Exclusive: Ajaz Ahmed of AKQA – we want to keep growing so we employ 5,000 people

Ajaz Ahmed, founder of digital agency giant AKQA is one of the co-authors of a new book Velocity, a best-selling guide to surviving and prospering in the digital age. Here he explains why their thinking is relevant to all kinds of companies, what independence means to him and why he wants AKQA to grow to five times or more its current size.

1/Your new book Velocity with Stefan Olander from Nike describes a world that’s constantly changing and quite brutal to companies who fail to adapt, in particular by failing to communicate effectively through digital media. It’s easy to see how Nike and, of course, AKQA have profited from this. But how relevant are your findings to, say, a local high street dry cleaning firm?

One of our readers runs a car parking company and let me know they were buzzing with ideas of transformation after they read the book. So we hope there’s something in the book for all readers. Also, the proceeds go to charities for youth homelessness and global healthcare, so there’s an added benefit there.

Our aim is to create something of use to creative thinkers, leaders, managers, entrepreneurs and individuals who want to successfully navigate the new business landscape and go on an adventure, create their own journey.

For both large and small organisations, the book provides the philosophy we believe will help create a culture of excellence and an environment for enduring success through core values, innovation and creativity.

The main goal is we want to inspire entrepreneurial thinking, an entrepreneurial spirit.

Given I was 21 when I founded AKQA, if the book inspires anyone to start their own business then it’s job done.

2/In the book you say that advertisers need to move from being “message pushers to service providers.” For Nike this is achieved partly by giving running enthusiasts what they want, like Nike+. But Nike is also a heavyweight spot advertiser, using basketball and football stars among others to promote products to non-specialists. To an extent Nike is a fashion business. Isn’t it necessary to shout some of the time?

Advertising used to be about interrupting people’s days with messages. Today, it’s never been easier for audiences to skip, filter, or avoid advertising. The best ideas are the ones that people share and respect the audience need to get something out of the work. I think agencies should be factories for ideas, rather than factories for formats like a 30-second ad or a double page spread. Digital offers an extraordinary canvas for creativity and innovation.

3/You say in the book that technology is a means to an end, not the end in itself, although the ability to understand and deploy technology is a key part of what you do. Some people think that smartphones and iPads are the end of technology in terms of marketing messages. Do you agree?

It used to be that the press or TV ad was where the journey started and the most visible expression of a brand. Today it’s more likely to start on mobile, a tweet, YouTube, or social network.

4/AKQA has a formidable creative reputation, with numerous awards over the years. With, say, Wieden+Kennedy or BBH in the more traditional agency sector it’s not difficult to detect a certain style and approach to advertising, although it clearly varies for different clients. Can we do the same with AKQA in its sector? Should we be able to?

Our belief is that unless it inspires or contributes something useful to society, marketing is pollution.

5/You have said in an interview that you resolved to “get big or die trying,” so that you were able to attract big global clients like Nike. Are you big enough now, with over 1,000 people and an international network, or will you keep going?

We believe that growth is the creator of opportunity, for hiring more great people around the world, attracting more amazing clients. We want to grow to 5,000 people.

6/AKQA is the only big digital agency network left outside the clutches of the huge holding companies. AKQA is majority-owned by private equity. Is your ownership a potential threat to your continued independence? Have you considered a public listing? You could become the Sir Martin Sorrell of the digital sector..

Independence is a mindset, staying hungry, creative and entrepreneurial.

7/Traditional ad agencies have been quite successful at boosting their own digital offer, sometimes by acquisition, sometimes by hiring policies. You, in turn, are said by some to be wandering onto their territory, by making, in effect, commercials for some of your clients. Is the dividing line between traditional and digital disappearing? How are you going to stay ahead of the competition?

We have no plans to do any work that is analogue. That’s not our focus. It’s of no interest to us. Our focus is storytelling through software – art and code instead of just art and copy.

8/Which individuals and companies, from whichever sector or walk of life, have been the biggest influences on your career?

Virgin and Sir Richard Branson, Nike, Apple, Red Bull.

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