Creative Vision

May 1, 2008

MediaCom's functional requests for its new Toronto headquarters translated into unique design opportunities for the team at HOK.

By Carol Tisch | Photography by Richard Johnson


The yin and yang of advertising are no longer a simple issue of suits vs. creatives. Global marketing and the information age are continually reshaping where, when, and how advertising is formulated, bought and sold. Out of the box thinking is required—not just of the art directors and copywriters who create brand messages—but of the researchers, strategists, media buyers and executives responsible for delivering those messages in ways that resonate with consumers.

It's a paradigm shift best reflected in the new Canadian headquarters of MediaCom, a multi-national strategic planning and media buying agency with 111 offices in 89 countries. Designed by the Toronto office of HOK, one of the world's largest planning, architecture and design firms, the 45,000-square-foot space evokes the image of a hip, young agency. Yet MediaCom is huge and established—a seriously buttoned-down company that focuses on optimizing a clients' return on their advertising investment.

The idea, according to Don Crichton, HOK's vice president of workplace solutions, was to project MediaCom's creative spirit and innovative business style through the interiors—to design an up-market "startup" look that would accommodate a staff of 250. "MediaCom had its heart set on moving into a vintage, brick and beam industrial loft-type space, which in Toronto, is de rigueur for creative business types," says Crichton. "But after an exhaustive real estate search proved no such venue with sufficient space was available, the firm relocated to two-and-a-half floors in a corporate steel and glass office tower."

Compared to MediaCom's wants and needs, the tower was replete with design challenges. But its biggest selling points were its urban feel and sweeping vistas of downtown Toronto. "Before we even had a specific building, we had fixed on what we wanted in our new headquarters," explains Doug Checkeris, CEO of MediaCom U.S. (co-president and CEO of MediaCom Canada during the design and construction of the Toronto offices).

"We wanted a people-oriented place that was accessible and functional. We wanted a workplace that was intimate, although it had to accommodate 250 people. And instead of our previous traditional office environment with executive offices on the outside walls, we wanted an open plan and a democracy of light," adds Checkeris.

True to the company's strategic advertising roots, MediaCom prepared a creative brief with an outline of interior design objectives and functional requirements, then invited several firms to present creative solutions. HOK won the competition, states Checkeris, because they took the strengths of the space and melded them with MediaCom's vision. "They were great at grabbing what was in our heads and making it reality," he says. "Our office gets incredible feedback from our suppliers, clients and reps; it is a manifestation of what we think our image should be."

"We thought carefully about the image they would want to project because they are on the business side of advertising, yet [they are] very cool and creative people," says Crichton, who brought in HOK's workplace design leader Annie Bergeron as the project's senior designer because of her extensive experience in designing ad agencies.

"We decided to give them the creative edge of a startup, but in a treatment that was appropriate for an established company," explains Bergeron. "Many startup agencies use raw wood—plywood two-by-fours—because it is inexpensive and accessible. I pitched the concept of using high-grade Canadian Douglas fir ply veneer, with an analogy to denim which has connotations as a fun, youthful material, but can also be very grown-up in designer jeans.

"That was my pitch to the pitchers: we had to give them a creative strategy because that's what they do for a living," says Bergeron. "Though the plywood we used is the same basic material, it is done in a very high-end, controlled way," adds Crichton. "Being an established agency, MediaCom couldn't pull off the raw plywood startup look, and it wouldn't have been right for them." The designers' version appears on millwork, wall finishes, and on exposed non-structural beams in the reception area, boardroom, and bistro ceilings-a nod to the client's original wish for a brick and beam loft space.

The next challenge the HOK design team addressed was to create an open office floor plan, which, although a client mandate, was not initially greeted with universal staff approval. "Everyone in this space has a 10 by 10 workspace, including the CEO and CFO," explains Bergeron, "and that's a pretty bold move." Indeed, there are no offices on the perimeter, and views are open to everyone. What's more, only one size workstation was specified. "At first there were doubts and complaints, but when they came in they said they ‘saw the light'-literally and figuratively," adds Bergeron.

