Second Office, Second Chance

Tips for Sinking Roots 3,000 Miles Away

By Published on .

Phil Johnson Phil Johnson
I walked into our San Francisco office last week for the first time in six months, looking forward to meeting some new people who had joined the company. Fresh off the plane, I know that I had that dazed and confused look as I took note of all the changes since my last visit. As I was settling in, I overheard someone ask who I was, and the resulting answer that I must be the freelance studio guy. So much for my executive presence. Fortunately, my reputation as the scruffiest dresser in advertising remains intact.

Our San Francisco office has been growing quickly. When I visit I often get the strange sense I'm going back in time to the early days of the agency when we were building everything from scratch. The really cool thing about a second office is that you get to answer the question, "How would I do things differently?" Or, "Have I learned anything at all in the last 10 years?" A few observations:
  • Go senior. At the early stage, you need seasoned, versatile people who know the lay of the land, and the location of all the potholes. Such people are expensive, and there's a temptation to avoid those big salaries. But you need them to solve tough client problems and to win new business. It's better to fill in with junior people as you grow than try to insert new leadership in the middle of the game.

  • Fight like hell for a flagship account. Sure, you need the revenue that may come from small projects, but if you want to sink roots and win credibility in the local market, you've got to win a recognized account.

  • Get headquarters invested. When we first opened our San Francisco office, I asked another agency owner his advice for expanding into a new market. Without missing a beat, he said that we need senior management to spend one week a month in the new office. We've gone one step farther. The head of every department makes frequent trips to San Francisco. We've got an agency council from both offices that meets every week, and it's still hard.

  • Place is important. I don't mean you need extravagant or expensive real estate, or even the best address in town. You do need a good place that people like and that will help attract new staff. We're looking for a bigger space, and I want to make sure we find a neighborhood and building that makes people feel comfortable and happy to go to work.

  • Believe in the process. Do whatever it takes to transplant the best part of your agency's process to the new office. No detail is too small. Every hour you invest in training saves people from having to reinvent the wheel.

  • Choose function over image. There's a huge pull to make a big splash with expensive signage and grand reception areas. Don't waste your energy and resources looking cooler and bigger than you are. What's cool is a good light and a comfortable desk by the window.

  • Make it easy to work. Build infrastructure so that people have great IT, and all the tools to do good work. There's nothing better for morale, except for maybe free parking.

  • Mentor and share your knowledge. Then back off and let people run the show. If they don't have the goods, all the micromanaging in the world won't help you. Remember, you live 3,000 miles away.

  • Roll up your sleeves. An office doesn't take root and grow on its own. If you want it to succeed be ready to put in the same effort that you made the first time around.

  • Say no to Foosball. No pets. No Reiki. OK, I admit I once put a pool table in our office. Yes, it looked cool but eventually it turned into a workbench. We also let everyone bring dogs to work, and we had a Reiki therapist come in once a week. Then I came to me senses. The best thing you can do for your employees is to offer great opportunities, support them, and pay them well. And there's nothing wrong with a box of fresh donuts.
For the record, I'm proud that I look like a studio guy.
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