When WPP announced it was merging Grey and AKQA, its press release said that "The AKQA Group will launch with the AKQA and Grey brands, which will be integrated over time into a single company." The combined 6,000-employee agency would be dubbed AKQA Group, leading to media reports, including in Ad Age, that the Grey brand would be killed off in favor of the digital agency's moniker. Campaign, which broke the story, initially wrote that the formation of AKQA Group “means the end of the Grey brand” which would eventually “be dropped.”
"Grey has evolved many times over its 103 years and this is the next step in its evolution," Grey Worldwide CEO Michael Houston told Ad Age on the day of the announcement, Nov. 11. "As someone who works in the business of brands, while names are obviously important, brands are much more than their names as well."
Enter Procter & Gamble.
According to three people close to the business, though the client was briefed ahead of time on the merger itself, its executives were distressed to read in trade papers that the Grey name would be abandoned in favor of AKQA. This prompted P&G Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard to call WPP CEO Mark Read, demanding to know why he wasn't informed that the Grey brand would be retired. And P&G is a client WPP can't afford to anger: According to Ad Age Datacenter estimates, P&G spent $4.3 billion on measured media in the U.S. in 2019.
Grey has worked with the consumer goods giant for seven decades. In the past few years, Grey has been behind some of its most defining work, tackling toxic masculinity in “The Best a Man Can Be” for Gillette; and recently working with Grey-backed Cartwright to urge the silent majority to be anti-racist in “The Choice” for P&G.
Though Pritchard declined to comment on the call to Read, he did confirm through a spokesperson that he "was upset" by news reports saying the Grey name would be "going away. He was told that this is not the case and that Grey 'will remain intact' and the Grey name is not going away," the spokesperson said.
WPP, in fact, maintains that the AKQA Group integration is going to take time "based on client and market needs." The timetable, the company says, "will vary by market and client," and the Grey name will remain "for some time—for as long as it makes sense to do so in each case."
So was this a case of WPP walking back a decision to accommodate an unhappy client, or a was it a vague communication that confused the press, clients and many of Grey's rank-and-file employees?
That's, well, a gray area.
One executive with knowledge of the situation insists there was a plan to ditch Grey entirely that was "changed to separate brands because of P&G displeasure." Another said that WPP leaders added "Group" to the AKQA name for the merged agency as a concession to include a part of the Grey name, as in Grey Group.
A WPP spokesman responded in a statement: "Major clients were of course consulted on the plans in advance. As always, we listened to those clients, who helped to shape our approach as we bring together the capabilities of two great agencies."
Whatever the case, P&G seems to be appeased. "P&G is looking forward to continuing to work with Grey and their talented people, who we deeply value," Pritchard added in his statement. "We’re expecting enhanced capabilities brought to Grey, and for the merger to be largely seamless to our brands and company."