According to Crichton, the benefits of an open plan far outweigh the closed environment-as long as heads-down working requirements are addressed. "Open plan is not just a trend. We want clients to understand how open plan can meet the needs of their employees," he says.

In the case of MediaCom's new space, the open environment was designed to increase collaboration and provide maximum penetration of daylight while maximizing access to downtown views. Perimeter workstations have 46-inch-high panels that offer privacy to the occupant when seated and unobstructed sightlines when standing. And private offices with glazed doors are relegated to the interior.

"The issue with open office is not disruptions," says Bergeron, "it is boring landscape, and the new challenge in a wide open concept is to make it look anything but repetitious." The HOK designers created "neighborhoods" to break up the monotony. The original uniform ceiling system was updated with a narrow-profile, T-Bar surface that has a cleaner, less textured tile that evokes drywall. Dropped drywall canopies with acoustical tile delineate workstation zones and neighborhood meeting rooms. "We used lighting and dropped ceiling planes so that the ceiling becomes topography and creates interest ... it gets away from that downtown high-rise, base-building ceiling look," notes Bergeron.

As organizations realize the benefits of the collaboration process, they are providing more semi-private meeting places like MediaCom's bistro, the communal hub of the entire space. The two-story room includes a kitchen
and servery, coffee station, custom-designed harvest tables, and various seating groupings for dining and lounging. The bistro is indicative of the trend to design workspaces that mimic life spaces, according to Crichton. "Today, people can work in coffee shops, at home, in an airport ... as designers we need to plan for how the next generation will be working, and to be accepting of those changes," he explains. "Advertising has always been more accepting of free thinking and unconventional work styles, but now we're even seeing financial institutions moving in this direction."

Ten to 15 years ago, a space like MediaCom's bistro was not technologically viable, the designers point out. "We planned the space to have a kitchen table, a couch, residential lighting and Wi-Fi all over," says Bergeron. "Not everyone at MediaCom has a laptop, but many do. There are always people in the bistro eating, holding formal and informal meetings-there's even a little bench under the staircase that's used as a cocoon space."

Bergeron designed the room so that all the furniture is different, but everything goes together. "The trick is to avoid specifying only all light furniture because the pieces will get moved around and the space will look messy," she explains. "There are several heavy pieces here that anchor the space. The banquettes, for instance, are too heavy to move easily. A room with a balance of heavy and light pieces always retains a sense of order."

Before HOK's interior remodeling, a spiral staircase hung on rods and connected what are now MediaCom's two floors. "It was clattery and atrociously ugly," says Bergeron, noting that the upside was an opening between the floors that was twice as big as today's building code allows. She shrunk the opening slightly to straighten its curve and installed a new staircase with sleek, bent-plate risers and treads. In addition, the clean lines are less obstructive of city views.

Though the design mandate was to showcase the urban environment and expansive downtown panorama, the client wanted to close off the main boardroom to accommodate private meetings. Instead, Bergeron proposed the boardroom be screened with Magic Glass from D2S, a product that transforms glass walls from transparent to opaque with the flip of a switch. "Conceptually, the space is urban, and we wanted to keep the connection to the city," says Crichton.

"During meetings, when confidential matters are not being discussed, the glass remains transparent, giving multipurpose to a space that the client might formerly have had to devote two individual spaces to," he explains.
"The sight of the busy boardroom, with people gesturing at charts and graphs, adds a sense of buzz to the office," adds Bergeron. "It is a passive form of advertising that reinforces what they do."

The designers approached MediaCom's workplace lighting using cues from residential design. "At home, you don't have even, harsh bright light, so we created zones to get away from the big institutional office feel," notes Bergeron. In the as-found space, everything was lit evenly with fluorescents, and everything was washed out, she recalls. "I feel that if you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing, so we created light and dark pockets as we do in hospitality lighting to add drama and mood."

"Designers have been over lighting offices for years," says Crichton, "but recent studies show that lower light levels reduce fatigue by reducing contrast." He says a heightened awareness of sustainable design principles and how light affects people (as well as energy consumption) influenced the MediaCom lighting selection.

