Having founded his own business as a 21-year-old university dropout in 1994, Ajaz Ahmed has turned AKQA into the largest independent digital advertising agency in the world. The company’s work for blue-chip clients such as Nike, Ferrari, Heineken and Visa has made it the most garlanded digital agency ever. It’s all happened too, in an age when, according to Ahmed, “advertising is easier to skip and filter out than it ever has been.”
As he prepared for the launch of his new book – Velocity: the seven new laws for a world gone digital – Business Sense caught up with him at AKQA’s London office to talk about engaging with consumers, building client relationships and making the journey from start-up to superpower.
You’re one of a long list of tech and digital entrepreneurs (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg, to name a few) to have had huge success after dropping out of university. Why do you think that is?
I think, to a certain extent, university kills the entrepreneurial spirit. People who have been trained the same way end up thinking the same way. You need to have a broad range of experiences and a broad range of ideas to make a meaningful contribution.
I was very lucky in that since I had a National Insurance number, I had been working with some of the most dynamic companies in the world [Ahmed worked with Ashton-Tate, Ocean and Apple before studying business at the University of Bath]. That dynamism had an incredible appeal. I absolutely loved my time at university, partly because it was just the most incredible place to hire people. To this day we’ve got people at the company who I met at university.
What was the aim when you started AKQA?
James Hilton [co-founder and chief creative officer at AKQA] and I just wanted to put multi-mediocrity out of its misery. We weren’t the first digital agency by any means, but we thought there was a different approach that we could take.
One of the key moments in your career must have been getting Virgin and Richard Branson on board as one of your first customers. How did that come about?
We did a website for a small recruitment company which got a huge amount of recognition because it was the first time anyone in recruitment had used the web as software rather than brochureware. We decided to use it as a service, to allow people to enter their CVs and find jobs that matched their criteria. It was radical and got the attention of quite a few companies. Virgin got in touch because they loved our philosophy, our approach and our enthusiasm for their brand.
How did you make the transition from a small start-up to a major global operation?
We’re real believers in the virtuous circle – if you do good work for a company, that will lead to other things. And that’s turned out to be the case.
That’s how AKQA grew from the basement of the industry to be the largest independent agency in the world. We now employ 1,200 people, our revenue is around $250 million. If you look after your clients and help to make them more successful, they will reward you with more work. And, if you look after your employees and have a very respectful working environment where everyone knows what’s expected of them, then it creates loyalty.
We truly believe that those simple principles are the reasons that we’re where we are today. And we work exceptionally hard.
What have been the most difficult obstacles to overcome along the way?
When we were smaller, one of the toughest things to deal with was the loss of a customer. When a client decides that they no longer want to work with you, for whatever reason, how do you deal with it?
When I was 25 or 26, it was a heart-breaking experience for me – and it could have also been a near death experience for the company. It was of a size where it could have had a dramatic impact. But you learn to use a calamity as a defining event in your life.
If you could go back and give a piece of advice to a younger version of yourself, what would it be?
In a way, you have to be absolutely crazy to start your own business, to lose the safety net of a regular income, and embark on this journey. But for the people who do it, the advice I’d give is that the most important attribute is resilience. There must be so many businesses that were so, so close to the breakthrough, but never made it because the entrepreneur just gave up a little too early.
What are the pieces of work that you’re most proud of?
One of the best bits of recent work we’ve done is the Nike Training Club app. In the TV era, one of the best ways to celebrate ‘Just Do It’ was amazing TV commercials that were more like Hollywood epics than TV adverts. But in the digital era, what better way to celebrate ‘Just Do It’ than with an app that’s a personal trainer that you can carry around with you and gives you friendly encouragement and motivation?
It used to be that people told stories through film. Our focus is telling our client’s story through software.
And you’ve just written a book in partnership with Stefan Olander, a client of yours at Nike. How did that come about?
For about 10 years we’d have board meetings and people would say, ‘you should capture some of those thoughts and put them in a book.’ So we did.
What we found is that there are a lot of books that are how-to books, but ours is more about a mind-set and a philosophy. And, it’s the first book, as far as we know, that’s been written by a client and an agency. So it’s useful for clients, agencies and entrepreneurs.
What’s the target for AKQA right now?
Our focus remains on our core values, on making sure we keep delivering and don’t get distracted. Our belief is, unless marketing contributes to society or inspires, it’s pollution. And we don’t want to contribute to pollution.
And what about the future; how do you expect the industry to change?
If you have a look at the advances in technology, thinking particularly of artificial intelligence and mobiles, it’s absolutely extraordinary. Being able to combine artificial intelligence and mobile into a much more intelligent experience for people, that has to be the focus.
Competition: Win a copy of Ajaz's book
To have a chance of winning one of five copies of Ajaz Ahmed's book, Velocity: the seven rules for a world gone digital, which is published by Vermilion and retails at £12.99, simply send us an email at email@example.com with 'Ahmed Prize' in the subject line and your name, address and telephone number in the email.
Terms and conditions
1. Information on how to enter forms part of the terms and conditions of entry. Entry into the promotion is deemed acceptance of these Terms and Conditions.
2. The promoter is John Brown Magazines Limited (Registered no. 2680403), 136-142 Bramley Road, London W10 6SR (Promoter).
3. No purchase of any product or service is necessary. To have a chance to win a copy of Ajaz Ahmed's book, Velocity, send an email to feedback@nw-businesssensecom with ‘Ahmed Prize’ in the subject line and your name, address and telephone number in the email.
4. The promotion ends at midnight on 30 July 2012 (Promotion Period).
5. Subject to clause 6, entry is open only to residents of the United Kingdom and those who are 18 years of age as at the date of the Draw (Eligible Entrants).
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12. The prize consists of Ajaz Ahmed’s book, Velocity, published by Vermilion.
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