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Inside the Grey-AKQA merger: Grey and AKQA bosses open up on the deal and what's next

AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed and Grey Worldwide CEO Michael Houston

Today was the AKQA Group’s first official day of existence. With 6,000 people in 50 countries boasting blue-chip clients like Coca-Cola, Netflix, Nike and Procter & Gamble—the merger of AKQA and Grey Worldwide has certainly gotten everyone’s attention. But how will its two leaders unify its employees and clients around a new, shared vision? Here’s what AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed and Grey Worldwide CEO Michael Houston had to say.

On paper it makes sense. Grey has been known for its creative storytelling and global brand-building for literally more than a century. It was founded in 1917 during World War I. Then you’ve got AKQA, which was born during the dot-com era, and is known for its groundbreaking innovation and experience design skills.

Two different companies with different skillsets and even different clients—Volvo is its only shared client. So how do you bring thousands of global employees and massive client accounts together? How do you make them appreciate what the AKQA Group can now do?

AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed and Grey Worldwide chief exec Michael Houston spoke with The Drum, at length, about the behind-the-scenes preparation for the long-mooted merger as well as how they plan to drive the AKQA Group forward. Here’s what they had to say:

The Drum: What was the impetus for the merger?

Ajaz Ahmed: “Michael and I originally discussed this in 2018. Our shared vision was that this is the opportunity to create the world’s preeminent creative agency which would be a catalyst for growth for our people, our clients, the industry and, above all, the work. We really want to set new standards, so our organization becomes an aspirational, wonderful place to work. The other aspect that we both wanted was to have a larger canvas, and scale, to make a meaningful difference.

"Grey’s storytelling prowess is absolutely unmatched. When you combine that with AKQA’s experience, design and business transformation skills, we think it’s an incredibly compelling proposition for both clients and existing and future employees. We believe in the extraordinary potential of this partnership. Our collective goal is to unlock that potential with our people and our clients.”

Michael Houston: “We’re simply going to be able to execute our ideas and solutions for our clients in a way haven’t been able to before. We’ve done it in pockets, but we’ll be able to do it at greater scale.”

The Drum: What do today’s clients want and how do you deliver it?

Ajaz Ahmed: “One of the things clients really want is responsiveness, but their primary need in working with agencies is our creativity and new perspective. That’s really what differentiates the agencies that have a long, sustained and indispensable relationship with their clients versus the ones that are more transactional.”

The Drum: What do you mean by responsiveness?

Ajaz Ahmed: “Literally, it’s speed. We’ve seen how quickly the effect of the pandemic had and the need for all organizations to really pivot to another way of doing business—in a more connected and experiential way. That requires a level of speed and responsiveness. It also means the interactions that audiences have with the work need to provide use and inspiration. And if it’s inspiration, it should be work that people want to share."

The Drum: This merger has been rumored for a while. Why now? Why today?

Ajaz Ahmed: "What better time to do it than now? We don’t have the physical barriers of space or distance. We have incredible connectivity, working together. We used to boast at AKQA about having 29 studios in 18 countries and when the pandemic happened it suddenly became 2,000 studios in more countries. What that did is remove the physical barriers and make us more collaborative. Those barriers have been removed here with this partnership with Grey. It means we all feel like one organization."

The Drum: Now that the announcement has been made, what has been already set up? What’s ready to go for your clients?

Michael Houston: "Phase zero for that for us in this is a real education and internal collaboration moment. This can't be simply Ajaz and I coming together and deciding that there's a new story to tell and to try and tell the entire world that story. We believe that the culture of the organization is built from the bottom up. The people create the culture. So, we want to light as many fires as we can so that people can begin to add to the story. And that's really what we're looking at in this first phase. While many companies come out of the gate with this fully baked plan as to how everything is going to be, we are intentionally bringing our people along and having them co-create the journey with us. I know it may sound a little goofy, but it's true. And it's important to both of us that this is created from within and that people feel like they are creating the story together."

The Drum: Internal buy-in is key. Can you give me an example of how you’re bringing the teams together?

Ajaz Ahmed: "This announcement is something that has been shared internally with our employees. We provided detailed Frequently Asked Questions. We're having another all-hands meeting tomorrow. We have a system, so people can ask anonymous questions, in place. And we have a framework which Michael can discuss."

Michael Houston: "One of the first sessions that Ajaz and I had, a long time ago, was talking about a framework and the ways in which agencies work. Aligning the goals, not only with the client, but with the people and for the work, and for our purpose in the world—under a single theme and vision. AKQA has a strong framework that they are currently working with. Ajaz and I have been talking about those things which make Grey, Grey and the way in which we approach business, in terms of cultural relevance, famously effective work and work that actually moves clients businesses. How can we take the elements of that and weave it into the framework? It's a co-created, co-owned operating system for the entire organization. We've shared the framework with a number of people at Grey and we're beginning to evolve it so that, again, it feels like it's from both organizations. It's a great blueprint for how to run the agency, to define the type of work that we want to put into the world and to ensure that everyone understands, ultimately, what our collective KPIs are and how we are going to measure what we're doing."

