Jane Austen’s house in Chawton; Victor Hugo’s apartment in Paris; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s six simple rooms in Saint Petersburg; Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West; or, closer to home, Stephen Leacock’s place in Orillia: all so revered they were turned into museums.
Clearly we, as a society, place great importance on places where important words were written.
So, it stands to reason that a business that uses words to shape ideas or sell products might put a great deal of thought into the kind of house they give to their employees. How will it inspire and excite? Can it be restful if necessary? Will it be easy for happenstance meetings to occur?
And even if it can do those things, as the new WPP Toronto campus at 155 Queens Quay E. certainly can, how to handle placing more than 20 separate advertising and media companies, each with their own identity, under that big roof and ensure they all get along?
“We’re always really careful,” says Jorge Mendez-Caceres, creative director of BDG Architecture + Design. “When you look at the overall design, we’re trying to keep everything very muted, very monochromatic; the idea with that is then, little by little, the companies start bringing up their own colours, their own branding.”
And, since advertising agencies often rebrand themselves, all 250,000 square feet – spread over multiple floors at the new Waterfront Innovation Centre in East Bayfront – must, above all, remain flexible. And, further, to foster a sense of real teamwork, there are no private offices: if a big shot exec wants to meet with a client, she’ll book a private room just like everybody else (not via a clipboard hanging by the door, but digitally of course).
“There’re no corner offices here, all the corners are collaboration areas for everyone to use,” explains Mr. Mendez-Caceres, who works out of New York but travelled to Toronto dozens of times during the build-out. “So all the support areas are around the core: meeting rooms, phone rooms, pantries and so on.”
Mr. Mendez-Caceres is standing in one of those areas. Past the long table, past floor-to-ceiling glass, a frigid Lake Ontario sparkles on a sunny January day as the pink umbrellas of Sugar Beach – which look like dollhouse furniture from this height – flutter in the breeze. So, this author wonders: Did employees hang out down there last summer?
“The first couple of months we had five per cent occupancy,” says WPP country manager for Canada Arthur Fleischmann, who moved into the building in June, 2022. “So I think next summer will be the year we’ll see whether people go take their lunch and sit outside.”
Before chatting with Mr. Fleischmann, Mr. Mendez-Caceres bounced me around like a pinball, taking me from floor to floor to illustrate how his team was able to carve out areas based on the different company sizes (companies that, regardless of size, still require autonomy and privacy as they may compete for the same work) while always keeping natural light at top of mind. By using a materials palette that is consistent throughout – there are a lot of charcoal greys, creamy whites and moody walls of Canadian-made glass block – and allowing pops of colour only with modernist furniture and commissioned artwork – it’s his hope that WPP’s 2,000 employees will move freely between areas to rub elbows with folks from different firms.
If that doesn’t work, concentrating security, a common mailroom and a large, impressive commissary in one area will surely do the trick. And, as a side note, one wall of the commissary features decorative clipboards with the names and menus of several famous Toronto restaurants. And speaking of the city, there are more than a few places where it fills the big windows so luxuriantly, it’s almost surreal: “It looks like a wallpaper,” Mr. Mendez-Caceres says as he looks out to the St. Lawrence neighbourhood.
And speaking of surreal, cameras and other devices measure how much or how little each space is used so that cleaning schedules can be increased or decreased, or so that heating or cooling can be adjusted to save on costs.
While the unified campus model is not new, WPP is aggressively building dozens in cities all over the world (Mr. Mendez-Caceres was working on Detroit’s around the same time as Toronto’s), aiming for LEED-certification with each, and being as collaborative as possible with employees.
“There was a steering committee that was made up of all the operating companies,” Mr. Fleischmann says. “People from those agencies that have a design component, or a creative component, [also] had seats at the table, and then there was a fairly iterative process of workshops. … How much do you work at your desk? How much do you work in a boardroom? How much do you work outside the office? When you’re in the office, are you standing or sitting?”
Mr. Fleischmann also remembers that, once those things were sorted and the process of looking for an actual building began, WPP’s extensive wish list narrowed the choices down to only five or six locations, one of which was the Globe & Mail’s new building.
So, approximately six months into occupation, have there been any hiccups with either Mr. Mendez-Caceres’s design or with the neighbourhood at large?
“We’ve had no major issues,” Mr. Fleischmann says. “As people came in and started to realize what’s it like to have a roommate, well, there’s is always some friction … so there’re certain adjustments that we, as landlords,” he pauses to laugh at the term, “have to make for the operating companies.”
And the new East Bayfront neighbourhood, already home to media company Corus and George Brown College, is only going to get better: “I think we’ll start to feel a greater energy,” Mr. Fleischmann says. “Is this a cool neighbourhood? Not yet, but it is growing so quickly, and the view of the lake is pretty freaking awesome.”