‘You never get a second chance to make a good first impression,’ goes the old saying, and while there is uncertainty over who actually coined this bit of wit, its guidance resonates to this day and seems to be a driving force behind a slew of quirky agency reception designs, as Gillian West finds out.
“After the people and the product that you produce, the reception is the most important aspect of any business, full stop,” says Dave Buonaguidi, chief creative officer at Karmarama, whose office boasts a disco tunnel, a huge red Buddha, a VW camper van and a life-size plastic llama.
An agency’s reception area is often viewed as a reflection of the creative talent who choose to work there, meaning the area has to work 10 times harder than the same space within a lawyers’ or doctor’s office. Just like the brands they work on, agencies increasingly have to consider the impression their workspace creates because right from the moment someone walks through the door they are building a picture in their mind of the business. And if that person walking in the door happens to be a client with a multi-million pound brief, you’d better hope it’s the picture you want them to see.
With numerous potential clients passing though agency receptions on a daily basis, FCB Inferno’s Tim Doust explains how “every agency is trying to distinguish itself from the next, and the reception area is where all of this comes to life”.
The reception has to convey “everything an agency stands for; its values and the image it wants to project”. Décor is one way for an agency to make its mark on visitors, and from Karmarama’s off-beat additions to Elmwood’s ping-pong table and BBH’s coffee bar, each item is there to engage potential clients and reflect the agency’s ethos.
For example, creative agency FST uses its reception area to showcase the two things it feels are most important to its business – its clients and its people – by displaying portraits of its staff and an ever-changing collage of live clients on its walls.
Wieden+Kennedy Amsterdam, on the other hand, celebrates its creative edge by promoting work from emerging and established creators, artists and troublemakers in its foyer, and in Leeds the centrepiece of Elmwood’s reception is a timeline of its history.
However, no amount of style will make up for lack of substance with many companies crediting their ‘front of house’ staff for creating the ultimate first impression. BBH London has gone as far as bringing in top London restaurant maître d’s to impart their wisdom on how to make people feel welcome and serve ‘customers’, whereas FCB Inferno employs jobbing actors as its front of house staff to make use of their energy and artistic mindsets. “User experience is an increasingly important thing in our business and we’re trying to recreate the content we create for clients in the experience they get from our building,” BBH London’s deputy chairman Jon Peppiatt tells The Drum. “In the past we’ve had a few absolute pros from the restaurant business come in and talk to us about how to serve customers and how to make people feel welcome,” he says, explaining that the agency’s receptionists walk with clients to meeting rooms or the coffee bar, and offer to take bags. “It’s the little things that stop you from thinking ‘oh God, they don’t want me here’ and shrinking into a corner.”
Peppiatt goes on to explain that this is not just for the sake of being nice. Or not purely anyway. “There is a strategy behind it,” he reveals. “We’re doing it because we know if we give the right impression it will make the clients feel good and respect us more. That leads to better relationships, which leads to better work and more new business, which becomes revenue and pay rises. It’s that circle which is really, really important.” Outwith impressing clients and visitors, an agency’s reception area sets the tone for the rest of the office space, and the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management suggests that creative office design leads to increased creative output in a recent study.
“If an environment is clean and professional, we feel we should act that way. And if it’s more relaxed and carefree, we can let ourselves go a little bit,” comments assistant professor and one of the report’s authors Joe Redden. Thought to have begun in the US in firms like Google, Ticketmaster and Apple, changes to the way we work have been the catalyst behind playful interiors, argues Karmarama’s Buonaguidi, who tells us that the office space, and what it says about an agency, has shifted from being a “temple showroom” to a more relaxed and open place to work. “I prefer working in interesting, stimulating spaces,” he explains, “and more modern ways of working mean that we have moved from ‘officebased’ offices to open plan environments, and that means more opportunity to have fun and create interest and stimulation.”
This is an insight shared by FCB Inferno’s Doust, who believes it’s more than just “quirkiness”, but because making the working environment fun is a “tried and tested branding tool”. The founding partner adds that “businesses like Google, Facebook and Bloomberg have demonstrated the effectiveness of interior design in recent years in attracting attention, talent and business.” So whether you decide to transform your office into a giant treehouse à la Mind Candy, or keep it slick and sophisticated, the trick, according to W+K Amsterdam’s managing director Clay Mills, is to “convey the values of the organisation rather than falling prey to gimmickry”. It’s advice we could all take heed of.This feature first appeared within The Drum magazine's 19 March issue, available to purchase onlineat The Drum store.