AKQA: Ajaz Ahmed

Web pioneer Ahmed reveals how he built the £73m turnover creative agency big brands love

You might not have heard of the company, but you’ll know their clients. AKQA is the digital advertising agency the big brands use to reach out to the internet generation. Founder Ajaz Ahmed doesn’t do many interviews but has spared Growing Business some of his time.

Cast your mind back to World Cup 2006, and England’s Wayne Rooney is nonchalantly practising Brazilian-style soccer tricks with a drinks can, while taking time out from a photoshoot. That authentic-looking footage soon found its way into national newsrooms, generating column inches and airtime galore. Crucially, fans posted links all across the internet on sites such as YouTube.

However, this wasn’t just Rooney mucking about, it was a cleverly orchestrated product placement. You only see the product (a bashed-up Coke can) once, but millions saw it time and again, without one second of that airtime being purchased. This is just one of the ways Ajaz Ahmed’s AKQA brings brands to those consumers that flick between channels when the ads come on and use the internet instead of watching TV.

For a man who knows a lot about media, Ahmed has largely avoided its glare since he launched AKQA 12 years ago, aged just 21. His tender years made him a target for journalists and he could easily have become famous in his own right. But he wanted the focus to be on his company’s work, not his personality, and he wasn’t ready to follow in the footsteps of lastminute.com et al and become a media darling.

Out of the spotlight

“When the dot com hype was going crazy, there was a time when I was regularly appearing in articles alongside people like Kate Moss and David Beckham,” he says. “It all got out of control, so I made a conscious decision to switch it all off and not worry about it any more. To take the focus off me, I stopped doing interviews so that teamwork and results would do the talking.”

Results indeed. AKQA is now a 650-strong business generating roughly £73m a year. It has offices in London, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Shanghai and Amsterdam and more advertising awards than you can shake a stick at. From the start Ahmed wanted the business to stand out from other agencies offering new solutions in an industry full of old ideas.

“First, we wanted to take a stand against ‘multimediocrity’. By that I mean that most advertising makes me feel trapped. I suppose that’s the idea of it, to trap you,” he says. “But our belief is that great work stops you feeling trapped – it inspires you. I find the word ‘consumers’ sort of depressing because surely there’s more to life than just feeding a vast global economic system.”

The maverick sought out a kindred spirit and Branson’s Virgin became its first client. “It is a company that’s famous for its energy, creativity and innovation. So in a way it was a very natural fit for them to hire a youthful start-up rather than a bureaucratic conglomerate.”

The likes of Microsoft and McDonald’s were to follow but Ahmed says the web was a tough sell in the early days. “It sounds crazy now, but the biggest problem was telling people how important digital media and e-commerce was going to be,” he says. “Everyone today can see that it’s important, but when we started it was difficult to convince people that it wasn’t going to be flavour of the month.”

Company DNA

AKQA doesn’t have a huge client list but is very concerned with retaining business. Each client gets a dedicated team and with high staff retention the personal touch remains. “It’s about having fewer clients, so we can care for them. Clients like to work with teams that can add value,” he says. “There’s a lot of research to show that clients who work with a partner for a number of years, rather than constant churn, get the best results.”

Staff and client retention are key areas for any growing business but Ahmed is not convinced that you can codify policies for either. He talks about the “DNA” of his business – hiring the right staff with the same beliefs and attitudes so that the spirit of the company becomes infectious. He was inspired by companies such as Apple and the former Manchester-based games company Ocean, and wanted to create the same enthusiasm and love that they engender.

As he walks around his London office – the “mothership”, which houses about half the company – it is clear he knows many of his staff personally and they have been infected with his enthusiasm. “I’m working with about 20 people that I was working with 10 years ago and have been part of the team that has helped to make AKQA what it is today,” he says. “Everyone always looks for a secret formula, a white paper or a textbook answer to codify how something like AKQA is possible. And I don’t think there is one.”

AKQA looks after its staff, which is 55% male and 45% female, and this brings returns. Its London office in fashionable Clerkenwell is a bright modern building with numerous meeting rooms where staff from various teams and clients can meet.

However, with its new Amsterdam office, things have gone further. It is designed to be more like a private members’ club than an agency. Clients have an entry card and can come in and out as they please. There’s a concierge rather than a receptionist and meeting rooms are booked online. “They can use our facilities even if the meeting is not with our team. We want the client to feel like it’s their agency, because it is, and ultimately I think an agency is owned by its employees and its clients.”

Spreading the word

Managing offices on three continents and five time zones means communication is no easy task. To make life simpler, most internal processes are uniform. There’s a company intranet and newsletter, AKQA Weekly, to boost internal communications. Facebook is used on an informal basis and AKQA was one of the first businesses allowed in, before it was opened up to everyone.

Long-standing employees are encouraged to travel, and they take advantage of this. It is made easier by the fact that AKQA’s staff are fairly young and going overseas is therefore seen as a bonus by many. “I worked at AKQA in San Francisco for a while and I also want to help set up AKQA in Sydney,” says one. “I don’t think there will be any shortage of volunteers who want to help with that!”

Ahmed and his chief executive, Tom Bedecarré, travel regularly between offices, and other members of senior staff have also worked in different offices on a long-term basis. The managing director of the New York office started in London and others have done so in turn. As Ahmed says, it is all about “carrying the DNA of the agency across boundaries and time zones.”

New destinations

Global businesses seldom get there through organic growth and in 2001 AKQA merged with the fast growing US advertising company Citron Haligman Bedecarré (CHB). CHB’s Tom Bedecarré became AKQA’s chief executive. However, the dot com crash followed shortly after and instead of expanding AKQA actually downsized.

Neverthless, Ahmed still describes it as “one of the best things we ever did”, because the new offices meant closer connections with clients and the chance to recruit on a global basis. There was also a cultural fit and shared values which always help M&A deals. “The CHB team loved our story and our founding values of innovation, service, quality and thought.”

More recently, private equity firm General Atlantic bought into the company. But while some entrepreneurs fear outside involvment management has actually improved.

“There’s a team of people who are removed from the day-to-day operations of the business, and can look at its performance in an objective way,” he says. “It’s much healthier for the business to get different points of view than a situation where decision-making is unilateral.”

Ahmed describes how the AKQA board has to strike a balance between independence and responsibilty and says it is accountable to clients, employees and shareholders.  “They are the three main stakeholders at the moment and if we focus on the work as our main priority, we are looking after the interests of all three in one go.”

Just the beginning

With just 10 years behind it, AKQA is still a fairly youthful company and its founder has time on his side. Ahmed has no other business interests and says he wants to just keep on going and pushing boundaries.

With VC investment already there, an IPO is not deemed to be off-limits. However, AKQA’s future is tied to the internet and how that feral beast evolves.”The internet has made huge progress, but I think it is hardly close to fulfilling anything like its full potential,” he says. Which is also possibly an apt description of his business.


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