Advertising agency BBDO’s new office in Mumbai is the first office where I am tempted to take off my shoes at the entrance. This is precisely its intended effect. A sign outside the front door guides me to the “BBDO Ashram”. Incense, chatai mats and a replica of Mahatma Gandhi’s “workspace” frame the reception. Inside, the office is composed of a single large room bordered by a conference room, meeting room, dining area and tiny library. Bare white walls, two rows of long wooden benches and ergonomic office chairs highlight the spartan aesthetic.
I am here to meet Josy Paul, the agency’s chairman and national creative director, and self-styled veteran “challenger” in the Indian advertising industry. Paul was tasked by BBDO’s global arm with setting up the India office in January 2008. Six months ago, he relocated the Mumbai office from a 750 sq. ft space in Khar to a 6,100 sq. ft space in the Paragon Centre—a former mill compound in Worli—and used the opportunity to “create an ashram”, he says.
Ashram as social experiment
The idea of building an ashram in an office was “spontaneous and instinctive”, Paul says, and inspired by a visit to the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati in July 2009 with Ajai Jhala, CEO of BBDO India. Seeking ways to ignite energy in a sealed office environment, he says he was attracted to the “energy of congregations found in religious places, rather than (conventional) boxes and cabins. Sabarmati stunned us by its powerful simplicity and higher ideology. It resonated with our own working philosophy of creating ‘acts, not ads’.”
Stripping the office of cubicles and eliminating privacy is “a blind experiment”, he admits. There is free seating for all employees, regardless of seniority: no cabins, allocated workstations or partitions between desks. BBDO Mumbai’s 35 employees can choose their own spot to seat themselves, just as they would in an ashram or a place of worship. “People tend to choose a spot and come back behaviourally to it,” he notes. For confidential talk, co-workers head to the meeting rooms, the sliver-like library or the adjoining terrace patio. Documents and personal possessions are kept in individual lockers in a designated storage area.
Paul’s personal workstyle is highly nomadic too as he “fluidly moves from one group to another” in the normal course of the day. “What’s nice about this place is that you want to sit with people” rather than being tied to a desk, he says.
The day usually starts with ideas being swapped with executive creative director Raj Deepak Das at a particular desk, but Paul is not bound to any one location, and travels light, with only a laptop and notepad, often seating himself at a bench at the reception or in one of the office’s designated nooks. Most of his best ideas, he says, actually originated in coffee shops outside the office.
The ideas lab: (from top) Josy Paul (right) spends most mornings swapping ideas with executive creative director Raj Deepak Das; the open office plan for the 35 employees; Paul was inspired by the simplicity of the Gandhi Ashram at Sabarmati; an anti-smoking sculpture which was made for Nicorette, one of the agency’s clients; and an informal den in the office. Photographs by Sheena Dabholkar/Mint
The openness has its challenges, he acknowledges. New recruits are initially “enamoured” by the space, but then find the lack of privacy constraining. Paul encourages this friction between workspace and worker, saying that the office acts as the agency’s recruitment “filter”, deliberately promoting specific behaviour and weeding out those who are unwilling to adapt.
A new workspace strategy
The notion of office as ashram might appear to be a pretentious marketing gimmick by a creative agency, but Paul explains that is underpinned by the clear logic of how best to bind people, workspaces and business strategy. The ashram, he hopes, will galvanize his team’s creativity in a particular way, generating ideas which will successfully distinguish the agency from its peers.
His conception of an ashram is very specific; he sees it as a laboratory (rather than a sanctuary or a refuge) where new ideas can be concocted, and communicated to India’s youthful population. “If we are a laboratory for ideas in a contemporary world, where the young brands that we handle want new answers, then it must be based on new energy,” he explains.
Ashrams give birth to social movement, he says, and BBDO India must similarly offer “differentiated work which is relevant to today’s cultural and social context”. Mass communication must “activate” consumers by making them engage with brands through “actions”, rather than just delivering messages via television or print.
The ashram concept is not an entirely new workplace invention. Long rows are a standard feature in many European workplaces. As a strategic planner with advertising agency Lowe London, I worked off a similar desk, with no partitions between my neighbouring colleagues, although the office had assigned seating and private offices for senior management. Paul has stretched the long-bench concept and it is radical for Indian workplaces, which usually remain divided by partitions and cabins.
Such a free-flowing model is not entirely replicable either, as it relies on the business leader to set the tone for group interaction and collaboration. Paul himself notes that the BBDO’s Delhi office is unlikely to be built as an ashram.
Despite these concerns, Paul’s attempt to integrate what I would call “spatial behaviour” with organization behaviour is commendable. Offices are unique spaces because they need to be designed keeping two kinds of behaviour in mind: that of the individual, and that of the organization.
Most CEOs can suggest ways to make workplaces more comfortable for individual employees (better light, ventilation and amenities, more desk space and ergonomic furniture, etc). But very few can devise a “spatial metaphor” in terms of how the workplace itself behaves, and the kind of behaviour it promotes among its employees, working together as a group, rather than just individuals. Yet there are several such metaphors available—for example, Hindustan Unilever’s corporate office in Mumbai has a “street” to facilitate greater interaction between employees.
Although Paul claims that “our best work has happened in this office”, it is too early to conclude whether Paul’s ashram experiment will allow BBDO to carve a place for itself in Indian advertising’s top tier. Nonetheless, his effort to marry business strategy, workplace design and human resource philosophy deserves credit.
Aparna Piramal Raje, a director of BP Ergo, meets heads of organizations every month to investigate the connections between their workspaces and working styles.
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