tables and chairs in front of mirrored wall accents
COURTESY JUSTIN MACONOCHIE

BDG Redesigns a Detroit Power Plant for the World’s Largest Ad Agency

For a new headquarters in Motor City, WPP commissioned its subsidiary architecture firm to reimagine a downtown industrial building.

British advertising agency WPP, the largest firm of its kind in the world, has been on a mission to refresh its image and consolidate its offices across the globe. The latest of these projects gathers an assortment of WPP-owned agencies and companies in Detroit and its suburbs under one roof in the downtown Detroit neighborhood of Greektown. For a new home WPP selected the ten-story Marquette Building, which was designed in 1905 by Rogers & MacFarlane in what was then Detroit’s Financial District as a steam-heat-generating plant. To modernize the looming brick building, WPP tapped the New York office of London-based architecture firm BDG architecture + design, which developed a plan to revamp the building’s interior and transform it into an office that could accommodate all 1,200 of WPP’s employees in the Detroit area

office interior atrium in historic building
Located in the Marquette Building, a former steam-heat-generating plant built in 1905, the new downtown Detroit offices of WPP are heavy on industrial chic. For design services, the firm went in-house, tapping the New York office of BDG, an architecture studio owned by WPP. COURTESY PHIL HUTCHINSON

WPP took on its sprawling multinational form through the acquisition of dozens of smaller companies, including ad agencies J. Walter Thompson and the Ogilvy Group in the late 1980s. It now employs 130,000 creatives in more than 100 countries. In recent years, it accumulated so many marketing, branding, PR, tech, and commercial entities spread among countless offices that it had begun to identify itself more as a holding company than a unified brand. As part of an ongoing mission to streamline operations and clean up its own image—partially a response to questions about the ethics of working for oil corporations and lawsuits against some of their fossil fuel clients like Chevron for misrepresenting themselves as sustainable—WPP has been purchasing older buildings and adapting them for use as energy-efficient, “on-brand” headquarters. 

“This is part of a global transformation strategy that has been in process for a number of years now,” says Guy Rockingham, head of project and development management, EMEA, at WPP. “Before we had an inefficiency through being in many different buildings just through the history of how the group came to be, with lots of different smaller companies and smaller entities.”

murals on in an office hallway, opposite glass-walled meeting rooms
Artworks by local artists adorn several walls of the new office, forging a connection to Detroit’s thriving creative scene. The Motor City’s aesthetics also come through in streamlined curves, chrome details, and industrial finishes. COURTESY JUSTIN MACONOCHIE

The Marquette building had already been gutted and was under renovation by a real estate developer when WPP set its sights on the steel structure clad in red brick, accented by a row of round-arched windows and terra-cotta bands. BDG—itself owned by WPP and active in 20 projects with that firm to reshuffle its global portfolio of office spaces—reimagined the building as a central campus for WPP-owned ad agencies GTB and VMLY&R. GTB has a long-established relationship with the Ford Motor Company, and other Detroit-area WPP brands include Hudson Rouge, Zubi, Xaxis, Barrows, and Icon Mobile. 

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“They really wanted to shift the focus of the business…to a company for creative transformation,” says Colin Macgadie, chief creative officer at BDG. “Part of that was reestablishing connections with existing clients.” He explains that the move downtown demonstrates to clients like Ford that the WPP brands are embracing the new thinking and new ideas that are driving Detroit’s ongoing transformation. 

An elevator delivers visitors from the street to the top floor, where tall windows offer views of Detroit and the recently redesigned riverfront a half mile south. An atrium cut through the tenth level peers down to a cafeteria, a lounge, and social spaces below. The floors are polished concrete, with offices decked in gray 

couches in flex office space, iron columns are visible
The new offices will give all 1,000-plus Detroit WPP employees a home base and ample opportunities to collaborate and cross-pollinate their ideas. The office areas of the building feature rows of desks and monitors, sure, but the designers paid special attention to collaborative areas like meeting rooms, areas for whiteboarding ideas, and alternative work locations such as sofas and armchairs. COURTESY JUSTIN MACONOCHIE

carpeting. Steel columns have been reinforced, painted white, and left exposed. Artworks commissioned from Detroit designers animate the walls with color and life, and custom lights evoke the car culture themes of movement and polished chrome. 

“I know my design team in New York took inspiration from a lot of those visits. We introduced arches not just because of the arches in our building but because arches are prevalent in the historical architecture downtown,” says Macgadie. “We began to riff off of the context of the downtown environment as best we could without it becoming a pastiche or too clichéd.”

The move is another step in a moment of extraordinary change for downtown Detroit. A flood of 1,000 new office workers will utterly transform the environment of that corner of the city, yet the public transportation infrastructure lags far behind, bringing a daily onrush of automobiles and customers for local businesses that have survived. If the city can keep up, adapt, and spread the wealth, WPP’s new headquarters may turn out to be much more than a simple rebranding exercise. 

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