When Karmarama approached Bluu to kit out its new Clerkenwell HQ, its shopping list was far from straightforward. Yes, they needed the features that should now come as standard for any top advertising agency: “town hall” presentation area, cafe, collaboration spaces galore, visual editing suites and photography studios – check. Throw in a corner shop, an arcade gaming area and a ping-pong room and the project gets all the more complicated.
“It’s not your standard office project,” admits Neil Brookhouse, project manager for Bluu. “The company founder is a bit of a free spirit, and was specific in how he wanted its particular brand values to be represented. It had to be a mixture of hard working and fun.”
This message is communicated from the word go, with a truly dramatic entrance that aimed to set the tone for the rest of the project. For Dave Buonaguidi – the aforementioned free-spirited founder – it was vital the entrance totally averted the expected. “There’s a tradition with advertising agencies to have a big marble entrance with all the awards on the wall; that’s your temple where you show off. I hate that kind of stuff.” At the top of an escalator, the first thing you see is a neon sign saying “good karma this way”, pointing into a futuristic colour-changing LED light tunnel (made and programmed by Applelec) which leads to the main office space. Besides creating a sense of intrigue and excitement for visitors (this one included), it aims to affect staff mentality: “When you go through airport departures, there is a sense that you are committing to something when you walk through the tunnel, and it feels different on the other side,’ says Buonaguidi.
To the right of the tunnel is the reception area, with a huge illuminated sign reclaimed from the side of a bus, emblazoned with changing brand-related messages such as “a small giant” and “keine wixer bitte” (“no wankers please”: a German translation of one of their company policies), or can be personalised with a welcome message for clients. The cafe was placed opposite the entrance so it was completely separate from the working area – plus, it wafted smells of coffee and baking towards reception. “When you arrive, it’s not all awards and anodyne,” says Buonaguidi, “it’s welcoming.”
On the other side of the tunnel of light, past a giant red Buddha and a life-size plastic llama, lies the town hall presentation area, a large circular space with a wall of screens, vividly colourful carpet and lighting which, like the tunnel, can be customised with the brand colours of visiting clients. Beyond here is the main boardroom. According to Brookhouse, this whole area was about leading clients through a stimulating and seamless experience, “which helps keep the interest and the focus”, he says.
This tactic was also employed through the main office space, which needed to house 250 people and a lot of extra features, all on one floor. Square footage was luckily on their side – Karmarama says it has the largest single-floor open-plan office in the UK communications industry – so Bluu set about creating a range of different collaboration spaces around the office, from group tables and colour-coded meeting rooms to cosy booths and beach- and pool-themed cushioned areas. Having recently completed a merger, the priority for Buonaguidi was to make sure the different companies and people coming together would quickly become unified: “We had to have a structure that would allow collaboration to flow easily. We didn’t want people arriving, sitting at their desks and then going home. We wanted an anthill mentality.”
With a company policy of “work hard, be nice to people, play ping-pong” there was one room that could not be avoided. Cleverly, Bluu found a way to make the mandatory table tennis room multifunctional, so it can be blacked out and used as a photography studio. Adjacent to this space on the outskirts of the “anthill” are the video editing suites, sound recording studios and more private, secluded meeting spaces for clients who prefer to remain discreet about visiting the agency. All these spaces, like the majority of the office, are decidedly less visually loud than the town hall area. There are eclectic and often outlandish furnishings, including a throne and a campervan tent, but the backdrop is fairly, well, normal. This is an intentional facet, sprung from Buonaguidi’s desire to give it personality without pomp. “We want to inspire our staff to be creative as well as engage with our own brand, but also it has to feel loose and informal so our clients aren’t intimidated.” The overall feel is one of a college campus with a busy, fun atmosphere, helped by the dedicated games room with Nintendo Wii and eBay-sourced arcade games.
The project is also a constant work in progress. Staff have been encouraged to customise the pillars around their desks (Buonaguidi’s is the Yeti one, covered from top to bottom in white fake fur). One room – more a small alcove – has become a corner shop that Buonaguidi sometimes works in, selling sweets.
Another is soon to become an installation of sorts, dressed as a 1970s shipping office, complete with a jacket on the chair, shoes under the table and a cup of coffee on the desk. “Every week they phone and have more ideas, more things to add,” says Brookhouse. Not always a good thing for a project, but he looks pretty happy about it. Maybe he’s a ping-pong fan too.