Title: Founder and chairman
Company name: AKQA
Year established: 1995
Number of employees: 1,200
With offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris, Washington DC, and Shanghai, AKQA is an award-winning creative agency that specializes in creating digital services, products, communications, and experiences to help brands dramatically improve their business performance. We recently had a chance to interview Ajaz Ahmed, founder and chairman.
Inspire: What are your thoughts on where we are right now with online experiences?
Ajaz Ahmed: The interface is the brand. Digital is now the most visible expression of a brand. Audiences have decided that speed and accessibility are more important than heavy graphics and long download times. A friction-free experience means avoiding the perceived barrier or pain of anything that gets in the way.
Inspire: How much of a shift to mobile have you seen in the last year or so? Has your company seen a big rise in mobile inquiries?
Ahmed: More often than not, mobile is where the customer journey starts, so more of our work than ever is focused on mobile services and application development. In a multimedia, multidevice world, one product alone is not engaging or interesting enough to hold people’s attention. That’s why people have a second, third, or fourth screen. Digital services and devices are customized to an individual’s preferences and have incredible immediacy, depth, and breadth to them.
Inspire: Are you seeing a surge in demand for your projects to work on mobile devices?
Ahmed: There's going to come a time in the near future when a mouse and keyboard look as dated as the rotary dial on an old telephone. It's important that our clients are making the transition to mobile devices and the relevant form factors.
Inspire: Where do you stand on the mobile-optimized website vs. mobile app debate?
Ahmed: Audiences expect a website to be automatically optimized for mobile, or whatever device they are using. That's just a given. When it comes to apps, audiences are happy to download them and keep upgrading as long as they provide indispensability and usefulness.
Inspire: Has your focus evolved since you began your company, or have you simply fine-tuned your focus?
Ahmed: Our primary goal is to create work that really connects with people. That's our signature. Our belief is that unless it contributes or inspires, marketing is pollution. We look to work with clients that make a unique and distinctive contribution to society. Our role is to help amplify their authentic voice. The way we do this is through smart and artful storytelling through software — the digital media of most importance and relevance to our clients' customers. It might be by creating better experiences for their customers to ensure a consistent brand voice across multiple digital touchpoints. Or it might be to help our clients transform their business, making the journey from experimentation to meaningful innovation at scale. Today, the canvas used to connect with audiences has more variations, and marketers have more tools available, so it's an exciting time.
Inspire: How about your team? What ethos do you want it to have?
Ahmed: Every day, AKQA is inventing the future, so we need people who embrace change. Our team looks out for what's next and does not look back.
Inspire: What is the job market like? Is it awash with talented folks, or is it difficult to find quality people in your area? Have you looked outside your area (overseas) to find the talent you need? If so, where are you seeing great talent emerging?
Ahmed: Bringing great people to AKQA is one of the most important parts of my job. I recently spoke at events in Lithuania and Spain, with over 1,000 people at each one. My main message was that we have many job vacancies, and we're looking to hire the best people we can find. If we hire even one person as a result of those trips, it will be worth it. Our goal is to find talent wherever it is and develop people at AKQA so they create the greatest work of their careers.
When it comes to the economy, AKQA was founded in a recession. We also had to contend with and survive the dot-com crash, and there have been two recessions since. The economy will always go through cycles, but it's important for us to take the long-term view and continue to make investments that are right for our clients, our team, and our business, even if we may not see immediate returns.
Inspire: When you employ new team members, what is the most important thing to you or your team: their resume or their personality?
Ahmed: It's the attitude and energy that matters most to me. For example, pretty much everyone at AKQA knows that I will never, ever hire anyone who turns up late for a job interview. It does not matter what the excuse is. I just won’t hire them. Embarrassingly though, I did turn up late for a recent candidate who wanted a job at AKQA, and we ended up hiring that person — but not because I was late. We need people who are conscientious, who are thoughtful, and who will get the job done.
Inspire: What AKQA projects have been created that would not have been possible before the digital revolution?
Ahmed: The projects I like best are the ones that would not have been possible before the digital revolution. For example, our Nike Training Club application is a personal trainer that has democratized the whole idea of professional-level training for everyone. It's personal so you can take it anywhere with you, providing training on the go, friendly motivation, and encouragement. The app has registered around 70 million minutes of training.
I also love the Delta Airlines app because it's indispensible for passengers in terms of boarding passes, seat selection, flight status, and other services. Both these applications are the best in their genre and the best way to carry out particular activities.
