Newish things that haven’t made advertising better, part 5: open plan offices.

Ah… this is like shooting a marlin in a really small barrel using every single weapon Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever looked at.

I’m saying literally every single creative on Planet Earth hates open plan offices.

But it’s Saturday evening, and my kids are on their third rewatch of The Cleveland Show, so let’s do an easy one.

Back in the 1990s every team had an office to work in, and ads were much better. Are those two facts related? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Just imagine… you have some work to do and you can – get this! – close a fucking door while you do it. Amazing! So you have the peace and quiet you need to concentrate on a bit of copy or art direction, but more importantly, you have a sealed-off environment in which to talk about whatever you want.

Now, this is crucial to the creative process. You need to feel comfortable discussing anything, from Barry Lyndon to Barry Sheen; from geometry to geopolitical crises; from Jimmy Krankie to Jimmy Savile. That’s how you get your ideas going, so you need to be able to let it all hang out, and look stupid, tasteless and stroppy, should the mood take you.

Next, you need an office to stick stuff up on the walls. This allows you, and everyone else, to judge your ideas. So you put ’em up, accept the inevitable feedback, and improve your work. It’s like a small, crappy version of the Pixar Braintrust.

You also need an office to house your books, videos, TV for watching inspiring reels (or football), shoot loot and all that junk. You can create an environment in which you feel ready to work, be that minimalist and tidy, or a candidate for a documentary on hoarding.

Last but not least, you need a place to bitch about the other people in the agency. I’m not suggesting for a minute that you should do that gratuitously, but you’re going to have to do it sometimes, because people are dickheads sometimes. Venting helps mitigate any negative feelings you might have about that.

So open plan offices have deprived us of all those good things:

You no longer have a reliably quiet place to work. Yes, you can pop to the local coffee shop/park/toilet, but it’s in no way the same as having a place, stocked with a pile of your most inspiring stuff, that you can call on at any time, where you can get away from the planner who likes shouting about Yuval Noah Harari, or the finance people who discuss their troublesome veins, or the other team who are working on the same brief as you, and would love to take that great idea you’ve just explained to your art director, and make it just a little better before the presentation deadline (true story).

And you now have to discuss the merits of Alien 3 vs Alien 4 in front of people who will then think you’re an indulged prick who just gets to waste time while they do the real work. Even if they don’t say it to your face, you could well imagine a chat in the kitchen that ridicules and trivialises your conversations. (And that doesn’t even include all the people who think you’re an idiot for preferring Alien 4.) The way we work – the way we have to work – is not the way the other departments work. We don’t produce spreadsheets or Effie papers, and if we need to discuss Vic Reeves and American Gladiators to get to a good solution, so be it.

Even worse is when you have to say your shitty ideas in front of people who don’t understand that ‘Woody Allen building his own playground’ is the first step on the way to a business-boosting Cannes winner. You need a safe space to vomit out all the crap from which you can pick out the nuggets of gold. So every glance of derisive incomprehension is another speed bump in a process that is already fucking hard.

That need for safety will extend to the now-non-existent walls of your now-non-existent office. Remember when you had a place to judge six nascent ads alongside each other? Remember when you could ask for a colleague’s trusted opinion on said ads? Remember when you could stick up reference photos next to layouts to see how they hung together? Sure, you can now do all that on a computer screen, and it’s exactly the same. Except it isn’t. That 13-inch Powerbook isn’t an entire wall, so I’m sorry for your loss, but tough shit: the global headquarters of your holding company needed to prop up the Q3 earnings call by saving some cash, and fitting more employees into a smaller space was an easy win, so deal with it, you wanky prima donna.

And where do you keep all your stuff? In the pedestal, obviously! Cram a few David LaChapelle books in there, along with all your (literal) bottom-drawer ideas, a Magic 8-Ball and that money bank in the shape of the cat out of My Neighbour Totoro. Is all that stuff necessary to writing a good ad? Define ‘necessary’. Pixar thinks having your own space is essential, but what do they know, eh? They made Cars 3, so they can piss right off (they also made Toy Story 1-4, Inside Out, Wall-E and all those so-called ‘classics’, but: Cars 3).

Creativity is a fragile process, so poking holes in it, tweaking its nipples, and farting in its face is not recommended. Maybe a favourite set of poker dice will never be the difference between brilliance and excrement, but that kind of stuff can’t be measured, so within reason you should give creative people the environment they need to succeed. Ot at least, don’t entirely ruin that process by giving them 22 inches of white desk in a room as noisy as the third row of a Selena Gomez concert.

The last compromise, the one about venting and bitching, is probably the smallest, mainly because that kind of thing is better done in the pub or coffee shop. But sometimes you just have to get in a vaguely sound-proofed room, shut the door and swear a lot. It helps because it’s therapeutic and gets you back into the game more quickly. Sometimes it can lead to another idea that replaces the one your ECD just killed, and it helps if that happens in your working environment.

One more deadly thing about OPOs: headphones.

In the days of offices, no one wore headphones, so everyone was open for business at all times. You didn’t have to lean over them creepily until they noticed you, or tap them on the shoulder and hope they weren’t too startled. The dynamic was different: spontaneity was possible because you could just chuck stuff out and know someone was listening. Today you have to enter another situation called ‘sorry to disturb you’. It’s a different transaction, where you’re figuratively knocking on your partner’s door, with no idea what’s taking up their attention. So what you’re showing them had better be worth the disturbance. And you’d better not do that six times in five minutes, like you might do in an office. Each interruption must be earned, and that’s a broken, stilted path to creativity.

Maybe all of the above makes sense; maybe a mere 3% is of merit. But it matters not. My shoddy opinions can be disregarded in favour of the many scientific studies that shit all over OPOs. Nothing suggests they are better than the alternative. they are officially nothing but a money-saving exercise that has contributed to the worsening of our output. They are a post-vindaloo toilet blockage. A short-term gain for a long-term pain in the arse.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re going anywhere soon, but until they leave our professional lives we’re going to have to accept that we’re working with one hand tied behind our backs, and a vociferous, candid member of the comms planning department yelling about his favourite podcast right next to our ears.