Cooking competitions and international hour: UK agency food culture

Food is taken seriously at agencies.

Whether it’s a way to bond, a team-building exercise or to showcase the company culture, agencies are making more than a meal out of food, the most primal communal activity.

At the top end of the scale, brand consultancy Wolff Olins employees chef Sam Youssef, previously from award-winning restaurant and media haunt, the Wolseley. Daily menus have included grilled leg of lamb and harissa, and seared tuna and pak choi, with homemade baklava and ice cream. Seasonal produce is grown from its own roof garden.

The canteen at Wolff Olins is meant to work as an extension of what it can offer to its clients, who include Enel, Virgin Active, and Orange among others, the culture this communal fine dining breeds is meant to be the agency’s selling point. As such, mobile phones are discouraged to prompt more open discussion and relaxation.

“It says a lot about what we believe and how we like to do things,” said global chief operating officer, Sairah Ashman. “Our work is entirely team based so it helps build the right kind of spirit and ethos.  You never know who’ll you’ll end up sitting next to or talking to.  You learn a lot, gain a new perspective and it’s a great way to stay in touch with everyone on the regular.”

Digital agency Essence has fruit in every corner, regular nutritional talks and smoothie recipe masterclasses. With more knowledge around food and how it affects productivity, healthy snacks and help-yourself herb gardens are a mainstay in many agency kitchens.

Strawberries and cream at Essence

For agency Fetch, food is a bonding experience. Beyond the daily breakfasts and kitchen snacks, it runs a monthly social breakfast where everyone is encouraged to eat together, no talking shop allowed.

Around global sporting events like the Euros, employees are divided into teams and given countries to inspire the dishes they bring to watch the game. “My group for Euros included Sweden, Italy and Ireland so we all made dishes from these regions,” said Kathleen Carter, global head of marketing at Fetch. “It’s a great way to learn about different styles of cooking.” With international staffers from Greece India, France and Australia, people show off their home dishes and are encouraged others to try new things.

It also fans the flames of competition too. Each quarter Fetch runs a food-related social, last month employees went to the Underground Cookery School in Hoxton to partake in their own version of MasterChef, with judges marking how well they cooked fresh pasta and chocolate desserts.

“MasterFetch” quarterly cooking competitions

Others use cooking as an opportunity for a little gentle competition. During departmental summits around the year, global team members travel to Sociomantic’s HQ in Berlin. “We always have a competitive cooking element,” said Sarah Lynch, global marketing director, “it’s an easy way to encourage team-work, creativity and coordination — skills that are critical for marketers of any seniority.”

It being Great Britain, tea and cake play a star part in agency life. Ogilvy recently started a monthly Ogil-Teas afternoon tea to give everyone their daily pick-me-up, with donations going to a selected charity. Essence and Sociomantic have regular charity bake offs. VCCP has a stocked and loaded biscuit cupboard. 

Grump cake
Essence’s Grumpy Cake

Of course, these perks can work as nice recruitment tools for agencies, and eating in a company canteen will take up less time than pounding the streets looking for a food truck.

Agency Havas, for example, has a “Friday @ Four Trolley” that brings themed snacks voted on by the agency, whether that’s Wimbledon, the Queen’s Jubilee or Chinese News Year, chosen by polls.

At the root of it, for Havas and many others, food works as a universally acknowledged and easy currency to say thank you after a working week.

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