Interior Design Today’s Office Agencies

Does anyone know what an agency office is supposed to look like these days?

By Joe Madden, Head of content

Don't be Shy


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December 20, 2023 | 10 min read

In a special miniseries, Joe Madden of Don’t be Shy is putting in the hours to answer adland’s stickiest questions of agency etiquette. Previously: what (not) to wear and the great Sonos debate. Here: interior design.

A painfully cool office environment, with a neon sign that reads "Hello Hustler"

Are agency office environments swinging from painfully hip to more 'professional'? / Al Ghazali via Unsplash

Well, it was fun while it lasted. The working-from-home (WFH) era appears to be on the way out – slowly, but steadily and irreversibly.

A recent KPMG survey found that two-thirds of chief executives predicted a full return to in-office working by 2026; while nine in 10 say they’re likely to reward employees who return to the office with pay rises, promotions, and favorable assignments.

Agencies may not formally abolish remote working, but once WFH comes with a side-order of FOMO, its appeal will wane. As much as I enjoy illicit post-lunch naps and conversing with my dog all day, I don’t enjoy them enough to shrug off promotions, bigger pay checks, or career-making projects.

So: the office is back, and with an unexpected vengeance. In November, Construction News reported on “surprise figures” showing that “more London office builds began in the summer of 2023 than at any comparable period in the past 18 years”. The number of office refurbishment projects, meanwhile, “broke records for the second consecutive survey”.

Your agency’s post-WFH HQ could be getting a serious upgrade, then. And that supercool new workplace would take the edge off losing always-on access to your own fridge, sofa and toilet, right?

Maybe. But here’s the question: In 2024, what are the offices of a successful, forward-thinking agency even supposed to look like?

What year is this?

Let’s say you’ve been given free rein to update your agency’s office.

Should your new design focus on placatory comfort to employees who’ve been unwillingly dragged, bewildered and blinking in the sunlight, from their fug-filled WFH pits? Or should your new workplace act as a wow-worthy ‘shop window’ for visiting clients and prospects? Think impressively bleeding-edge aesthetics; breakout hubs alive with performative creativity; and glinting awards on not-so-subtle display.

Either way, you’ll probably want your new offices to look ‘cool’. But what is cool these days? As many cultural observers have noted, our collective idea of trendiness seems to have stalled. Aside from a few notable changes – emo came and went; Banksy prints from cool to cringy – everything and everyone has looked pretty much the same since the mid-noughties.

Picture the painfully on-trend offices of a major ad agency in 1964. Now, picture those same on-trend offices, refurbed for 1974. Now 1984. (If it helps, a soundtrack for each: ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, ‘Jungle Boogie’, then ‘Relax’.)

Now picture those same on-trend offices in 2004, then 2014, then 2024. Fewer beanbags and wall decals around these days, maybe, but not much in the way of evolution. Right?

Let’s ask an expert

“Between 2006 and 2015, you had this resurgence of personality in office design,” says Jon Humphreys, creative partner and co-owner at Sheila Bird Studio – designers of workspaces for the creativity-driven likes of Social Chain, LADBible, Missguided, and Peak. “During that period, you started to see young companies wanting to put their own stamp on a space. The thinking was, ‘We’re a creative business, so our space should be creative, too.’

“But there’s been a steady move away from that. Until recently it was the so-called ‘boring’ businesses – banking, insurance – that wanted more traditional offices. But now we’re seeing creative agencies seeking these glass-heavy, ‘grown up’ buildings that you might associate with, say, finance, because they’ve got all the amenities and connectivity and so on.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily an aesthetic or stylistic shift. It’s more that creative businesses are now focusing more on ease and flexibility. A lot of agencies, traditionally, were drawn towards older buildings, with exposed brick and quirky features. And they’re always going to appeal. But they often lack flexibility: companies grow and it’s like, ‘Well what do we do now?’ But the newer ‘grown up’ buildings have flexibility built into them.

“Wieden+Kennedy is an interesting one. People looked to their space just off Brick Lane because it was interesting: the entire reception area was an art gallery. What a great way to put your company’s creative personality up front.

“But they recently had a refit in their New York office and it's very grown up. It’s wood, it’s steel, not much color. And it’s a nice space to be in, but you wouldn’t necessarily know what kind of business it was – it could be a legal firm.”

But it’s not about the corporate glass and sensible metal. “Bringing greenery into buildings – bringing the outside in – that’s huge at the moment. People really want green spaces.

“People are also increasingly asking for collaborative spaces where small groups can work together. That, and different spots where people can sit and work, because they’re all on laptops, so there’s no need for them to be tied to desks any more. And you don’t need rows and rows of desks, because with hybrid working, not everyone will be in all the time.”

“It all comes down to thinking about what the office is really for, post-pandemic,” Humphreys says.

It’s worth remembering that resistance to returning to the office tends to vary based on geography. “We’re currently revamping two offices, in different locations, for [a well-known UK media brand]. The Manchester team never really stopped coming into their office – they always wanted to be there. And I think that’s because most of them live in town, so the office is just a walk or bike ride away.

“Whereas the London people have a commute to deal with. It is more of a bind for them to come back into the office. So they’re asking bigger questions about why they need to travel, and we need to give them valid reasons to do so – to draw them back in.”

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Ping-pong: Yay or nay?

What do clients and prospects want to see when they enter your agency’s office? I asked Kelly Earle, head of brand and content at TPXimpact (digital-transformation consultants, and clients of Don’t be Shy).

“I want to see your work up on the walls,” says Earle. “I want to see work-in-progress up there, too. I want to see the team being creative, collaborating, giving and receiving feedback.”

“Our company is very purpose-led, so we want to work with purpose-led companies. So things that would impress us in an office would be multiple bins for different kinds of recycling, and signage quantifying the recycling being done.

“Also: proper accessibility. I’ve visited companies that preach accessibility, but then their hallways aren’t actually wide enough for a wheelchair.

“Also: plants everywhere – plants that are actually taken care of. We’re all invigorated by nature, so any way an agency can bring the outside inside is great.

What doesn’t Earle want to see? “I don’t want to see a big wall of awards. I don’t care about them. I know most of those events are just marketing people stroking the egos of marketing people.

“Gimmicky stuff like fake plants and plastic grass: it’s not interesting – in fact it’s kind of repulsive – and so bad for the environment.”

“And no ping-pong table. I love ping-pong, but those things are so disruptive in an office. You don't need ping-pong balls flying around while you’re just trying to have a meeting. People suck at ping-pong.”

Interior Design Today’s Office Agencies

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