MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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The Power of Place, part 2 – How a design strategy powered a global strategy design

Jim Meredith enjoys a chat in the "Creative Lobby" of Team Detroit headquarters As you all know, we put ideas into operation with the hope that they will have lasting impact. Despite our purpose and intentions, most architecture and design projects have a finite conclusion – the doors open, the client moves in, and they and we are off to our other business. What we've done exists on the landscape for its and our lifetimes, yet it seems relatively rare that we get insight into how what we've done affects the lives of those who experience the places we've designed.

I was pleased, then, to find this story in the New York Times this week. Ostensibly about the promotion of a key creative person at an ad agency, key pieces of the article told a story about the resonating beneficial influence on the business performance of a company for whom I, in a former position, led a team to design a regional headquarters. The article is a great testimonial to the power of what we do in advancing strategies that help design resonate with business benefit well beyond the project itself.

Uncovering what "job" the client actually wants to do

I've probably talked too much about the Detroit WPP project, but I like it as a clear example of a great way to practice. I was Principal-in-Charge of the Detroit project which was conceived by WPP as a relatively simple collocation project. WPP had grown through acquisitions and, as a result, in major markets, came to hold a number of different agencies who had leases in different buildings in different locations with different terms. Bringing different agencies from different locations together into their own suites in one building would simplify lease terms and CRE complexity.

But I was interested in a different approach. Our mission is to link workplace design strategy to our client's business strategy design. At the time of the project, about 2005, the advertising and media businesses were experiencing a revolutionary fragmentation of the Mad Men model of business and were challenged by internal competition among advertising, media, planning and other disciplines seeking relevance, influence and dominance of the marketing agenda. So I was deeply interested in working with WPP executives to take advantage of this "collocation" project in Detroit to actually generate and test a new business model, and one that could be facilitated by a radical new approach to workplace design.

A window into the process

Almost every day during the site search and design phases of the project, I would join an executive of one of the agencies in his office, or he in mine, and we'd scribble diagrams on a whiteboard. We began by discussing the concept that bringing the agencies under one roof was an opportunity to "tear down the walls" between the businesses and develop a "new lexicon" for both the business and the places and spaces where it would operate. The objective was to find ways to enhance the creative output of the companies and deliver higher value at lower cost to its clients.

Each of the agencies was, in a sense, complete. Each had a full palette of administrative, creative and production functions. There was, however, a great range in the size of the agencies, from 65 to 650 people (the companies under consideration for collocation collectively employed more than 1300 people), so the strengths of these functions in each of the agencies varied as well.

Collocation could, it seemed, easily allow an integrated concept of back office functions like HR, finance and IT to enable greater strength and improved efficiency for all. But we also quickly began looking at integrating other functions like research, media and others, and eventually creative as well to test the potential of an integrated approach to deliver higher creative value. As this developed, we began to also challenge approaches taken in earlier projects in other cities where collocation simply meant each agency having its own suite but together in a single building with a single lease.

Linking strategy design with design strategy

Eventually, we had an emerging new business concept in mind, as well as the realization that the extraordinarily dynamic business conditions meant that the shape of organizations that moved in to the building would not be the same as the ones with whom we began the project. The design, then, had to accommodate ongoing organizational redesign and continuing rapid evolution defined by market and business conditions.

We began to work with a radically open concept that would adhere to certain guiding metrics of the WPP CRE program as well as the lingering cultural and identity concerns of the agencies. I developed, nonetheless, a "two seats for every employee" design program. Visualizing that the emerging design of the business – my client began to call it "integrated creative communications" – would find success only through a (then non-existent) collaboration between agency teams, I reasoned that only through an agile physical place that enabled the socialization that would nurture a sense of shared values and the development of a shared culture would this success be achieved. So in addition to a home base for 1350 people, there were also 1350 seats in a variety of different kinds of settings for the combined staff to get to know, and trust, each other and start to combine disciplines and expertise and begin to work together.

Allowing time to activate

Although initially resisted by the executives of the agencies for logical arguments about brand identity, interagency competition and proprietary information, they nonetheless agreed to let the design concept develop to reflect the emerging business concept, even as it was developing.

“I think I was pretty skeptical” of the Team Detroit concept at first, Mr. Barlow said. “You’d walk in a room and say, ‘He’s with Y&R; he’s with Ogilvy,’ and you’re all sitting together. It was weird.”

As results were achieved, Mr. Barlow said, it became clear that “the whole would be equal to more than the sum of the parts.”

