Inside the AKQA Group and why the market won’t be losing WhiteGrey

Five months after the 'merger' of AKQA and WhiteGrey into the AKQA Group was announced, CEO of the creative agency Lee Simpson wants the market to know that the agency isn't going anywhere. Here, Simpson and newly-appointed chief strategy officer Simon Wassef chat to Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson about forging the path ahead for WhiteGrey.

Since the November merger of AKQA and Grey Group was handed down from global to WPP AUNZ questions have remained over what the local structure looks like and what it means for the Australian outposts of AKQA and WhiteGrey.

Put simply, the two brands sit beside each other in the AKQA Group. Much like the recently created Ogilvy Network, there is no one leader at the top; AKQA Asia Pacific managing partner Brian Vella and WhiteGrey CEO Lee Simpson sit alongside each other in the group, and key decisions on new business are traded between them.

“The thing that unites us, I think particularly locally is we want to win. So when there’s a big pitch and there’s some great competition in the saturated market, we want to pitch against the Clemenger Group or we want to pitch against TBWA or wherever it might be, we’re stronger if we can partner up in the right way. So that means we come to the conversation going ‘what do we want to do together to win?,” Simpson explains.

“And sometimes that will be let’s go with the AKQA Group or actually that feels like a AKQA or WhiteGrey, and so that’s where the conversation starts. So what’s right for the client, and how can we win and gives us the best chance of doing that.”

The new mentality at WPP AUNZ is collaboration. The second phase of WPP AUNZ CEO Jens Monsees’ transformation plan of the group will see the roll out of the campus model in Sydney and Melbourne in an effort to draw the agencies together physically so they come together on clients. The end goal: scaling existing clients across multiple agencies in the group. But the question then remains, why form smaller agency groups when everyone should be working together on the whole?

“If you want to do it globally and make collaboration work you sometimes have to direct it a bit more precisely, so I think then the ask from [WPP] around going ‘we think that Grey and AKQA can be powerful when they team up in certain situations’, I think it gives people more impetus to do it because otherwise you’re going to get naturally pockets of collaborations where people are just in that mindset,” Simpson explains.

Despite Monsees’ warning that the number of agency brands would be reduced in Australia and the holding group should expect more movement of agencies, the announcement of the AKQA group from WPP globally seemingly came out of nowhere.

“I suppose I felt it was a bit rushed,” Simpson says. “I mean the strategy… has been around collaboration and this it was sort of clear that groups within groups were forming, to rationalise the portfolio.”

“My reaction wasn’t surprise in terms of the decision but maybe it was how quickly it was communicated. My mind quickly went to ‘what does that mean in terms of what we can offer now?’”

And with ongoing and significant changes within WPP AUNZ as a whole continuing to be revealed, at the core of the decision is the sentiment of the staff towards the formation of the AKQA Group.

“People follow the leaders, they look for the reaction in the leaders, so if the leaders are, first of all, not surprised that it’s happening and also looking for the opportunities they go ‘Okay, well, I trust those guys so just role with it. See what happens’,” Simpson recounts.

“And then I think also again, we’re really campus building, so the Sydneysiders – what do you go ‘oh yeah so I know Andrew Burger or Chris Hitchcock from AKQA Media,’ so there’s individual relationships there as well which probably helped as well.”

For Simpson, this ‘merger’ is not foreign territory to navigate having joined just days after WPP AUNZ’s then-CEO Mike Connaghan admitted that the merger between Grey and The White Agency ‘wasn’t handled perfectly’.

In the last three years, Simpson has been focused on reasserting the agency’s position in market, led by the philosophy of ‘Tension Creates Extraordinary’ and a model of ‘platform orchestration’, or, elevating a brand experience across platforms, mediums and content executions. Another key aspect of the agency is having all members of the executive team on the same footing – the head of technology has equal say in a project to the creative leader, and the strategy leaders can move seamlessly between disciplines.

New to the team is chief strategy officer Simon Wassef, who has returned to Australia from stints at Sid Lee in Amsterdam, R/GA in London and most recently TBWA\Chiat\Day in Los Angeles.

Wassef says he was drawn to WhiteGrey and Simpson because their early discussions surrounded their mutual ambitions for the agency, and not demands for him to use his experience to recreate those overseas agencies here.

“So when your ambition is what can you design, what can we make, what can we do and say that makes our clients grow and then make ourselves grow. That’s a different space for a strategy person to play in because you’re going ‘right everyone’s around this table, respectfully pretty good, and how can we take it to the next level?’,” Wassef reflects.

The WhiteGrey-AKQA announcement and the impending takeover bid from WPP plc both unfolded while Wassef was in talks with the agency, but it did not scare him off. If anything it drove his enthusiasm to join. In speaking to Simpson, their mutual response to the news was ‘what can we do with this?’.

“It’s a different mentality,” he says. “If the default thing is what does that mean, we could get more of this or we can level up here, or we can use that thing over there that you used to look at in your binoculars, but now it’s in your sort of immediate reach.

“I think that says a lot about what the organisation thinks is creativity. And I wanted to sign up for that.”

In recent pitches, WhiteGrey has come up against CHE Proximity, Saatchi & Saatchi, and naturally with the surge in independents; Thinkerbell and Special Group. All different agencies matched up with WhiteGrey for different capabilities and perceptions of creativity. With AKQA also now on board, the net of the agency’s competitors is about to be cast wider.

“I think it’s a very interesting moment in the market here,” Wassef says.

“Because I think you’ve got moments where if you’re going after the end-to-end opportunity from business to brand I think there’ll be moments where you just don’t have the expertise, or you find yourself in a situation going ‘we bit off a lot and now we need to chew it’.

“And then if you keep in a specialism I think you will hone that craft incredibly well, but then what happens when you need to step outside of that, I’m not really sure.

Coming up on the three year mark of Simpson’s reign over WhiteGrey it has almost been 1,000 days since he took over, and with the rest of the AKQA group in tow, he is firmly looking ahead to what the next 1,000 days has in store.


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