Exclusive: AKQA Group’s Ajaz Ahmed on new-style creativity and WPP in an ever-changing ad world

1/In new AKQA Group AKQA and Grey are operating as separate brands, for a time at least. Wouldn’t it have been easier to call it AKQA Grey? Grey, after all, is bigger – at least in terms of headcount.

It’s somewhat paradoxical the communications industry tends to have complex names when the goal should clearly be simplicity. The AKQA Group exists to nurture and develop a family of unique identities and cultures in the service of the work, our employees and clients. Had we called our new organisation “AKQA Grey” we would have lost the individuality of the Grey brand and the distinctiveness of AKQA, while leaving no room for manoeuvre in the future. The prestigious architecture firm Universal (below) and celebrated industrial design consultancy Map also have their home within AKQA Group. Since the launch of AKQA Group in November, we’ve had meaningful interest from boutiques and independent creative agencies, large and small, attracted to the AKQA Group’s vision, ethos and values.

2/You were one of the first people to spot the potential of digital, for an agency anyway. In the years since has it developed in the way you expected and hoped?

As the only way for organisations to stay in business during the restrictions imposed, digital transformation and automation has accelerated during the pandemic. There’s been a rapid adoption of new technologies. At the same time the negative impact the pandemic has had on everyday lives where there isn’t the same level of digital literacy is beyond comprehension. With many lives changed beyond all recognition, the pandemic has wiped out so much progress for women and children in particular, while the years ahead hold challenges unimaginable only a year ago. Adversity has historically pushed society to advance and we have to ensure people at a disadvantage have access to opportunities and encouragement.

3/There is much talk of agencies suffering from reduced margins, consequent wear and tear on staff and talent leaving the industry. Is enough being done to make a career in agencies attractive, even manageable for those with families?

The pandemic has effectively erased the boundaries between home and work where people have added caregiving, parenting and other responsibilities, often reconciling conflicting demands, without getting enough support. We encourage flexibility, provide wellbeing tools, resources and wellness check-ins. We also launched a page on our site that we hope is of use to everyone. Many of our people have benefited from remote working, fueled by avoiding long and stressful commutes; being more autonomous; having more control over their schedule; collaboration with colleagues overseas and other locations, who they may have otherwise not connected with, without the physical constraints of distance. A good workplace attracts people to stay and there’s greater interest, debate and action than ever about it, which is long overdue.

4/Has the overall standard of creativity improved or gone backwards?

The ‘advertising’ industry has a lower profile than it used to be because most ‘advertising’ is underwhelming and therefore there’s less recognition by the media and the public. In contrast, there’s a new era of innovation, hope, progress and optimism, where agencies are recognising their societal responsibility and the value of new technologies. Good work is quantifiable and creativity can be used to solve complex problems.

5/Do agencies face a future of project rather than agency of record work? If so, are such large structures sustainable?

The world’s biggest and most powerful professional services firms work on a project basis and are significantly larger than agencies and even the holding companies. The ability to contribute good work, achieve repeat engagements, ensure employee and client satisfaction has to be the primary focus.

6/AKQA describes itself as a global design and innovation agency. Is this true of new, enlarged AKQA Group?

AKQA is a work in progress, we’re constantly evolving. In that respect we’re all students at the same school: studying; researching; learning; applying. Perhaps that’s why the best new talent is attracted to our firm. We don’t think of ourselves as an ‘advertising agency’ — whatever it is that label means — especially now that media is so fragmented.

7/In its time AKQA has had a number of external investors, ending with the sale to WPP in 2012. At WPP you and AKQA have transitioned – pretty seamlessly it appears – from the Sir Martin Sorrell era to Mark Read. What’s the secret of getting on with different investors and bosses?

(Neat sidestep here.)

We have a brilliant team, motivated to do our best, guided by a preference to look ahead. We believe the work should speak for itself and then everything else will take care of itself.

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