WPP merging Grey with AKQA

Another iconic creative agency brand is being retired by WPP. The holding company giant announced Wednesday that 103-year-old Grey would merge with the digital and experience design focused AKQA to form a new entity called AKQA Group.

In a release announcing the move, WPP said AKQA Group will launch with both brands, but they “will be integrated over time into a single company based on client and market needs.”

“In the short-term this will have no impact on our operations in Canada, whether Tank or Grey,” said Grey Canada CEO Marc Lanouette. “As we look to the future, we believe this synergy will create an unbeatable proposition for our clients, from start-ups to multinationals.”

The move follows similar major shakeups at WPP since Mark Read took over as CEO and declared his intention to simplify operations across the world’s largest advertising holding company. “WPP has become too unwieldy, with too much duplication,” he said shortly after taking over as the company’s top executive in 2018. “As a result, it is not always as focused or as fleet of foot as it needs to be to satisfy the needs of all our clients around the globe.”

Twice since taking over, Read has merged traditional—and iconic—creative agency brands with younger agencies possessing a specialist digital bent: First JWT with Wunderman, followed by Young & Rubicam with VML in 2018.

“Our clients want outstanding creativity, powered by technology expertise and delivered at a global scale,” said Read in a release announcing today’s news. “This new company is designed precisely to meet those needs and is another important step forward in building our future-facing offer for clients.”

While Grey has enjoyed a strong creative performance across a number of offices, including Canada (here, here and here), in recent years, AKQA possesses a strong international reputation for world-class digital experience strategy and design, working with blue chip clients including Netflix, Coca Cola, Levi’s, and Nike, for which it won a Grand Prix in Media at Cannes last year (see below). “The two agencies have complementary, non-competitive client rosters,” said the WPP release.

“With heightened demand for digital transformation and technology-driven capabilities, the combination will create a powerful new proposition for clients as a leading creative solutions company with a worldwide footprint,” it continued.

The new AKQA Group will employ 6,000 people in more than 50 countries. AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed will be CEO, while Grey Worldwide CEO Michael Houston will become global president and chief operating officer. “All of our offices across the world have become famous for creative storytelling and brand-building at scale,” said Houston in a memo sent to all Grey staff. “AKQA is celebrated for world-class digital innovation and technology skills. Together we will deliver culture-driving ideas through technology at speed and scale as never before.”

“Our goal is to expand horizons, combining the curiosity, ambition, imagination and pioneering spirit of a start-up with the reach of a global enterprise,” said Ahmed in the release. “This is an unparalleled opportunity for AKQA and Grey to bring our shared assets to life into a modern, creatively-led company, building upon our inspiring and useful work to create value for our clients, people and communities.”

In Canada, Grey closed its Vancouver office early in 2019, and underwent a restructuring a few months later that saw creative oversight moved to New York as part of an effort to instate a “borderless” operating model. “[W]e’ve become adept at working in a borderless way and the addition of AKQA and their reputation for digital innovation and technology skills will increase our ability to deliver world-leading creative solutions,” said Lanouette.

“There will be a transition as we put all the pieces in place. We’ll be open and inclusive sharing timely information with you,” said Houston in his memo.

“We are embarking on a great adventure that will challenge our creative imagination, ambition and bravery. I look forward to working with you and our AKQA colleagues as we build a transformative new communications enterprise. Here’s to the good things 2021 will bring.”

David Brown