‘We’re definitely not building a 2.0 of anything’: Aden Hepburn on leaving WPP and ‘picking the bones’ of holding companies

After 15 years in a holding group, former VMLY&R co-CEO, Aden Hepburn, has stepped out with independent agency, Akcelo. Here he talks to Mumbrella's Zoe Wilkinson about what's different, what's better, and how - despite working with a number of the same people - the agency is coming into its own.

“I think going out on your own is probably scary at the best of times, and potentially equally as scary after spending 15 years in the one holding company,” Aden Hepburn says, reflecting on his departure from WPP AUNZ’s VMLY&R.

“I guess I looked at it as a training ground, being paid to learn how to run a business, learn the ropes, build the relationships and see how a big business truly operates.

“And going out on my own I’ve been able to use that experience to harvest the best bits and leave everything else behind.”

Dave Di Veroli, Miles Scott, Aden Hepburn have formed Akcelo

Hepburn joined WPP in 2005, working in Y&R Brands’ Ideaworks before moving into its core agency in 2011, spinning off the local VML in 2012 as managing director and ECD, and finally becoming co-CEO when it merged with Y&R in 2018.

Now, he has launched Akcelo, an independent agency that “builds brands for the experience era”, combining the brand’s narrative with its end-to-end customer experience.

Hepburn launched the agency with former VMLY&R head of strategy Dave Di Veroli and managing partner, Miles Scott. Since then, he has also hired former design director, Mark Berry, connections strategy lead, Isaac Lai, and executive producer, Louella Campbell.

All were part of the mass exodus from VMLY&R after Hepburn and co-CEO Pete Bosilkovski left the business, and all were members of Hepburn’s VML staff.

But, Hepburn says, Akcelo is not a VML 2.0 by any means.

“We are absolutely taking all the learnings that made what we built at VML, VMLY&R… and removing everything that clients, and our staff, really don’t see value in and shouldn’t be paying for, like regional overheads, regional teams, taxes, politics, hierarchy – basically anything and anyone who doesn’t work with our clients every day, or add direct value to their businesses,” he comments.

Hepburn says operating an independent strips away the parts of agency life that “really are a waste of space” and “takes focus away from clients”, such as “reporting, managing stakeholders, managing regions, managing P&Ls”.

The lack of internal politics and “red tape” enables the agency to move faster, which is the key advantage Hepburn has identified in his new business.

“I think stepping out with some fresh perspective on the industry and where things are at all things considered, given COVID and the world and where it’s at right now, the most important thing is stepping out as an independent you can move really quickly,” he explains.

“You don’t have to go to New York or London or Singapore for approvals on a hire and it gets caught up there. And that means you put less pressure on your people, it means you can move quicker for your clients, there’s less overhead and less things to manage that takes your focus away.”

Akcelo is currently investing in data, customer relationship management, and customer lifetime value, but has also produced live digital content for Lion and integrated, TVC-led campaign work for Tiktok. Hepburn wants to enter 2021 with a media strategy, channel planning and programmatic practice as well.

What Hepburn thinks is different about Akcelo, compared to other agencies and holding groups, is that all of these capabilities are built from the ground up, ensuring a smoothness and ease across the offering.

“The industry, I think, naturally is progressing towards this fusion of brand and experience,” Hepburn says.

“If you look at all of the big global agencies, and the mergers and acquisitions that are taking place, there is a very real structural movement to this time and place as well where you’re taking traditional brand agencies and newer digital agencies and bringing those businesses together.

“What you’re seeing there is the holding company is reacting to client needs and leaning into where the future is going to go, and I think the difference between what Akcelo is doing and what some of those large global companies are doing is we’re building it from the ground up.”

Akcelo founder and CEO Aden Hepburn

Akcelo now has more than 40 staff, an office in Pyrmont half its employees have never set foot in, and a client list featuring Primo Foods, HCF, Australian Wool, Stocklands and several more he wouldn’t name, alongside Lion and Tiktok.

The rapid growth of the agency was ‘indirectly’ assisted by COVID-19. With tighter budgets and a renewed focus on customer experience and integrated digital solutions, Akcelo chose to get “really close and intimate” with its clients.

“Where I think COVID really helped us was that those bigger clients, they need somebody to be more nimble, they want somebody that can move with the speed they need to move at. And, I think that has helped us become a more attractive proposition,” he remarks.

“And I think what we’ll find in the market now, and I think we’ll find a lot more as we move into 2021, is these big global brands and these big local businesses really looking at the core needs of their marketing, their advertising, their digital technology ecosystems are, and what types of partners they’re going to need to move at the speed of a new world.”

This new world will still involve adland’s heritage brands, although Hepburn predicts creative and media agencies will be brought back together. What COVID-19 has created is an advertising ‘space race’ for new independent agencies to stake their claim on clients looking for more.

“I think there’s always going to be a place for big global agencies and big holding companies because global clients with global contracts will need safety and process and governance on running global marketing accounts,” he says.

“What I think is happening right now is there’s an opening and the need for new and different thinking that does move faster, and that’s absolutely going to help the next wave of indie agencies come up and stake that claim.”

Through the changing market conditions, the next opportunity Hepburn sees is the growth of the ‘super independent groups’ – those like Bastion – and networks of agencies that come together through mutual agreement, like Rumbletown.

Hepburn thinks these groups have the opportunity to challenge holding groups.

“I think the concept of super-indie groups have legs, or more subtle, mutual indie-collective-partnerships that support complementary capability and cross-functional support for bigger clients that generates value on all sides,” he says.

“And while I’m not sure how this plays out [this] year… there is definitely active discussion in the industry from clients and agencies around the opportunity and demand for new models and new broader collectives to service clients falling out of love with the traditional holding companies.”

While joining one of these groups is not on the near horizon for Akcelo – Hepburn’s focus is on expanding to Melbourne and Singapore – he points towards WPP’s former CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell, as an indicator of this change.

“This is something that you can see Martin Sorrell with S4 Capital going really hard at right now, he’s picking the bones of the traditional holding companies with a new model and big wins like BMW/Mini for the EMEA region,” he comments.

“This proves the opportunity for larger-scale super-indie groups to form over the coming years.”

Contact the journalist:

Have more information on the article? Want to share an opinion? Just want to reach out? Email Zoe on zoew@mumbrella.com.au or get in touch via LinkedIn.


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