BOOKS: St Luke's Gospel

BOOKS: St Luke's Gospel - Does the ad agency's Utopian management style offer lessons? A few, says Warwick Cairns

by Warwick Cairns, an advertising strategist and planner at AbbottMead Vickers BBDO
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Does the ad agency's Utopian management style offer lessons? A few, says Warwick Cairns

EXPERIMENT AT WORK; by Andy Law; Profile Books; pounds 15.00

This is a book about an ad agency called St Luke's, written by its founding partner and chairman (and now its ex-chairman - of which more later).

St Luke's broke with its US parent company, set itself up as a co-operative, and instituted a regime of unconventional working practices, ranging from doing away with offices and personal desks to paying for staff to take courses in Indian head massage, to giving the building a makeover every few months.

Experiment at Work's aims are signalled by its packaging, a cookbook-cum-Haynes Manual, with ruled pages for notes and a faux-naif techno-folksy cover (cross-stitch sampler meets Space Invaders). You should take inspiration, it implies, from the agency's example and use it as a guide to doing something similar yourself.

To make sure you don't miss the point that St Luke's should inspire you, the book includes a roll-call of the great and the good, the humble and the ex-otic, who have come to them in search of ideas. Gorbachev, Clinton, Anita Roddick and Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics have all benefited from, and added to, the St Luke's magic, we learn, as have 'tribes up the Amazon that have stopped procreating because their homelands are devastated'.

I didn't see Sting's name in the list: no doubt this is an oversight. But it can be safely assumed that the absence of Norman Tebbit is probably intentional.

It becomes clear, on reading the book, that the agency, though priding itself on its freshness and experimentation, belongs firmly in the tradition of English Utopianism that stretches from William Morris to George Bernard Shaw to AS Neill and the Progressive School movement. Each, in their time, were iconoclastic; each championed new approaches - some of which found their way into the mainstream; and each was convinced that they represented The Future. But like all experimenters, they got it wrong at least as often as they got it right.

There are a lot of good things about the St Luke's approach. I don't know about you, but I would rather like to be offered a no-strings one-month sabbatical after five years. Similarly, if someone offered me the time and money to start a new hobby, for the sake of making me more interesting, I'd jump at it. And the evidence is that things like this work: at number 25 in the Campaign Top 100, St Luke's is doing well in business terms, and it has a higher level of employee satisfaction and a lower staff 'churn' rate than many of its more conventional rivals.

However, I'd also tend to be a little sceptical of things like the agency's claims to have done away with basic human instincts like 'fear, greed and ego' by the simple method of outlawing them in the contract of employment, particularly since the author himself has just resigned after 'a difference of opinion' in the boardroom to spend more time on a music-business venture with Anita Roddick and Dave Stewart.

The most striking aspect of the book for me, however - name-dropping and head-massaging aside - was the concept of 'negative capability' - the idea that people and organisations are most able to adapt creatively to a changing environment if they are able to cope with not having a ready-made process laid down by head office for dealing with every eventuality. There's not enough of that about, and businesses in general could do with more of it - whether they go in for hot-desking or not.

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