The lights went out on Monday night at longtime ad veteran Brian Martin's apartment, but he wasn't aware he'd find the same scenario at work until he arrived at Project Worldwide's headquarters on Madison Square Park in Manhattan the next morning. And that's when the panic set in.
Not only was the shop in the midst of prepping for a big pitch involving multiple agencies under the Project Worldwide banner, but staffers from all over the country—from San Francisco to Tennessee to Rochester, New York—had flown in for the task. And now they were trapped.
"I knew we had all these people coming in, and when I got to the office and tried to go upstairs, the doorman laughed at me," Martin said. "Even if you could make it to the 12th floor you couldn't get in because you have an electronic keycard," the doorman reminded him. Such is life in the electronic age.
As he walked back to his home to try and hatch a plan, Martin passed the Flatiron Hotel on West 26th Street. Noticing it had power and a TV in the lobby, he went in to watch the news and get an update on power outages. On a whim, he asked the front desk if they had a room, and when they were able to find 10, Martin booked them all on the spot, telling the front-desk workers: "We don't have an office, we don't have homes and we have this big pitch coming up."
The hurricane shut down many things—electricity, subways, schools—but in advertising, pitches may have gotten postponed, but not canceled. For Project, the hotel's lobby doubles as a conference room.
Fourth quarter is one of the busiest new-business times of the year. And while some work could be done remotely, pitch prep requires live interaction and rehearsal. Agencies got creative in finding new workspaces.
Twenty blocks uptown, Horizon Media was prepping for several big pitches as well, having created its own "pop-up" agency—grand ballroom and private conference rooms CEO Bill Koenigsberg rented at the Intercontinental Hotel on 48th Street and Lexington Avenue. "We do weddings as well," he joked.
The Varick Street building that houses the 650-person Horizon Media had lost power along with many other agency headquarters situated below 34th Street. After surveying the damage on Tuesday, Koenigsberg reserved the space in midtown to bring together employees in a workspace with electricity, food and water. They were busy with existing clients and preparing for new-business pitches, a few of which have been postponed until next week, he noted.
On Thursday morning, the ad hoc HQ housed about 100 employees—12 or so of those crammed into a pitch prep room—and more straggled in as the hotel began setting up a lunch buffet of sandwiches and salad for the employees. The space can support about 400 people.
"It's better to be under one roof," said Koenigsberg. "Interaction is important. We're doing a lot of conference calls, but it also gives people a sense of having a place to go, and there's internet and phone for the people without electricity."
The setup is expensive—the ballroom, food and hotel rooms for those in need of them costs the agency about $40,000 a day before interruption insurance kicks in—but worth it, when there are hundreds of employees and hundreds of millions in potential new business on the line. The firm's Los Angeles office has taken on some of the trafficking responsibilities and last-minute buys from clients who wanted to get on the air this week, he added.
Saatchi NY, located on Hudson Street, and KBS&P on Varick Street were among the other agencies making it work without an office.
Saatchi NY CEO Durk Barnhill told Ad Age that the firm, located downtown on Hudson Street, has rented two conference rooms at two hotels so its employees could prepare for the four pitches it's involved in. "We are hurting and Saatchi is without power and the majority of our people are as well," he said. "I visit them during the day to thank them for working through this tough time and help guide the pitches with Con [Williamson], our CCO, and Claudine [Cheever], our CSO."
"Nothing is impossible is our motto," he added. "We will get it done."
"Even in the age of mobility, the power outage across downtown New York brought communication to a halt for the better portion of [Tuesday], among both our staff and our clients who are based locally," said KBS&P CEO Lori Senecal via email. "It was a surreal experience for us."
Many of them made the trek uptown to parent company MDC Partners' headquarters, located below Central Park, to have a place to meet up and plug in phones and laptops.
"Members of our account teams and new-business teams who are working remotely are assembling over both email and conference calls and, in some instances, are planning local meetups. We expect this to continue until power is restored at 160 Varick, which according to the city, likely won't be until the weekend."
And, the fact is, clients based in the storm's path are in the same boat. "Since many clients and prospects are in the same boat they are postponing meetings for a few days," she said.
Other agencies, such as Attention USA on Varick Street and design firm Prophet, which is housed in the Flatiron District, were finding creative ways to get folks together, whether that's in coffee shops, colleagues' homes or public parks and plazas, like the one under the Brooklyn Bridge archway in Brooklyn's Dumbo neighborhood, where Prophet Senior Partner and Creative Director Peter Dixon set up shop to take advantage of the park's free Wi-Fi.
The media companies, which according to Horizon's Koenigsberg have been very cooperative this week, are facing their own challenges.
Forbes, whose editors saw that Sandy was forecast to hit on the same day that they were scheduled to finish closing their latest print edition, moved their deadlines up and called in employees on Sunday to finish the issue. Its website continues to churn out content—300 to 350 posts a day on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday—as employees worked remotely, said Lewis D'Vorkin, chief product officer, Forbes Media. "We're very virtual," said D'Vorkin, whose team is using distributed publishing tools and chat software Campfire to discuss assignments.
Meanwhile, New York Magazine said it will put out an issue this week, including about 20 pages of coverage on Hurricane Sandy, even though its downtown headquarters at Varick and Canal Streets remained in the dark. The editorial staff has been working from the midtown office of Wasserstein & Co., the firm that owns New York Media, a spokeswoman said. Editors on Thursday afternoon were working on remotely accessing the necessary layouts and files, she said.