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Digital pioneer: Ajaz Ahmed

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Ajaz Ahmed doesn’t want to be profiled. In fact, this is only the second interview the co-founder and chairman of the world’s biggest independent digital marketing agency has given this year.

So what makes this successful yet self-effacing internet entrepreneur shun the limelight his peers love to bask in?

Well, he’s certainly busy. A hands-on perfectionist, in a tour round the company’s buzzing Farringdon office, he remarks that he’s spotted 20 things that need correcting.

And he does spend most of his time “on a plane”, jetting between the company’s offices in the US, London, Shanghai and Amsterdam, meeting with his private equity investors, and looking after a roster of clients that includes Nike, Diageo, Fiat, Sainsbury’s, Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

But when you do catch up with him, he’s not exactly reticent – there’s more to it than that. “Clients hire AKQA for our team, not because of any single individual,” he says.

“For the longevity of a professional services firm, it has to sustain beyond any individual, especially the founder. I don’t look at a job title as a badge of honour or with a sense of entitlement. I think each day we all need to earn our seat at the table and that includes me.”

Another reason for the reserve is that he wants to let the work do the talking. AKQA started out on a Virgin campaign and has been behind some landmark digital campaigns, including Coca-Cola’s Wayne Rooney World Cup viral; shedloads of Nike campaigns (remember the NIKEiD concept where you design or customise your own trainers? That was AKQA); and a great innovation for the US Postal Service that sizes your parcel using virtual reality.

Its latest campaign for Gap, featuring social media, an iPhone app and location-based Smartphone services, just launched in the US and is aiming to help revitalise the retailer’s flagging sales.

AKQA has been voted best agency on six separate occasions this year, and won a host of gongs for different campaigns from Creative Review. Although Ahmed is still very hands-on with the campaigns, he continues to defer to others and encourage emerging talent.

Take the Future Lions competition at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival, for example. Sponsored by AKQA, the scheme encourages students to come up with ideas for advertising a brand that wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.

Does Ahmed think digital creatives are the new rock stars? He quickly dismisses the suggestion. “You’re forgetting the client,” he points out. “They’re the most important ingredient.”

So no navel-gazing from Ahmed, then.

Still, the AKQA story is worth reiterating. Co-founded in 1995 by a 21-year-old Ahmed at a time when the internet was still in its infancy, All Known Questions Answered challenged the established advertising elite at their own game.

It out-thought and out-innovated its competitors to win digital advertising business, leading on to e-commerce contracts such as Orange’s storefront and product development projects such as Fiat’s recent eco:Drive concept (it takes diagnostics from the car to your computer and tells you how to “drive greener”).

One of AKQA’s greatest achievements has been its ability to straddle the ground between giant full-service agency and digital boutique, becoming a strategic partner to brands like Nike, even though it only made around $100m in last-reported 2006 revenues.

Many clients still think of AKQA as an ideas shop, but it now has more than 800 employees on three continents. It even has a film-editing suite in its London office, alongside the locked rooms for ideas sweating.

AKQA’s been through a recession before, and the experience taught Ahmed hard lessons. “We had to navigate our way through the dotcom crash,” he explains. “We survived, when most of our competitors were going to the wall, by being disciplined, obsessed with quality and not being greedy where there was huge amounts of business to be had.”

And what about this time around? Although he doesn’t like to gloat, the business is doing nicely, thank you very much. He says: “In an economy that isn’t growing, every business faces two choices: either run for the hills or do everything you can to increase your relevance to customers, which we did. So despite this being the worst recession for decades, AKQA is still hiring.”

He says the group’s much-prized independence is one reason it stays on its toes. Despite a merger with US advertising company CHB (CHB’s Tom Bedecarré is CEO) and the acquisition of a search company, Ahmed says AKQA is focused on organic growth.

“We’ve preferred to grow organically, ensuring that our people understand our company values. If you’re a holding company, then you’re in the business of making acquisitions. Our best people’s time and energy is focused on our clients.”

Another is a steely focus on the “housekeeping”. In the early days, he jokes, the company was almost like a firm of accountants, so diligent was its attention to the figures. Now, the challenge is more complex. “Professional services firms never have exactly the right number of people because of the nature of the business. The critical thing is being able to balance and forecast demand so you’re not left with any inventory which, in our case, is time. Over the years we’ve got much better at that.”

Ahmed thinks and talks a lot about the long game. “There are no shortcuts to success,” he says. But most telling is his analysis of failure: “What makes a business fail is when it does not adapt to the way that customers are changing or the way that the industry is heading and remain relevant to customer needs.”

As AKQA becomes part of the establishment it once set out to challenge, how can it ensure that it remains cutting edge? Client feedback helps – and AKQA has a disproportionately large customer services and operations team.

But perhaps part of Ahmed’s conviction comes from his grounding at Apple, where daring to fail was part of the culture. He says: “My first boss told me ‘success has the seeds of failure built in’ and that’s something I have never forgotten. It’s important to always have a sense of where we are going next.”

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