A creative agency locked away their phones and computers for a day and actually got more productive

What would you do?
What would you do?
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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Cincinnati might have more marketing brainpower per capita than any other American city. The global headquarters of consumer packaged goods giant Procter and Gamble is here, so the ancillary firms are legion, and one of the biggest is LPK, an employee-owned branding agency with 95 years of history.

When you’re redesigning or inventing products for million-dollar brands, your creative team has to be in top shape. (LPK has clients including giants such as P&G, Bayer and Nestle, though the exact projects they work on are confidential.) And your relationships have to be tight: Client service is a huge component of any agency.

So LPK had an idea: Unplug the company for a day and get down to brass tacks. Certainly many people have attempted to go unplugged for a day or a month to recharge their batteries and report on the experience. But I couldn’t find any examples of entire companies trying to go offline for a day. So I went downtown.

The tech turn-in

LPK’s Cincinnati offices flank Piatt Park, a slim green space that wouldn’t be out of place in lower Manhattan. (They’ve also got offices in London, Geneva, Guangzhou and Singapore.) The main building is on the south side of the park, and the Brand Innovation Center, a former senior center turned LPK conference facility, was the site of the tech turn-in, a lockable room to be guarded by an office administrator.

It takes a lot of preparation to be unplugged: Setting up out of office messages, printing off copies of anything you need to work on from the server, remembering to bring a watch that works. (Pro tip: If you can’t find a watch, carry around your full-sized kitchen clock like Flava Flav.)

People parting with their devices attached nametags to them and themselves and stacked the laptops and smartphones on a large table. “I just need 10 more minutes with my device,” a woman said as she scrolled. “I have to find a real phone to call London at 11:30—is there one in this building?” one marketing team member asked as another changed all of LPK’s social media account images to reflect their offline status before her laptop ran out of battery. “I’m having second thoughts,” a latecomer said. “I’m supposed to build a Powerpoint deck today.”

The firm planned ahead to ensure every moment of the unplugged day was documented: A freelance videographer exempt from being unplugged was filming interviews with a digital camera. One woman took snaps with a Fuji Instax Mini camera to create an analog Instagram stream; a makeshift social media wall of butcher paper and markers lined the hallway of the third floor; someone brought a 10-pack of disposable film cameras from Amazon.

Disconnected from their usual feeds, two communications people walk to a bookstore to get the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Cincinnati Enquirer, documenting the three-block journey with an old-school Hi8 camcorder. On the elevator as they returned, a freelancer was arriving for the day and told the unplugged: “I’m holding. Are you jealous?”

The naming session

A naming brainstorm for a client’s new eyewear product was powered by paperback thesauri and Post-Its rather than laptops and projectors. As a project lead described the results of field research with customers and salespeople, and copywriters called out portmanteaus and puns, I noticed hulking Yellow Pages hiding under the cart the speakerphone is on; the directories were from 2007.

LPK is often a silent partner in the development of a new product for a client. The scope and details of the eyewear project is confidential, but I can tell you that millions of customers will be seeing it next year.

The copywriters and project managers made analogies to pizza, cars and beer. “Should we remove the vowels?” There are no bad ideas in these brainstorms; even an idea the copywriter offered with a disclaimer goes on the board as potentially workable. “Or with a Q instead of a K to make it sound smarter.” One guy who recently worked on a shapewear account had a lot of synonyms for thin to add to the mix.

I was mostly unplugged in solidarity, writing in a Field Notes cahier and using a vintage Polaroid camera for eight select shots. But in a meeting-induced boredom reflex, I pulled out my phone to check my notifications (there were very few, and none of any importance whatsoever) and immediately felt like a cad for doing so. “Our whole point was to make people feel like assholes,” Chief Creative Officer Nathan Hendricks later joked.

The trend forecasters

The sixth floor of LPK was especially unplugged: The recently renovated space has no landlines at all, so the intercom system used to page people on other floors was useless. (Rumor had it that someone was running down messages from the seventh floor when necessary.)

This is where the trend department of LPK lives, and it is intense: Their trend analysts regularly create five- and 10-year forecasts for clients, identifying large cultural movements and influences that will affect consumers’ lives. Research into the past is key to determining the future: They create “backcasts” by digging through old issues of magazines to see how the trajectories of past trends have played out.

