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Ajaz Ahmed: CEO & Founder of AKQA


Ajaz Ahmed

Ajaz Ahmed on what it's like building a unicorn, the real meaning of diversity, and why the simple will always displace the complex.


Ajaz Ahmed has worked at the same company for 30 years, which may sound risk-averse to some. In reality, it is anything but: the digital design and communications agency AKQA, which he founded when he was 21 years old, employs 5,500 people and is approaching nearly a billion dollars in revenue. The firm has also been awarded an astounding number of awards: it holds 81 Agency of the Year titles to its name, has been voted as one of the top 10 most-loved workplaces by Newsweek, and the best workplace for innovators by Fast Company. It’s no wonder that the  receives up to 20,000 job applications each quarter. 


The last 30 years have been, Ahmed says, “an extraordinary journey”. He puts AKQA’s success down to “phenomenal people and the loyalty and commitment that they have to our values and purpose”.

 

Ahmed grew up in Berkshire, just outside of London. And while it is an affluent part of the home counties, his early years were anything but. Ahmed’s parents were first generation immigrants and he describes both economic and cultural exclusion growing up. “Up until the age of five, there were five of us living in one room in a shared house with a shared toilet that was outside. I can remember how freezing the bathroom was,” he says. It was not the healthiest environment for a young child, and Ahmed suffered from tuberculosis at this time. His father worked in a factory and his mother in a local hospital, but he said that he still had a privileged upbringing.

 

“I had the best parents in the world, so I was privileged in that sense. My parents were kind, compassionate and hardworking, and had to hold multiple jobs to make ends meet.” Despite good academic results, Ahmed was told to aim low by his careers advisor, who suggested he too become a factory worker. These are just a few of the reasons why Ahmed is passionate about diversity in the workplace. 


Better together: championing diversity in business

“At AKQA, we have a five-person leadership team that comprises three women, two men and two people of colour. For an agency of our size, we are the most diverse leadership team we know of,” he says.


This approach has had a “positive effect across the entire organisation” Ahmed adds, but he is keen to point out that true diversity needs to be far more than just a tick-box exercise. “Diversity is about being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is when you get to choose a song for the playlist.”

 

Ahmed has many plaudits and awards under his belt, so what’s the secret to success? He admits that there’s no “secret sauce” but the firm does have something called the AKQA framework which is implemented by all of its employees. “It defines objectives, standards and aspirations that we all expect from the organisation and each other,” he explains. “It’s like an operating system to ensure consistency, collaboration and accountability.”

 

Every month, Ahmed meets with the studio leaders and goes through the four pillars of the framework: employee, client, commercial reputation, and the key metrics to achieve success in each. Each employee receives a quarterly framework impact report. “It creates a sense of transparency and means our teams are not operating in an environment of ambiguity where it’s unclear what’s expected,” he explains.

 

And it is not just employees that are happy with the firm. Big name clients such as Nike have been on the AKQA books for more than 25 years. This loyalty is down, in part, to its creative output, but also because the agency has spotted trends and changes in the marketing landscape.

 

One of the biggest shifts Ahmed has seen since he launched the company in 1994 is the move from advertising to services. “The same amount of money that would have been spent on TV advertising or passive advertising is now spent on creating indispensable services and relationships with audiences,” he explains. “It has gone from transactions to relationships, and from customers to members.”


AKQA was there at the start of that migration. It helped Nike create the Nike Training Club, a fitness app that offers free workouts and training programmes. Which, in Ahmed’s eyes, is helping democratise fitness. “Not everyone has access to a personal trainer, but everyone has access to a mobile phone,” he says. 

 

He thinks that the next focus will be AI. “The way we look at AI is as augmented intelligence. It can help clients and agencies become more productive and help humans focus on creative thinking while the labour-intensive aspects are automated.”

 

One of AKQAs projects is Neuromuscle, an experiment designed to showcase what AI can do for the future of human work. The tool is designed to break down the barriers between humans and machines by allowing AI to control the hands of a person while they play the old-school Atari video game, Asteroids.

