· 10 min read · Features

The company that creatives would die for


Lou Burrows, HHCLs HR director, talks to Joy Persaud about her passion for HR, and explains how her teams strategies have helped make the ad agency such an exhilarating place to work

HHCL... sounds a bit like a substance youd find knocking about in a chemistry lab. In fact, after spending half a day there I felt like Id been fed a range of chemicals, shaken up, set alight and tossed out the window in an exhilarating free fall before hitting the ground of the real world with the thought, Why arent all workplaces like this? circling around my head like stars.

Rumours abound about advertising agencies and other creative professions being in a bit of another world compared to more mundane fields, but even in the arena of ad agencies, HHCL, based in Londons West End, regards itself as, well, being in a world of its own. Thats not a criticism but HHCL doesnt deny that it has a reputation for being different. All its literature is stamped with the phrase professional radicals. Although radical sounds like the adjective that ad folk would prefer to aspire to, professionalism is also key. HHCL considers radicalism without professionalism as a no-no and, as a consequence, attracts people with several years experience in the industry who go to HHCL as a last step on the advertising career ladder.

Walking into the agency is like stepping straight into the brain of an organisation and watching the synapses firing. Theres no obvious reception area. It isnt signposted (a deliberate move designed to confuse visitors), which I find slightly irritating, and it takes a moment to ascertain that Im in the right place to meet HHCLs HR director, Lou Burrows.

The reception area, known as Centrepoint, is light-filled, colourful and airy. Theres a constant hum of conversation as people mill around and theres a sense of movement a by-product of the no internal phone calls rule (everyone has a mobile). Within minutes, Ive been approached by three people asking me whether I want a drink. There are elements of Stepford but if theres a sinister side, its well hidden.

Burrows is a cheerful, busy, buzzy woman with an obvious passion for the company at which shes worked for four years. She takes me on a tour of the place which involves stopping off at different floors of the building, most of which is owned by HHCL. The physical environment is regarded as extremely important and HR plays an active role in planning the building so that maximum creativity and productivity is achieved.

No one has their own desk or office, regardless of the position they hold. Its a hot-deskers paradise and is organised into areas that allow employees to choose to work in the quiet, or in a noisier, more social area. Or, they can go to the companys caf and plug themselves in there. Every-one has their own locker, reminiscent of school but without the smell. Rows of computers are arranged in streets along corridors to encourage people to stop; there are even knee- and elbow-height padded benches to make it comfortable to perch or lean. Among the varied options are starkly-decorated, soundproof rooms to which employees can escape to work alone in peace and quiet, as well as a range of meeting rooms.

Theres the Yellow Room, which is chairless and ideal for relatively quick chats, and there are other rooms dotted around the place in a variety of environments to suit every possible working mood. One meeting room on the uppermost floor is raised off the ground, has glass walls and a glass roof which slides back to reveal sky at the touch of a button. Says Burrows: You are really thinking about yourself physically here. But it would be the job from hell for people who want structures or dont like change.

People who havent worked in creative industries have very little idea of the stresses involved in using your imagination. Imagination is just like a muscle like any other muscle in your body it needs exercising. It needs to be looked after. They need the right environment, the right stimulation. Its very easy to think, Ah, creatives, they just sit around and have ideas... But its a very difficult job.

Some parts of the premises are still being developed because the company is expanding rapidly and the need for office space is ballooning. Plans include a beach where staff will be able to just sit and read or relax if they wish. If you wake up one morning and decide you dont want to trek to the office, you can work from home, or simply go to the caf opposite HHCL to work. Conveniently, the company has set up a dish to beam data from the agency into the caf so that staff can use their wireless laptops from there. In Spanking Gorgeous, the firms trendy caf, there is a row of jazzy computers so employees can experiment with new technology and play games.

Burrows says that other HR people visiting the firm always ask how she knows where everyone is. She doesnt. I dont clock when people come in. I dont care when they get in; I care about what they do workwise. We dont monitor emails or anything like that; not at all. They are totally trusted to get on with their jobs. We have free fruit and drinks around the building and there is free alcohol, which staff can have after 6pm. People dont abuse it.

On my first day, my colleague was showing me around and opened the stationery cupboard. She said it contained video tapes and other expensive items. If you want to nick it, you can. But that just means youre a sad fuck, she said, laughs Burrows. HHCL does not offer perks such as private offices and membership of elite clubs, which are standard fare at many ad agencies. Partnership is a benefit to which employees can aspire, she says, adding that those at HHCL are selected by existing partners because they are deemed excellent at their core skills. Holding the position purely for a touch of glory and the cash that goes with it is not the aim, says Burrows.

HHCLs people team (Burrows refers to the term HR as human remains several times during the interview) treats the workplace as a health club. If a member dropped a towel on the floor, she says, you wouldnt go and bollock them, youd think, We need more pegs. Its that type of relationship with people.

If people are not coming into work because they are not happy, then thats our problem. We have a formal appraisal programme. And when its time for your appraisal, because we dont have a hierarchy, we get 10 or 12 people away on an appraisal breakfast. They go out and our development person, Alison, a consultant, spends three hours with them.

The reason we do it that way is so that at the end of the morning, I have 12 completed assessments. Second, theres someone there with whom they can have a quiet chat. Also, its important to have a mix of people there. You choose two reflectors one you work with and someone else you dont so you get views from different sides.

We are in the talent market and the client market; HHCL is where those two markets get to meet one another. So we are like talent brokers and if we havent got the right talent then we arent going to get the clients. In the last four years, we have had four people leave to go to other agencies and of those, three have come back.