Inspire: What is one of the best mobile experiences you have seen lately, and what app needs some attention?
Ahmed: The Facebook mobile app could be a lot better. Instagram is a brilliant app because it's so easy.
Inspire: What is one of the best offline experiences AKQA has created?
Ahmed: At AKQA we talk about storytelling through software. So I love the work we did to tell the Nike+ FuelBand story. The Nike+ FuelBand at Boxpark, London, launched in 2012 and changes color from red to green, depending on your activity for the day. (Watch the video.)
2012 is also a leap year, so our team put out the question to audiences, "What will you do with your extra day to make it count?" We then recruited thousands of people, and through their energy and activity, key sites in London, like the London Eye, changed color from red to green. (Watch the video.) It was a great day and a great example of telling a story through software and experience.
Inspire: What five blogs do you read, or which websites do you visit regularly and why?
Ahmed: I don't read any. I don't have a regular site I visit either.
Inspire: What recent industry-related books have you read, and what did you think of them?
Ahmed: This is probably a good time to plug the book that Stefan Olander, vice president of Digital Sport at Nike, and I wrote together. The book is called Velocity and, in it, we share many insights, ideas, anecdotes, and backstories of our work. I was 21 when I founded AKQA, so hopefully the book will inspire anyone to start a business. In the book, we say that the most powerful force in the universe isn't technology, it's imagination. The point is that we don't think the technology should lead — the idea should lead.
The book is a pretty fast read. (It should be with a title like "Velocity.") But even if people do not have time to read the whole book, they can get a lot out of the Seven Laws and the summary points at the end of each chapter. One of the goals of the book is that it sparks the reader's curiosity so they can go on their own journey. All proceeds from the book go directly from the publisher to charities, including organizations working to end youth homelessness or improve global healthcare. So as well as being useful for entrepreneurs, leaders, and managers, the book is doing good in other ways.
Inspire: How hands-on are you these days with the projects your company works on?
Ahmed: I hire and coach the top people in the company.
Inspire: Are you in control of the number of hours you work, or do you feel you are losing the battle to e-mail and social networks as well as checking your phone all hours of the day and night?
Ahmed: I don't tend to do that because it is counterproductive.
Inspire: Apart from work and family, how do you relax or unwind?
Ahmed: The journey is the reward. I get to travel a lot in my job. I get to meet new people, see new places, and experience new things.
Inspire: How important is it to make time for your team to play with purely experimental work? Do you allow people a certain amount of time to experiment on the job?
Ahmed: At AKQA, we believe that innovation, by its nature, is an experiment with unknown outcomes. So we encourage that experimentation as a core part of our DNA.
Inspire: Where would you love to be able to set up a satellite office?
Ahmed: We hope to set up an office in Brazil and Tokyo next.
Inspire: Do you dream of retiring on a beach, or do you plan to work until the end?
Ahmed: If the body still works, then the soul has no excuse to give up. I will be working until there's no energy left. I don't believe in retirement. It doesn't make sense to me.
Inspire: As someone with many years in the industry, do you find it harder to keep your finger on the pulse of technology? And in what way do younger members contribute to your awareness of that pulse?
Ahmed: AKQA is a place that hires curious people who want to create new ideas before anyone else has even realized they want them. It requires a culture that combines youth and energy with maturity and experience. We think it's the ultimate combination.
Inspire: Do you share digital experiences, software, and hardware with your family?
Ahmed: I bought my dad an iPad because it uses a more natural interface — voice, gestures, and touch rather than a clunky and complicated mouse and keyboard.
Inspire: For someone starting out in the industry, what advice would you give? And what advice would you give to someone who is still in school?
Ahmed: Do work you love.
Inspire: Did you have any influences when you were starting out, or did you set out on your own path?
Ahmed: The people I admire and have learned from are Sir Richard Branson and Steve Jobs. There are many organizations that I've been influenced by, including Nike and Red Bull.
Inspire: Looking back, which project are you most proud of?
Ahmed: We are a forward-looking company; we don't look back. What excites me is our pipeline and roadmap of work. I suppose I am most proud of AKQA itself. AKQA started as an idea to help clients embrace the digital revolution by contributing great work to audiences. This enduring characteristic has guided the company since its inception. People come and go. Clients come and go. But the values remain intact, and that's the real core of AKQA. We have values that remain fixed, but our business strategies and practices relentlessly adapt to the changing world to remain relevant and expand our connection.
Inspire: Many thanks for your time. Please leave us with one inspirational word.