"The quality of light is important, so light levels are lower than the 50-foot candles that are the generally accepted standard for office lighting," adds Crichton. "People at computer monitors don't need or want an ultra bright space: We targeted the brightest light for work areas, tapered it down between workstations, and kept it lower in the reception area and in corridors," notes Bergeron.

Except for the six iconic, mid-century modern George Nelson Bubble lamps in the bistro area, no incandescent bulbs were specified. Most illumination is furnished by efficient T5 or T8 fluorescent tubes mounted in suspended fixtures that provide indirect lighting, and by compact fluorescent lamps. Halogen and metal halide add sparkle to the feature spaces.

As with the lighting plan, the color palette graduates from a dark interior to a light, bright exterior, drawing the eye toward the city views. Neutral, deep taupes predominate in the core of the space, but give way to a progressively lighter palette toward the perimeter, making that zone appear lighter, brighter and sunnier.

The experience of walking throughout the space is enhanced by intuitive wayfinding provided by pops of color. Flooring and other permanent surfaces use neutrals; private offices have a burnt orange back wall; the bistro is acid yellow-green; and common areas feature red accents.

Like the color wayfinding system, function was a driver in much of HOK's design decisions. "Most of the things Annie and the team have created are a byproduct of MediaCom's functional requirements," says Crichton. He points to louvered panels along corridors that are basically a window treatment, but are also a design solution because fins can be turned for privacy. Another example, garage doors in the bistro, roll up to give 100 percent openness, unlike doors that have to be ajar to let in light. "Functional requests provide design opportunities," he poignantly concludes.

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Above: Facing north from MediaCom's elevator lobby, visitors spy expansive downtown vistas. Glass is used throughout the two-and-a-half story space to allow light to filter in from the perimeter, and neutral tones in the core are accented with pops of color. (larger image)
Above: Corridors leading to the bistro display HOK's innovative use of louvered panels, and a combination of honed and flashed stone for color contrast. Fluorescent tubes mounted in suspended fixtures provide interesting ceiling topography. (larger image)Below: Neighborhoods were incorporated into the open plan with combinations of open work stations and meeting rooms identified by their bright orange walls and fronts by DIRTT Environmental Solutions. (larger image)
Above: To achieve MediaCom's request for "democracy of light" the open workstations have 46-inch-high panels that offer privacy to the occupant when seated and unobstructed sightlines when standing. (larger image)
Above: The "servery" in MediaCom's bistro is designed to give staff a relaxed, homey atmosphere and includes residential appliances, countertop laminates by ABET LAMINATI, and a kitchen island with barstools. (larger image)
Above: The double-height bistro is the hub of the new workplace, featuring iconic, mid-century George Nelson bubble lamps, custom fir harvest tables, and meeting space that is defined with Amstel garage doors that muffle sound but also provide 100 percent openness when raised. (larger image)Below: HOK created a contemporary, open feel by replacing a spiral staircase with one by MOGG Constructive that allows for less obstruction of city views and boasts sleek, bent-plate risers and treads. (larger image)
Above: Designed to enhance collaboration between employees and provide work spaces that mimic coffee shops and home environments, the bistro has a myriad of conversation groups, a mélange of Herman Miller seating options, and wall-mounted audiovisual equipment by Spark. (larger image)
AUDIO/VIDEO EQUIPMENTSpark | 1(613) 277-5557GARAGE DOORSAmstel | 2(800) 663-6206FURNITUREHerman Miller | 3, 4(416) 366-3300OFFICE FRONTSDIRTT Environmental Solutions | 5(403) 723-5000STAIRCASEMOGG Constructive | 6(905) 696-9828HARDWARETrillium Architectural
| 7(416) 391-5555CARPETInterface | 8(416) 504-8100STONE FLOORING
Enmar Stone
(905) 660-4922
(416) 674-0327
PAINTBenjamin Moore | 12(416) 766-1173

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Toronto ON M5G 1Z3


720 King St. W., Ste. 505
Toronto, ON M5V 2T3

Don Crichton, VP workplace solutions
Deborah Sperry, team leader
Annie Bergeron, workplace design leader
Tanya Martin, interior designer

Jones Lang LaSalle

Marant Construction

Hidi Rae

Schollen & Co.

Richard Johnson

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