She says that the leadership team will drop clients if the creatives believe that the work is not breaking new ground even if the client in question is a money-spinner. In every agency in town, theres the shit accounts, so people spend their lives saying, I must perform, I must perform because they dont want to be put on that account because its just the cash cow of the agency, and they keep a bit quiet about it because it makes money. Well, we dont have any accounts like that. We cant afford to because of the talent here. We often pick up people who are dissatisfied and want to leave the industry.

People come in with this idea that we are a bit like the Moonies; theres all these myths going around and then they come in and go, Its normal really. But one of the great turn-offs for me is when you meet someone and they think its all great and cant wait to start because they think that its just how things should be. No, you want people who are going to come in and say, Thats a bit daft.

One of the funny things is when a new person comes in and gets their head down for three months and then theyll say, I dont think this is good and theyre expecting someone to say, Well, its like this because... but what theyll get is someone saying, Thats really interesting; how about you take that on as a project and well look at it? And they go, Ooh, oh, okay.

Burrows was on the board of a design consultancy when she realised she was more interested in people than products. After launching people culture projects, she did an MA in people management and then joined HHCL.

When I joined, there was a small leadership team. There was nobody in charge of growth and development and training. Now theres a team of five. I have introduced a huge amount of organisation behind the scenes. The area Im most interested in is employee branding. You speak to some HR people where its all tea, sympathy and Tampax but Ive never viewed it like that. Also, its a management position so its linked with HHCL goals. People say, Ah people are our greatest assets and then they do nothing structurally.

Here [HR is] very, very integrated and its very important that we are leading the way on standards of people. Thats why we are spending twice what the next highest spending competitor does on training and development. Training is bespoke to our agency and our trainers are not allowed to train for any competitors for 18 months because we want to make sure we are training ahead of the game.

At the end of their first year at HHCL, everyone receives entitlement to 13 weeks unpaid leave. At the end of the third year, they are entitled to another 13 weeks. Benefits continue to be paid. Other perks include the use of the on-site stressbuster and treatment centre, the Calm Club, where people can chill out. Unsurprisingly for an advertising agency, HHCL prides itself on getting messages across to its staff. It puts up A-boards (sandwich boards) when necessary and has inset coloured panels in the otherwise standard brown wooden floor to direct staff attention to company announcements or initiatives.

When faced with releasing pension details, Burrows says: We thought bloody hell this is so boring. How on earth are we going to communicate this stuff? So we thought I know, well ask the creative team and get Keith, who is one of our oldest guys whom everybody knows, to launch it. People want to read it, its a brilliant laugh.

On the first day, employees are given a guardian to explain facts such as why they cant make an internal phone call. They have a rigorous induction with regular follow-ups by HR and there are starters, drinks, all carefully planned, but also casual.

Coming to HHCL is a shock to the system, smiles Burrows. We say to people, You will hit a wall when you join. Its a bit like a curve you do all your inductions and youll be up and then youll hit problems. Youll suddenly find you ask, How do I operate in this environment? Wheres all my stuff? Im used to having a desk. We encourage people to talk to other people.

A lot of people cant get used to the paper-free environment as theyve never had an IT department they can rely on. Youd know youd be stuffed if you didnt have a hard copy... But anything important you can get scanned in and we have massive storage facilities off-site. You can ring up and within an hour you can have your box back. But when people join, they have to hang on to all this security they had before. But little by little they let go.

Some people take to it like a duck to water; some take longer. The two people who havent stayed past six months in the past year are people who talk about collaboration and they say, Yeah great. Why wouldnt you? It sounds very sensible. Its a very hard thing to say no to. Or they say, I dont need hierarchy, Im self-driven. But actually, when it came down to it those people were not self-disciplined. When one left he said it was a great learning experience because, Everything Ive done was either because a chief exec was waiting for it, or because my clients waiting for it. Im much better in a structured hierarchical environment.

The other person couldnt manage conflict and would get very, very agitated when things didnt go her way. It was just causing her too much stress. She was seen as someone who was resistant to new ideas.

Burrows admits that when she joined she wanted to quit as it was completely bizarre. One of the things I struggled with was the concept of positive intent. Its absolutely core to the business. What it means is that whatever [negative characteristics] you find in another person, you must engage positive intent. I came from a culture where there was black and white thinking and there was no room to disobey the brief.

From day one, the founders of HHCL wanted a climate of excitement, creativity. What can get in the way of that is fear, and fear comes from being judged, from not being able to say what you want. So I did think positive intent was really interesting, watching this culture, hearing people say, Come on, wheres your positive intent hat? It comes naturally after a while when you are surrounded by people who are very positive and interested in what you are doing.

Its very catching. You dont get the bitchiness here. You dont get cliques. You get groups of people who have interests but thats fine.

She says that HHCL employees work very collaboratively, that the creatives, for instance, are not these hairy-arsed people that youve got to try and get work through. And rather than a traditional, baton-like approach where work goes from one department to another, everyone is involved, including the client, says Burrows. We look for clients who have a matched competitive agenda. If you are about making major change, great, we are too. If you are about doing a one-off campaign and are not looking for anything radical, dont work with us: were not right for you.

We also do client induction in the same way we do for staff. Like when British Airways came to us and said we want to launch a new airline, Go, it happened here. We worked as a team together. Some clients want an agency to wine and dine them. We are not like that we are very challenging to work with. And the work is never going to be mediocre.

Burrows says working at HHCL is akin to spinning plates on sticks. She has benefited from the companys openness to help its staff grow by setting up her own consultancy, Braveheart. It is under this hat that she works at HHCL three days a week.

In five years, I imagine HHCL will still be leading the industry, spawning more incubator groups. Another agency tried to put into practice our way of working but it wasnt successful. Those people at that agency went there thinking it was going to be a certain type of job. It was total anarchy.

In the past, a lot of entrepreneurial people from HHCL have gone on and done their own thing. There are lots of opportunities to go on. Personally, I love this job and I would not do it for any other agency.