Paul Ward, of the Havas Group, discusses working with MCM Architects on a new-build HQ for the company in King’s Cross, London
Words by Pamela Buxton
What has your role been in relation to the new building?
I led the project team overall and so was the main contact for the contractors and designers. I had final sign-off on all designs (in conjunction with the group chief financial officer, group CEO and group chief creative officer).
Have you had previous experience as a design client?
I’d done a couple of projects before. I fitted out a start-up agency in India at my previous place and have done the odd floor here and there, but nothing on this scale. Here, we have accommodated 1,600 people over the entire 10 floors of our building.
What was the thinking behind your choice of the building in King’s Cross for your new headquarters?
The building was already chosen before I joined, but we were a year away from it being handed over and were still discussing the design of the interior with MCM Architecture. I can’t say this for sure, but if pushed I’d say the reasons behind the choice of the building were two-fold: we were excited about the idea of being in King’s Cross Central as it emerges as a new part of London, and the Havas owners are French, based in Paris, and so it is a very straightforward hop over to Paris from King’s Cross (said tongue in cheek).
The staircase, carved into a map of London, is the centrepiece of Havas’ reception area.
What were your ambitions and priorities for the design of your new workplace?
The overall brief was that it should be a village that accommodates our 26 agencies, which were previously scattered in eight or nine locations around London. Havas has a village strategy with more than 80 ‘villages’ around the world – the majority being smaller spaces, but there are four or five major HQs including Paris, New York, Singapore et cetera. I am pretty sure our Kings Cross office is the only one to be purpose-built.
With 26 agencies it would have been easy to go a little design crazy, but while we were keen not to create a homogenous Havas space, we did want some uniformity and an overall ‘look’. We wanted the different agencies to feel connected and for there to be a fluidity throughout the workplace. We have tried to give the agencies the freedom to create their own culture in their own space without overtly branding themselves – we didn’t want a logo soup. It was quite a cultural challenge to get the balance right, and it continues to be so.
The design by MVR provides numerous places for individual contemplative work and team discussions
Did you look at many other workplaces as part of the research for your new offices?
I personally did a lot of desk-based research and we looked at quite a few spaces with the designers – some offices that worked well and some that we knew didn’t. In the early days I think the design felt a bit too stiff – a bit like a Pall Mall private members’ club – so we softened it and made it feel a bit more like Soho House, a much better fit for our teams and their clients.
A leaping fox graphic animates the space
What qualities were you looking for in your designers?
Personally I like it when they are a bit argumentative – I want someone to tell me no and explain why not. Sometimes, I find I can end up dominating a conversation and directing traffic too much, so a less assertive designer would roll over. Not so MCM, I should add. The designers are very much the experts in the room and I value their judgment (although I’ll still want to have the final say!)
Have the offices turned out how you expected?
We’ve been in about five or six months now and it’s great. We’ve already done two floorplate layout changes, and because the workplace is so agile it’s much easier to do so. I also love the stairwells – we spent a lot of time talking about the design of them and for me these really set the building off, giving it a flow all the way through the building.
An eclectic collection of timber doors is a feature in one of the workspaces
What role has the design had in setting the tone for the new building and how people work in it?
It’s flexible: when we want to present the scale of our UK group we very much can, but equally when we want to present the different agencies as smaller independent entities, the building allows us to do so. With our larger agencies, we wanted to break things up so that no one gang dominated an entire floor. We did this by purposefully splitting the floor plates so that rather than taking all of a floor, the bigger agencies instead occupy parts of several floors.
We also tried to break down the barriers between Havas’ media and creative divisions by having half of the floor from each company, which has certainly helped, as previously we were on opposite sides of the city. Now, we’re a more integrated business and are more collaborative as a result.
We’ve talked a lot about agile working and discussed at length whether we should have clean-desk and forced hot-desking policies but decided not to be so militant. People can move around but we won’t dictate it. The building is now full in that we have a bum on every seat, but I believe we could grow by another 30 per cent over the next few years and still live here quite comfortably. If that happens then we’ll have to look at a more determined approach to agile working. We’ve already had some preliminary discussions with MCM about how we might do this.
A desk-and-chair workspace segues into a more relaxed breakout/informal work zone
What were the most challenging and rewarding parts of working as a design client on the new building?
It was amazing when everyone arrived at the building on the first day. It was very rewarding to see everyone together – you realise what a young, dynamic and interesting bunch of people we have. I’ve been running a holistic training programme where agencies introduce themselves to each other and it’s been good to see how different parts of the group are starting to get to know each other better and so work together more. We really are better together. What we really want is a significant piece of new business that brings the creative and media teams together – that’s when we’ll see the real benefit of all being in the same location. That’s when Havas King’s Cross will really start to flourish. The challenging part of the new office process is when things don’t work as well as they should. While the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, some people don’t like change and there will always be some who don’t like being part of a workplace of 1,600 when previously they were in their own little office.
Do you expect to be commissioning designers for any further projects?
I hope not! That said, if I was doing so it could only mean we have been very successful and outgrown this place. Universal Music and some other areas of Vivendi [owner of part of Havas] are moving into the building next door and I must admit I was a little worried that they’d ask me to help them out too, but touch wood I’ve managed to stay away from any such conversations!