Sometimes clients have them monitor trends and scrape web data; what they’re after is the global zeitgeist, the metatrends. By monitoring shifts in values, they can see trends emerge and predict how future events can inform clients’ decisions today, tomorrow or in 10 years. The team recently did a 50-year forecast for a client; the analysts read a lot of science fiction to digest how the way we imagine the future has changed in the past 20 years.

Tech has decentralized the generation of trends and has accelerated the churn. The general lifespan of a trend—often starting in fashion, then going to beauty and home décor before landing in the baby care and pet care spaces—is getting shorter. That trend diffusion used to take two or three years; now it can happen in eight months to a year, creative director Bryan Goodpaster tells me.

The economic downturn majorly shifted values. A series of charts in one of the trend war rooms outlines seven big categories they’ve identified, each broken down to three or four macro trends, with micro trends under each of those. (The micro trends are what you’d actually see on the pages of Vogue or morning talk shows.)

Many of the products the trends team is working on won’t go to market for another decade. So is LPK predicting trends or prescribing them? It’s hard to say.

The pattern makers

On the same floor, designers specializing in patterns and prints are working on creating a pattern that evokes LPK itself. Pattern creation is an exercise they do for clients all the time but are just now doing for themselves. It’s especially essential in the baby care and feminine care spaces; I spot a foam-core board covered in unfurled maxipads nearby.

The in-house pattern project kicked off last month with coloring books of sorts sent to their international offices. The team developed their own ideas, based on five concepts, and they’re now tearing apart the books to add the ideas to the mix.

The creative team—all women, most of them young—seem to have a uniform of skinny jeans and boots. (Other departments trend all-black euro-cool or lumbersexual.) Some of them sit cross-legged on the floor as people talk about the patterns on the 3×5-foot boards they’ve developed. An intern braids colored pipe cleaners into analog watches and friendship bracelets. “Can you make me one with a sundial?” creative director Jenny Sauer asks. The intern offers one to Hendricks, who has poked his head in, and he says, “Yes.”

After the team has talked through the iterations, it’s time to powerdot—everyone gets three hot-pink stickers to vote for the concepts they can’t live without. The goal is to create 100% ownable artwork for LPK. The team often buys artwork they manipulate to create on-trend patterns for clients, but for this project they want the final result to be all them. The pattern will be added to the brand’s toolbox, for presentations, internal documents and their upcoming website redesign. “It’s playful, but it’s also serious business,” Sauer says. “We want to avoid being really corporate and boring but not so off-the-wall that people can’t see themselves in it.”

The reconnection

The device room wasn’t supposed to reopen until 4pm, but I am notified on a walkie-talkie that the doors have opened early because some people had to leave. This causes a bit of a reconfiguration of plans. They want to make the release dramatic for their documentarian: “I want a military tarmac moment,” Hendricks says.

Sitting in the device room after they’ve shut the doors again, all of the phones start buzzing and beeping for the 15-minute reminder of when everyone can have their devices back. Though I did look at my phone a number of times throughout, I didn’t touch my MacBook Air once; the only thing I got for lugging around my three pound security blanket was a back spasm.

All told, about half of the more than 200 employees at LPK’s Cincinnati headquarters unplugged; many in London and Geneva joined in, and a select few from the Asia offices disconnected in solidarity. Since many employees were going to be out of the office for the holidays after Friday, some couldn’t pull themselves away from their computers. But most of them got creative: The feminine care group did an offline brainstorming session about—get this—digital audits.

Creative work largely happens offline anyways, but without tech distractions, you work much more efficiently. One executive said all of her meetings ran 15 minutes short of their scheduled times. “Meetings went a lot faster because everyone was paying attention,” says Vice President Amy Steinmetz, who usually is based in London and Geneva. Rather than creating a massive slide deck to give her year-end European financial update, she sketched out the bullet points on a single piece of paper and photocopied it. She presented it in four minutes. Another employee reported connecting with his coworkers more, rather than turning to Pinterest or Twitter any time he was bored.

Some found being unplugged refreshing and freeing; others found it anxiety-inducing. One designer estimated she spent a cumulative hour of her day just walking around the building trying to find people she needed to talk to. Staffers coped in different ways: One wrote texts to her boyfriend on sticky notes to give him when she got home. Another put a Post-it pad in her back pocket as an ersatz phone.

When the device room doors opened at 4, staffers excitedly grabbed for their phones and then seemed disappointed that the world didn’t end without them. “No new notifications,” one reported. “I’m apparently not that popular.” “My first message: ‘Check your email.’” “Three emails, no texts. Dumb. Stupid. Put me down for another 24 hours.”