Within 3 months of moving into the building, the agencies dropped all resistance to the business concept and rebranded themselves as an integrated operation named "Team Detroit." The business concept (and the spatial concept) is now the model for WPP's work globally, as the article discusses.

The project has won design awards and has been published in various places before. But this article from the New York Times today is a better testimony to the power of what we do when we help organizations develop and articulate strategy designs better, and then develop design strategies that deliver measurable business results.

[Quote from "Selling Ford Around the World, From Detroit" by Stuart Elliott in the New York Times, November 12, 2010]

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Projects for a shrinking city

Photo Credit:  Courtesy Of The Artist Via Museum Of Contemporary Art Detroit, via Washington Post I thought I'd pass along this article in its entirety. It's about some small moves in Detroit that are continued indicators of new settlement patterns in the transition to new futures in difficult places and times.

Featured in the article are Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope. Gina is an architect and artist and currently heads a very clever retail/consultancy called Design 99. Mitch is an artist who contributed to the great Shrinking Cities project and was a founding member and curator at Detroit's MOCAD.

The New York Times

March 8, 2009 Op-Ed Contributor For Sale: The $100 House By TOBY BARLOW

RECENTLY, at a dinner party, a friend mentioned that he’d never seen so many outsiders moving into town. This struck me as a highly suspect statement. After all, we were talking about Detroit, home of corrupt former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, beleaguered General Motors and the 0-16 Lions. Compared with other cities’ buzzing, glittering skylines, ours sits largely abandoned, like some hulking beehive devastated by colony collapse. Who on earth would move here?

Then again, I myself had moved to Detroit, from Brooklyn. For $100,000, I bought a town house that sits downtown in the largest and arguably the most beautiful Mies van der Rohe development ever built, an island of perfect modernism forgotten by the rest of the world.

Two other guests that night, a couple in from Chicago, had also just invested in some Detroit real estate. That weekend Jon and Sara Brumit bought a house for $100.

Ah, the mythical $100 home. We hear about these low-priced “opportunities” in down-on-their-luck cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland, but we never meet anyone who has taken the plunge. Understandable really, for if they were actually worth anything then they would cost real money, right? Who would do such a preposterous thing?

A local couple, Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, started the ball rolling. An artist and an architect, they recently became the proud owners of a one-bedroom house in East Detroit for just $1,900. Buying it wasn’t the craziest idea. The neighborhood is almost, sort of, half-decent. Yes, the occasional crack addict still commutes in from the suburbs but a large, stable Bangladeshi community has also been moving in.

So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.

Buying that first house had a snowball effect. Almost immediately, Mitch and Gina bought two adjacent lots for even less and, with the help of friends and local youngsters, dug in a garden. Then they bought the house next door for $500, reselling it to a pair of local artists for a $50 profit. When they heard about the $100 place down the street, they called their friends Jon and Sarah.

Admittedly, the $100 home needed some work, a hole patched, some windows replaced. But Mitch plans to connect their home to his mini-green grid and a neighborhood is slowly coming together.

Now, three homes and a garden may not sound like much, but others have been quick to see the potential. A group of architects and city planners in Amsterdam started a project called the “Detroit Unreal Estate Agency” and, with Mitch’s help, found a property around the corner. The director of a Dutch museum, Van Abbemuseum, has called it “a new way of shaping the urban environment.” He’s particularly intrigued by the luxury of artists having little to no housing costs. Like the unemployed Chinese factory workers flowing en masse back to their villages, artists in today’s economy need somewhere to flee.

But the city offers a much greater attraction for artists than $100 houses. Detroit right now is just this vast, enormous canvas where anything imaginable can be accomplished. From Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (think of a neighborhood covered in shoes and stuffed animals and you’re close) to Matthew Barney’s “Ancient Evenings” project (think Egyptian gods reincarnated as Ford Mustangs and you’re kind of close), local and international artists are already leveraging Detroit’s complex textures and landscapes to their own surreal ends.

In a way, a strange, new American dream can be found here, amid the crumbling, semi-majestic ruins of a half-century’s industrial decline. The good news is that, almost magically, dreamers are already showing up. Mitch and Gina have already been approached by some Germans who want to build a giant two-story-tall beehive. Mitch thinks he knows just the spot for it.

Toby Barlow is the author of “Sharp Teeth.”

Another perspective in the same day's issue:

All Boarded Up

Previous related posts:

Lawlessness and cannibalism rule the streets

How many does it take?

Detroit wildlife

After the crisis--Macomb interventions

Utopian visions--building in cornfields

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