WPP merges Grey and AKQA’s operations in Australia, Lee Simpson departs

AKQA will become the lead brand in four markets, including Australia. Mediaweek understands that whiteGREY CEO Lee Simpson will leave the business.

Two of WPP’s creative agencies – AKQA and Grey – have been operationally merged to create efficiencies, three and a half years after they were combined globally to form the AKQA Group.

whiteGREY CEO Lee Simpson will leave the business because the whiteGREY brand will disappear. Instead, AKQA will become the lead brand in four markets, including Australia, led by AKQA’s APAC managing partner, Brian Vella.

Simpson will stay on for two months to help with the transition. Mediaweek understands that Simpson told staff in a town hall yesterday; the CEO role is the only position affected.

“I joined whiteGREY at a challenging time when Grey and The White Agency merged and embarked on an ambitious journey of expansion and growth to its services, capabilities and clients,” Simpson said.

“We created a new positioning and model, welcomed some fantastic clients, have been recognised as a top ten agency in the region for creativity and effectiveness (Cannes and WARC respectively) and are currently AFR’s Most Innovative Media & Marketing Company and the Most Innovative Small business in ANZ. We proved Tension really can create extraordinary.”

whiteGREY was the result of the merger between Grey and The White Agency. On LinkedIn, Simpson’s bio reads: “When Lee took over the Australian arm of the 100yr-old Grey network in 2018, it was at its lowest point. It was a year after the failed union of Grey and The White Agency, publicly described by the WPP CEO as ‘not handled perfectly’.”

WPP boss Rose Herceg, country president across AUNZ, said, “Lee is one of the best leaders I’ve ever known.”

“Smart, gutsy and a leader whom we all respect. Lee has set the foundation for the next exciting period in AKQA Australia and New Zealand’s evolution. Lee can be incredibly proud of the contribution he has made. I have enjoyed every minute of working with Lee. It’s been a personal highlight for me”.

WPP argued that the move is key for “Grey’s future strategy and vision for accelerated growth … There are no plans to integrate any other Grey studio into AKQA.”

AKQA said Grey’s senior management will remain part of the local leadership teams. “The complementary strengths and expertise of these companies, combined with AKQA’s existing offices, have minimal role duplication and will build on the exceptional work created for clients such as Volvo, Westfield, The Coca-Cola Company and additional industry leaders,” the agency said in a statement.

The change also takes effect in Belgium, Italy, and the UAE. In Belgium, Famous Grey will rebrand to AKQA Brussels, creating a new office for AKQA. In Italy, both brands will continue to operate, but their leadership will merge. In the UAE, Grey Dubai will cease to exist, with AKQA becoming the sole brand.

In China, Grey will remain the lead agency, and Grey management will lead both brands.

Grey has been considered part of AKQA when it comes to financial reporting since 2020, when the agencies paired up to create AKQA Group, but both agencies continued to operate. In Australia, whiteGREY, the local Grey Group offering, merged with AKQA as part of the move. 

AKQA said that this latest “realignment is another intentional step architected by Laura Maness, Grey global CEO, to realise her vision of creating ‘one borderless Grey,’ a goal she identified when she joined the company in September 2022. The move allows Grey to focus on its strongest performing studios in high growth markets, yielding even better service for their burgeoning roster of global clients.”

Grey boss Maness said that “by bringing our teams together, we’re combining the best of both worlds—Grey’s renowned creativity and AKQA’s world-class design and innovation.”

“AKQA and Grey have already been working together in these regions, and our areas of expertise complement each other perfectly,” she continued.

“I’m confident that this move will benefit not only our employees but also our clients, who will have access to a truly unparalleled pool of diverse talent and expertise.” 

AKQA’s founder and CEO Ajaz Ahmed insisted that the “Grey brand has lasting value.”

“Driving operational excellence is core to our mission of delivering sustainable growth and in service of building a leaner, more agile agency to improve our performance and better enable our long-term vision.”

WPP merged Wunderman Thompson and VMLY&R to create VML at the end of 2023. This marked the end of the Y&R name, and the revival of VML as a stand-alone brand, five years after VML and Y&R were merged.

Last week, WPP also announced the merger of The&Partnership and mSix&Partners, while earlier this year, Hill & Knowlton and BCW merged.

In 2022, WPP’s media agency arm, GroupM, merged Essence and MediaCom to create essenceMediacom. 

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