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AKQA is about helping clients create the future; ‘independence’ as an abstract ideal never meant much to me: Ajaz Ahmed

Ajaz Ahmed, AKQA

It has been over a year since its acquisition by WPP, and AKQA continues to be going strong as one of the sexiest, most forward looking digital marketing companies in the business. For Ajaz Ahmed, Co-Founder and CEO, AKQA, the relationship with WPP has amplified AKQA’s culture, helped it expand into new markets and increased the agency’s connections with clients and audiences.

In this interview with DMA’s Noor Fathima Warsia, Ajaz speaks about what being a WPP company means, why most of AKQA work is mobile first and what is next on AKQA’s radar. Excerpts…

In the last one year, since AKQA has been a part of the WPP family, we have seen you expand into various new markets including Japan. What are some of the APAC expansion plans ahead?
The next two office openings we are planning are for India and Brazil. We also have strong interest from people and clients in Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, Australia to complement our existing presence in Shanghai and Tokyo. The vibe we get when we visit a city is as much of a factor as anything else when we look to open a new office. Whenever we’ve added an office to our network, access to talent and proximity to clients are key factors. With regard to our multiple US offices, it’s a reflection of the way our clients and their customers do business in America. We will follow the same thought process for APAC too.

For many companies, one of the toughest phases is the first year of the acquisition given nuances such as setting up of a new work culture/ecosystem. What were some of AKQA’s pain points?
We’ve had an incredibly busy and exciting first year with WPP and that’s mainly because of the significant number of opportunities that have become available as a result of our partnership. One of the reasons why WPP invested in AKQA is because of our culture. Amplifying that culture is important to WPP and they have helped us to expand into new markets and increase our connection with clients and audiences.

One of the key benefits of working with WPP, in fact, is the unique access the company has with the client’s board and C-suite. We also have instant access to expertise and infrastructure in every significant territory on the planet. The training opportunities are amazing and the conversations we can have with media groups and technology partners are more numerous and decisive.

Was there any truth in the talks that some of the senior staff of the agency resigned because of the decision of the acquisition? How did you deal with the constant media glare that AKQA has been under, especially immediately after the acquisition?
Since launching the agency at a pretty young age, we’ve been used to the media glare. People can see the bigger picture with our partnership with WPP and the feedback from employees, clients, media and analysts has been good at all levels. Our team has also always been in strong demand. Our employees get offered great jobs, because they’re great people working in a great culture. It’s understandable that other organisations want some of this too. This was just as true before our partnership with WPP as it was after. From our side, we are very proud of our alumni and what they go on to achieve.

Until a year back, AKQA was one of the largest digital independents – are there any occasions when you miss being ‘independent’?
I thought I might, but since this is the one question that has come up again and again since the deal, I can say now that I really don’t. I’ve really thought about it because I’ve been asked it so often, and it’s made me think about the whole idea of independence and what it actually means. There’s an extent to which both ad people and digital people (much like music and movie people) romanticise “independence” as an outsider, underdog kind of ideal. But when I thought about it, ‘independence’ as an abstract ideal never meant much to me. AKQA has always been about helping our clients to create the future and delivering excellence in the form of great work. Everything else is peripheral, cosmetic. Now we serve on a bigger scale and with more opportunities than ever.

In our last conversation you had said, AKQA is where creativity meets technology. At a time, when there is something changing every day, how has the manifestation of this philosophy changed?
I guess the manifestation of the ‘creativity meets technology’ philosophy has evolved in the same way as everything else in our lives – faster. More new devices, more new software, more scale, more clever cross platform coding, less and less forgiveness for clutter and confusion. There’s far less novelty in the idea of something like an app now. The plus side of that is that cheap gimmicks wear off even more quickly. This essentially means that creativity that applies technology to making people’s lives easier and better is more welcome.

What are some of the areas that AKQA is incubating, or focussing to build on, for its future growth?
In recent months, we’ve worked with World Wildlife Fund to raise awareness about endangered species with a project that won an Apple Design Award; we’ve revolutionised Audi’s online presence; we’ve taken consumer fitness technology to new heights with Nike + Kinect Training; we’ve created the most advanced and comprehensive flying app for Delta. These are examples of both creating the future and making what already exists even better. Our focus is working out the best ways to apply new technologies for the benefit of people.

Mobile and social, and also data, seem to find their way in any conversation in context to digital marketing. Do you think at some level the industry is becoming more about buzzwords and lesser about actual comprehension of what these mean as opportunities or challenges?
As long as there is journalism or business, there will be buzzwords. It’s easy to remember a couple of choice phrases or bullet points, and we’ve probably all done it at some time or other. Having said that, the market turmoil and technological pace of recent years has turned up and churned out buzzwords at an alarming rate.

How is AKQA developing its mobile expertise and what are some of the observations that you have in context to connecting with consumers through this medium?
Just about all of our work starts with mobile first. In terms of consumers and what they want in general, you mainly learn again what you always knew: people want to get things done with the maximum ease and the minimum over-complication. If the story you make them part of isn’t short, it had better be sweet and compelling all the way. Beyond that, the real question is, what wouldn’t people much prefer to do via their mobiles these days?

Monetisation and measurement seem to be two big problems with social and mobile at present. Do you agree?
These are not really problems if you are focused on the right metrics for your business and what you wish to achieve.

AKQA has been involved in various industry and young talent initiatives such as Future Lions? What is the company’s thought process on contributing to the talent in the industry?
AKQA’s founding motto is: ‘the future inspires us, we work to inspire’. The next generation of talent is the future so we are delighted to give their work exposure to help them find meaningful careers in our industry. Future Lions has become one the world’s largest student competitions and it’s always brilliant to showcase fantastic creativity from around the world. I was 21 years old when I founded AKQA and most of the entrants of Future Lions are also around that age, so we are happy to provide a platform for their innovation.

Can we expect you to author, or co-author, a book again? What is the one subject that you would be keen to put in the form of a book again?
You probably can, I have something new in the works. Velocity was written with Stefan Olander, VP of Digital Sport at Nike and we felt that it was the most honest way to reflect our conversations and thoughts.

What does the acquisition by WPP, and in turn working with Sir Martin Sorrell, mean for someone like you?
For the company, it’s meant bigger, stronger, faster, more. In terms of working with Sir Martin, it’s given me an education about how a company can stay so successful and lean for so long, if it’s motored by the right kind of willpower and dedication. That you can have an organisation become the market leader, yet remain mobile and entrepreneurial in its approach, is a tribute to Sir Martin, but it should also be a huge inspiration to anybody.

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