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News Analysis

‘No red tape’: Former VMLY&R boss Aden Hepburn is ditching old models, eyes 100 staff, CX, media and programmatic unit

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

3 August 2020 3min read

“Some of those traditional agency models have become compromised in some ways and can get bogged down in layers of admin, approvals and so on," says former VMLY&R CEO Aden Hepburn says.

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

3 August 2020 3min read

The independent agency sector continues to thrive, with former WPP executive Aden Hepburn revealing that in just six months his new shop, Akcelo, has collected 30 staff, a client list that includes Lion, and a multi-million dollar digital transformation project. His ambitions don’t stop there.

What you need to know:

 

  • Former WPP-owned VMLY&R CEO Aden Hepburn has launched his own indie agency, Akcelo.
  • Hepburn joins a growing list of former big agency bosses striking out on their own, including Simon Ryan, Ben Lilley and Richard Curtis.
  • In just six months, Akcelo has won major clients including Lion, hired 30 staff and built expertise in creative, digital, social, content, CRM, technology and data. It is also currently working on a $2 million digital transformation project for an unnamed retail client.
  • Hepburn hopes to hire another 20 staff soon, with the aim of eventually employing more than 100 people, and is looking at moving into media and programmatic.
  • Akcelo is also pushing hard in the brand and customer experience space.
  • The agency hopes to drive other revenue through a dedicated ventures investment arm, focused on start-ups with the potential to grow rapidly.
 
Avoiding compromised models

When Aden Hepburn quit as CEO of VMLY&R in June last year, one of his first thoughts was how he could create a new agency model, with creativity and brand experience at its core.

Over 12 months later, Hepburn and fellow former executives VMLY&R Dave Di Veroli and Miles Scott have created a rapidly growing independent agency, with 30 staff and a client roster that includes alcohol giant Lion and companies in the retail, food, finance and hospitality sectors.

Akcelo currently spans creative, digital, social, content, CRM, technology and data, and Hepburn says it will also move into media and programmatic.

The six-month-old agency is rapidly building its digital transformation and customer experience (CX) capabilities.

“I can’t say who the client is but we’re currently handling a $2 million project to overhaul their digital strategy and completely transform that side of the business,” Hepburn told Mi3.

“We’ll do everything from creating pre-roll, digital, TV and web design but we see that digital transformation piece as something that will make us a really attractive agency.”

The owners of Akcelo have big ambitions to reach 100 staff and have the skills and resources to “take on” the holding groups, but also remain “fiercely independent”.

Hepburn declined to share full details regarding the ownership structure but confirmed it was a partnership model.

Hepburn says while there will always be a place for the large holding group agencies, some marketers are keen to work with agencies that “aren’t tied up with red tape”.

“Fifty will be our sweet spot in terms of staff and being able to go into those bigger pitches and really compete, but having 100 employees would be the magic number,” he says.

Hepburn says a 100 staff agency is “magic” because it will prove it has enough “firepower” to compete with those owned by holding groups, but nimble enough to still retain its independent model.

“Some of those traditional agency models have become compromised in some ways and can get bogged down in layers of admin, approvals and so on. That’s where I think CMOs are starting to become more open to more flexible models such as ours,” he says.

Hepburn isn’t the only one who is seeing the potential for change in the agency landscape. Former Dentsu Aegis Network Australia and New Zealand boss Simon Ryan, McCann Australia’s Ben Lilley and Futurebrand’s Richard Curtis have all set up new independent agencies this year.

Last week Jack Watts, CEO of Bastion Collective, one of Australia's largest independent agency groups, called on indies to “get their shit together” and take advantage of the ongoing “demise” of holding group models.

Hepburn agrees and says marketers are receptive to his model because it can offer them the skills and services they need from the start, rather than being “bolted on” as needed.

“The fusion of creativity and brand design is something a lot of the holding groups have realised they need to address; that’s why many are merging agencies that offer that together now,” Hepburn says, alluding to the mergers of Wunderman Thompson and JWT, becoming Wunderman Thompson and Hepburn’s former shop VML and Y&R to become VMLY&R.

“However, that bolted-on experience can sometimes be a bit slow,” he says. “When you’re also dealing with global operational approvals and process, it becomes understandably frustrating for marketers.”

Establishing an agency during a pandemic hasn’t been easy, with Hepburn describing the current environment as a “double-edged sword”.

Although some industries and clients are still very much in hibernation, he claims it has been “one of the best times” to offer something new.

“The landscape is completely different and the rulebook is out the window. On the one hand it’s never been a more difficult time to launch an agency from an economic perspective. On the other hand, it’s been brilliant because if you’ve got something unique and new that is doing things like brand experience or e-commerce-focused development and design, then clients are willing to take a chance. We’ve shown that already.”

Akcelo is looking at setting up an investment arm to fund start-up ventures as a way to broaden its revenue base and reduce its reliance on the often-cyclical advertising sector.

“It’s not enough to just do one thing anymore, whether that’s from what you offer as an agency, right through to how you keep [the company] economically viable,” Hepburn says.

“For too long agencies have been forced to give away their IP in pitches, award submissions and the like. That’s why we will look to play in the tech space and develop or invest in fast growth product start-ups.”

Last month, advertising executives from across the industry highlighted the problems with the pitch process, calling for major changes to be made to the "fundamentally flawed" approach to selecting agency partners.

Many pointed to the loss of Intellectual property during that time as one of the key motivators for change. 

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