River Cafe) it invested in serious Italian furniture for staff, including chairs of the not-cheap variety to avoid back problems. Desks have curvy ends so they can be transformed into impromptu meeting spaces, the offices are air-conditioned, and the light floods in.

Morale shot up in the company after the refurbishment, because, as managing director Claire Walker says, 'people knew we cared'.

However, Walker points out that glossy premises have to be built on firm ideological foundations.

'You can spend money on good furniture but if you don't try and build a culture to encourage people to use these things it's pointless. If people don't really feel they can relax at work, there's no point in having a chill-out area. It's about trusting staff to talk to people and have a coffee, but still get their job done.' Firefly, of course, does have a chill-out area, a cafe with a jukebox and digital TV. It also has two boardrooms, depending on the tone of the meeting: the informal mezzanine room has a large low coffee table with comfortable bright suede-textured chairs, and there is also a 'grown-up' boardroom.

Artwork is an important factor of the environment Firefly has tried to create. Walker found an artist whose work she loved and commissioned around 20 big, bold and bright canvasses that hang around the building, and staff were involved in where each piece should go.

Walker believes the environment at Firefly has had an effect on creativity: 'If you have people cooped up in a sweatshop it doesn't let the creative juices flow, and leads to stress. If you have an office where people are relaxed and have freedom and mental space for it to be creative, it does.'

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