Rahul Sachitanand
Feb 18, 2020

A year after abandoning 'deathtrap', WPP's Malaysian campus plans remain in limbo

Agency network says it continues to look for a suitable location for a new KL campus, with agencies remaining in disparate offices for now.

A year after abandoning 'deathtrap', WPP's Malaysian campus plans remain in limbo

Over a year after Campaign Asia-Pacific broke a story on the dangerous workplace conditions of its erstwhile Malaysia campus, WPP continues to look for a suitable location to house its agencies in Kuala Lumpur. The agency network, which employs over 130,000 people in 112 countries worldwide, had planned to integrate 19 of its agencies at this campus in Malaysia, but was forced abandon its plans after serious workplace hazards and safety concerns emerged at the Empire City location. 

“In consultation with our local leadership and people, and in response to their concerns, we vacated the building in late 2018," says a WPP spokesperson. "Last year we took the decision not to continue the lease. We are committed to our Campus program and will identify needed improvements to prevent a repeat of our experience as we select a new location for our KL Campus.”

This means that WPP’s plans to provide a single facility in KL to catalyse work across its network remains on hold for now. Instead, agencies have had to make do with disparate temporary offices across Kuala Lumpur—which several sources told Campaign Asia-Pacific appeared increasingly permanent—as they wait for WPP to find a new and workable solution.

WPP’s other campuses in Asia, including Mumbai, Hong Kong and Shanghai (even with its own drama) are now operational and agencies have moved in, with early positive reviews from employees there. “The campus is a massive improvement from our previous offices and hopefully helps us drive new work across agencies,” an Ogilvy Mumbai staffer told Campaign.

However, as the Malaysia campus plan fell apart in late 2018, some agencies have been scrambling over the past year to find space across the city to house staff. While some like Wunderman Thompson are at co-working space Common Ground, other agencies have found temporary digs in other co-working locations including Co-labs and WORQ.

“For now, our agencies continue to operate from their current offices across the city," WPP's spokesperson says. "We are very grateful for the support and commitment of our people throughout this period." No timeline was provided by the company on when and if the campus plan would be restarted.

James Woodburn, the WPP infrastructure leader who had been tasked with selecting and supervising the construction of WPP's original campus plan at Empire City, is still employed with the company in the same role, according to a senior WPP executive. Three sources within WPP, however, had initially told Campaign that he had left, and WPP declined to comment officially on his status.*

A screenshot of a Facebook discussion of the Empire City office

When debates about the campus situation peaked, Woodburn stoutly defended the campus on social media. “It is safe," he wrote on LinkedIn. "I am however acutely aware of the issues arising that make it feel unsafe. All key fire service systems were witnessed as operational before we allowed the move to proceed. We can only receive final certificates of completion after our works are finished so there is a lag in this coming but we have not been advised of any issues so they will be issued. For now our focus is on driving the owner to fix issues that arrise [sic] and work in prevention. I am working on this for you all and hope for support as we press the owners.”

On the ground, employees across grades and agencies complained that communication from the top was infrequent and unclear.  

“I've (only) heard through the grapevine that they've put a new team to scout out a new campus, and they're trying to be more cautious with the next investment,” one Malaysia staffer told Campaign on the condition of anonymity. “Seeing how the old campus took about four years to figure out, (I) don't think we'll be seeing this anytime soon.”

This employee also indicated that there was no official internal communication about them moving to a new campus, adding: "We all thought the coworking spaces were temporary, but looks like it'll be this way for some time,” the person stated.

Others who Campaign reached out to, including senior executives involved in WPP's initial ill-fated move, admitted that WPP would not rush into a second Malaysia campus. “There are no plans to relook at a campus for WPP in Malaysia for now…maybe the company will reconsider the plan in 2021, but it is not a priority,” one CEO told us.

In December 2018, our story detailed how poorly WPP’s Malaysia campus in Petaling Jaya had worked out. The campus was blighted by major construction faults, festering vermin issues and deficient safety standards that may well have threatened lives, we reported.

In July and August 2019, the holding group moved 13 agencies and agency groups including GroupM, Ogilvy and Mindshare Malaysia into 11 floors of a high-rise block, Tower H, in Empire City, a new 23-acre mixed-use complex in the Damansara Perdana district. As things turned out, the much talked up campus (complete with a video walkthrough on Facebook), fell apart rapidly, with employees taking to social media to air a lengthy list of grievances against the facility.

Five years ago, Empire City, was seen as the rising real estate star of the capital city, with Paris Hilton headlining “the party of the century’, where she hosted 3,000 guests at the mixed-use facility built by MEH. Some reports suggested that the development would be completed in 2020.

WPP’s own move into Tower H was delayed by some months, Campaign reported, while MEH raced to finish work. The rest of the complex, meant to consist of 12 high-rise buildings sitting on top of a connected ‘podium’ that includes a four-level shopping mall, is partially finished and way behind schedule.

However, the facility soon ran aground, with the developer reportedly running into cashflow issues, just as early tenants such as WPP abandoned the facility.

Surekha Ragavan contributed reporting to this story.

* We edited this paragraph after the initial publication of this article, after additional sources reached out to Campaign

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