Big Bang Theory
Creativity and economy collide at Team Detroit, the Gensler-designed home for six merged ad and marketing agencies
C.C. Sullivan -- Interior Design, 5/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
Like stars crashing on a cosmic scale, mergers of formerly independent advertising powerhouses create intense energy: brilliant flashes and many gaseous eruptions. Such was the result when the Michigan offices of six agencies—all part of the same vast parent galaxy, London's WPP—consolidated as Team Detroit. When the space dust settled, the vaunted names of Ogilvy & Mather, Young & Rubicam, and JWT, once J. Walter Thompson, as well as the direct-marketing whiz Wunderman, communications planner MediaEdge: CIA, and media strategist MindShare found themselves in two suburban Dearborn buildings transformed into a constellation of inventive work spaces.
This change-management project was carried out under the direction of Gensler principals Jim Meredith and Todd Baisch, working with the head of WPP's real estate in the Americas. All eyes were on big bang for the buck, as WPP consolidated its offices and support functions across the U.S. "Each agency used to have its own operating company, and each had a buyers' group and graphic-design services before they merged into a shared-services model, pulling the best and brightest from each agency into centralized functions, such as new broadcast and graphic-design studios," Baisch explains. "Still, that can be daunting for creative people, especially when an agency has such a long, independent heritage."
More than a physical reorganization, the merger was a re-branding exercise, perfect for identity-savvy Gensler. Roles blurred further as the client took a hands-on approach to interiors work. "Some of the agency people became virtual project directors, and their executives served on joint leadership committees," Meredith explains. To match the effort, Gensler devoted three senior designers to the six agencies.
The collaborative contact and the real estate itself—two unremarkable low-rises resembling the letters O and Z in plan—spawned a variety of novel space-making schemes. About 90 percent of the office areas are given over to dense, 120-degree workstations. The psychological compression of this honeycomb configuration, Baisch notes, demanded a countervailing release in shared service and common areas, which the Gensler team tackled with gusto. And every space earned a suitably catchy moniker.
Most critical for the big Z-shape building, perhaps, is the Wrapper, a sunny perimeter expressway of circulation and support spaces: think tanks, brand rooms, pinup and display areas. Zones morph to reflect the distinct image of each resident agency—a door shaped like an oculus here, an art installation made of test tubes there. To keep order, key landmarks such as coffee bars and coat closets are located consistently. Two central corridors, mirror images in layout, exhibit very different personalities. "We called one core the Supremes, a nod to local Motown heritage. It's a metaphorical 'dress' of vibrant green drapery with paillettes and a fillip of sophisticated silver," Baisch explains. "For the other core, we used natural cedar paneling reclaimed from rural fences. It's called the Up North Cabin, a phrase familiar to many Michiganers." Other branded zones with names now second-nature to agency staffers are Garages (brand rooms), Paper Central (copy room), the Park (graphic design), and the Zone (any informal meeting area). Even the office area earned the unlikely nickname of the Sandbox.
The spaces are zoot-suited with finishes and furnishings reflecting those names. Metallic and glossy paint, including a memorable reflective orange, contrasts with the wood paneling, overscale floral fabrics, and concrete flooring. A canopy made of panels with a shredded-wheat texture sets off a meeting lounge known as Grandma's Living Room, thanks to its outsize green wingbacks and a "bear" rug that's actually rubbery white hand-cast urethane. In the Boffo Room, a theater designed for client presentations, black curtains drape the walls, and black leather covers armchairs that glide on castors over the black carpet tile.
What makes the compression-versus-release concept truly sing is the series of big moves developed by Gensler with the exhibition-design specialist Xibitz—odd sights that are intended to draw creative types from their lairs. Fabric domes were conceived as Idea Bubbles. "Sometimes they rise, and sometimes they burst," Baisch says. Enclosures that look like abstracted Airstream trailers were designed for the two- or three-person meetings that copywriters and designers thrive on. Less functional but equally alluring are installations of optical glass or crisscrossing wires. And there's a green vintage Ford pickup parked in reception at JWT. (The Ford Motor Company, a client, is across the street.)
In these ways, Gensler ensured that the six merged entities could retain their personae in spite of WPP's corporate clustering. What's more, the agencies are confident that their modular workspaces and flexible meeting zones could absorb even more change. The proof, Baisch contends, is already documented: "There were three formal reorganizations during the year of our design process, so the planning concept is about dealing with change and letting it continue." Perhaps another big bang in the making.