The Drum: WPP has already been through this with Wunderman Thompson, BCW and VMLY&R. Are there any best practices in place?

Michael Houston: "Ajaz and I both spent a lot of time with the groups that have already gone through this to understand exactly: what were the pitfalls? Where were the successes? What are some of the things that you learned along the way? So that we could internalize them and make sure that we weren't starting from scratch. The greatest collective takeaway from all those conversations is transparency. Transparency is absolutely key and making sure that people feel comfortable in expressing whatever discomfort or questions or hopes and aspirations that they may have and not feeling as if they need to hold those in. But that when they express those that the organization will come back with an acknowledgment of those thoughts and will address it.

"The worst thing is for people to feel as if something is happening secretively behind the scenes and that they're going to be victims of whatever the decisions may be. That's not the intention that Ajaz and I have. We want our teams to feel open and positive about what this can mean for everybody."

The Drum: What evolution can we expect in terms of creating an agency structure that can actually deliver the capabilities of the future that your clients want and need?

Ajaz Ahmed: "It’s combining the entrepreneurship, ambition and spirit of a pioneering startup with the creative excellence and experience of a Grey. I think it's a really cool selling proposition for our clients. The other aspect is the client really wants to have much greater direct access to the creative teams. The great thing about our new organization is the vast majority of the staff are creative and the people that we're hiring are in those creative disciplines as well."

Michael Houston: "One thing I would add there is, to the point of creativity, we're not in the business of making widgets. Creativity requires a certain kind of environment, and culture, in order for it to thrive. Ajaz and I are committed to creating that environment where people are respectful of one another, where people appreciate diverse perspectives and actually like the fact that there's a different point of view at the table. And yet, remain committed to getting to results. I think a lot of organizations don't know what to do when there's when there's a clash of ideas. Whereas I think that both organizations are naturally set up to thrive in those kinds of environments."

The Drum: Let’s imagine we get together five years from now and everything’s gone swimmingly, where do you see the AKQA Group?

Ajaz Ahmed: "There are a lot of areas that our industry needs to address when it comes to diversity, inclusion, representation. Michael and I are helping to ensure that our organization is representative of our audiences and the clients we serve. That is very important. It's also very important for us to build an organization that our people love working at and our clients are inspired by the work and the collaboration. But I think, ultimately, we have to let the work do the talking and make sure that we build on our phenomenal heritages and continue producing work that continues to define and shape the industry and hopefully create one of the most influential agencies in the world. Another really important ambition for us is that the present and new generation is interested in a great career here. We’d like them to work here because we’ve got the right values, the right purpose and we do phenomenal work."

Michael Houston: The types of solutions five years from now will look wildly different than anything we currently see out there. If it looks like a slight evolution on what we're currently doing today then I don't know that we would call that success based on our ambition for the company. Because Ajaz and I both believe that this can be exponentially better, and we can have exponentially greater impact on our clients businesses. I don't have a crystal ball, but I do think we will say that success is our clients are thanking us for helping them transform their businesses, not just their communications with their constituents.

The Drum: I’ve been around for a good deal of time. Am I allowed to feel sad that Grey is gone?

Michael Houston: "The key here for us that we are integrating the agency, over time, in a way that it feels palatable and makes sense for our clients and market. So that being said, the way I view this is Grey has evolved many times over its 103-year history. It’s had many iterations. And I believe that the brand essence, the things that make up our North Star, those things are not going away. This is simply an evolution and evolution is necessary. And, so we're staying focused on the positive aspects of what this means for the future, and for our clients and people in the world."

The Drum: This is going to happen a lot of agencies in our industry. Is there any practical advice you can offer our readers?

Ajaz Ahmed: "Shared values, shared purpose and a culture with the same characteristics about contributing useful work to society — making sure that our people are engaged, and our clients are recommending us — if you have those characteristics in place, then you've got the central DNA to making it a success. Sharing our capabilities with our clients and getting reactions back has been really rewarding and motivating. Because they can see another dimension to our relationships. That new dimension just turns into a virtuous circle if we keep delivering in the way that the clients value. If we can contribute successfully to our client’s transformation and growth, then that in turn gives us the platform to keep pushing forward and hopefully making great things happen."

Michael Houston: We both share the frustration of talking about ourselves, and our structure, because what we want is to jump into the work and the things that we're doing for our clients. If there's anything that I'm excited about quite frankly, it's not about this integration and the coming together of the companies, it’s getting our teams together and working together. Doing a new business pitch together. Going to our clients with different kinds of solutions that we couldn't, or didn't, go to them with yesterday. The sooner we get into the work, this will be even better than it is today.

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