Claire Beale
Claire Beale
A view from Claire Beale

Editor's Perspective - Will AKQA keep its spirit within WPP behemoth?

On the terrace of the Martinez beach restaurant last Wednesday, where Campaign was lunching with McCann Erickson, the news spread like a mobile virus. The beeping of smartphones was followed by a rising murmur across the tables as word came in that AKQA had sold to WPP.

It was an exciting moment, perfectly timed to capture the spirit of a Cannes festival when digital had finally become normalised. AKQA, even at $540 million, is a great prize for WPP. As a brilliant and provocative challenger network, AKQA has come to symbolise the harmonious union of technical craft with creative brilliance; other, less digitally astute, agencies have looked to it for inspiration and other holding companies have eyed it lasciviously over the years. Predictably, they're now leering over AKQA's rival LBi, which is said to be in talks with Omnicom about a $580 million deal.

Yet, in Cannes, news of WPP's swoop on AKQA was greeted with a little sadness as debate centred on how soon the exciting challenger would become yet another identikit corporate beast. Perhaps that's an emotional rather than an entirely logical response. WPP has more than enough identikit corporate beasts and needs to keep fresh by acquiring the young and the different; if it crushes AKQA's almost childlike verve, it will start destroying the value of the brand. But can WPP enhance AKQA and still leave its essence intact and its management's passion undimmed?

Though AKQA's chairman, Tom Bedecarre, has done time at Ogilvy, Ajaz Ahmed, the agency's young founder and chief executive, is a lifelong entrepreneur, having worked only at AKQA for his entire career. He named his agency after himself: Ajaz Khowaj Quoram Ahmed - and it is his life. Ahmed is no business maverick; he might run a hotshop, but he's had big shareholders to answer to for the past decade or so and, after 17 years in business, AKQA is a hefty global concern whose client list includes some of the world's biggest brands. But his new WPP parent comes with a controlling boss who will stretch Ahmed in ways - both positive and painful - that he hasn't experienced before. And there's absolutely no doubt that WPP has big ambitions for AKQA to grow, grow, grow. Talking to Campaign about the deal last week, Sir Martin Sorrell said of AKQA: "It's quarter of a billion dollars of revenues at the moment; there's no reason why it shouldn't be four or five times that size." Slightly chilling words that will be warmly received by WPP's shareholders, perhaps by AKQA's clients, but which certainly signal a cultural challenge ahead for the agency and its people.

Meanwhile Ahmed, in his charmingly upbeat way, insists the deal marks the first day in AKQA's new life. I've never known Ahmed to be anything other than utterly (sometimes blindly) positive - it's one of the things that's made AKQA what it is. I hope he can keep it up inside WPP.