In Hot Downtown Detroit, Ad Agency Leads Revitalization

Jun 11 2014, 4:52pm CDT | by

When Ford Field opened in downtown Detroit 12 years ago to house the Detroit Lions, there were bigger plans to envision the site as a one-stop entertainment destination, with an on-site hotel and other attractions adjacent to the football field.

Instead, a planned space for a hotel — complete with a massive atrium — laid dormant for the last decade, with plans falling through with no tenant in sight. Other hotels flourished downtown, but owners of the stadium began to wonder if their space would ever be filled.

Enter Lowe Campbell Ewald, the venerable ad agency with deep ties to the automotive industry and its beginnings in Michigan. Long joined at the hip with General Motors, it had begun searching for in-city office space when it began to outgrow its suburban Detroit facility.

Lowe Campbell Ewald has begun settling in the space this year, and has brought with it more than 500 employees to a resurgent downtown Detroit. The move is one of several as power players push to fill a swath commercial vacancies that have ailed the city — and its image — in recent times.

“People are just generally more upbeat all around, and the other space, frankly, was not a creative, inspiring space, and that’s the business we’re in. We’re trying to get people’s creative juices going,” Jim Palmer, LCE’s CEO, tells Forbes on a recent tour of the space.

The agency leaves behind an office in Warren, Michigan’s third-largest city, it had moved into when General Motors moved its technical center to the suburb in the 1950s. LCE’s ancestral home is in Detroit, opening near GM’s original headquarters in the city’s New Center area north of downtown.

An unofficial agreement between both companies required them to be in close company, but with operations spread all over those sentiments have dissipated. LCE began making the case for an in-city move to its corporate administrators in New York a few years ago, predicting the current sea change in downtown Detroit.

The move seems to have paid off so far. The open space, punctuated by the large atrium, lends to more collaboration among the creatives working there, Palmer says. Cubicles in the Warren location stifled creativity; state-of-the-art whiteboards, lounges, studios and other modern workplace additions encourages it.

Reclaimed barn wood from demolished homes in the city are refurbished into desks and other workspaces, while wooden pallets are reimagined as tables. Leather-bound archives of the company’s ad campaigns, once locked away, are now on display for easy access. “All these collaboration areas just worked. It worked right from the get-go,” Kathleem Donald, LCE’s chief operating officer, says.

Ahead of the move, a few LCE employees put together a video encouraging other companies and potential residents to move to Detroit. The video started circulating right around the time Detroit became the largest city to file for municipal bankruptcy, but confronts such fears head-on.

“We’re Moving To Detroit, And So Should You,” announcing LCE’s then-impending move, was produced by LCE creative director Iain Lanivich and began spreading rapidly, earning he and other staffers speaking gigs at SXSW and other events. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder showed the video during an expedition to China.

The video was sort of a skunkworks project; it wasn’t seen as a companywide initiative. “It was a group of guys that really took on a project themselves, led by Iain Lainvich and company, and are just so determined to make this town go,” Palmer says.  “We didn’t know it would get sucked up in the scene, if you will.”

But it has earned LCE welcome attention and accolades for taking on Detroit. “People are proud to work at this company, and I think it has to do with the space,” Palmer says.

 
 

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