 

Spotting trends before anyone else has really understood their importance seems to be a skill for Ahmed. It was while he was at university that he understood the importance of the internet and how it would transform business. “I realised that a lot of organisations outsource their activity to consulting firms or agencies. I thought it was an opportunity to create an agency that helped organisations build a presence on the internet with the use of apps,” he says.

 

AKQA was built “one step at a time”, with a focus on hiring great people and providing excellent work for clients. “If you do good work for a client, you get rewarded with either a recommendation to another client or more work from the existing one,” he says. It’s simple but good advice.

 

A determined start

Ahmed comes across as laser-focused, a characteristic he’s had since childhood. His first job was working for the world’s third largest software company, Ashton Tate, its HQ near where he lived in Maidenhead. And from an early age he was determined to work there. “I wrote something like 11 or 12 letters to the managing director,” he explained. But he realised that he had to change tack. “Instead of asking for a job, I went through the things I could actually do.”

 

At just 16, Ahmed was offered a job at Ashton Tate for the summer holidays. “The managing director did something absolutely incredible. He had me work in every single department at the company – sales, marketing, finance, operations, logistics,” he says.“Imagine, as a teenager, learning from the world’s third largest software company. The person sitting next to me had a PhD in computer science.”

 

The experience of working at Ashton Tate, and feeding off the people around him, remained with him as he built AKQA. “We were able to learn directly from senior people at organisations such as Accenture, and private equity firms including Francisco Partners and General Atlantic.”

 

Student to master

Everything that Ahmed learnt from others over the years, he readily passed on. In fact, it was during a board meeting with General Atlantic that Ahmed’s combined business talent and creativity were given another outlet. “In 2010, there were a lot of people who were asking me a lot of questions about the internet and the digital revolution. Every time I had a board meeting with General Atlantic, they would say: you should write a book because there are so many thoughts you are giving us that would benefit others.”

 

And that’s exactly what he did: Ahmed published his first title Velocity in 2012, where he laid out his principles for success. The first is for businesses to “ensure that they democratise what’s for the few and make it accessible to the many”. Another is to be “revolutionary not just in the products they make but in all other aspects of the organisation, the service they provide or the culture or the customer engagement”. And a third key lesson is that “the simple will always displace the complex, and the fast will always beat the slow”.

 

“A lot of large companies can be bureaucratic and their legacy systems can slow them down. What the better organisations do is they ensure they are running lots of experiments. They kill off the ones that don’t work, and amplify and incorporate those that do,” he reveals.

 

In his second book, Limitless – Leadership That Endures, Ajaz devotes a whole chapter of the book to Apple and is a huge fan, describing it as “the greatest company that has existed”. “Look at the Vision Pro, that’s a revolutionary piece of new technology. And the Apple Watch, a phenomenal health device. When the AirPods came out, people couldn’t imagine a wire-free future and now they can’t imagine having wires on their headphones.”


His third book was far more personal: Ahmed wrote Defeat following the death of his father, with a series of essays he calls “a kind of grief meditation”. He still sees his parents as his biggest inspiration. “I was very lucky at a young age to have incredible teachers. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, but my parent’s goodness was, despite unfavourable circumstances, the source of my resilience and determination.”


Now he is determined to help Boardwave achieve its goals, praising founder and chief executive Phill Robinson’s “vision and ambition” for the software sector. “He is championing a really important cause, the future of Europe, so I’m pretty excited by it. Companies built in the UK can scale to thousands of employees and we can build unicorns here.”

 

 

Tips from the top

 

What was the best advice you’ve been given? 

Don’t ‘di-worse-ify’ and don’t quit a winning horse.

 

Tell me something surprising about you.

There are no surprises – the last 30 years of my life, the journey of AKQA, has been documented in various news outlets because the agency had a profile from the day it was launched.

 

What tech (other than your phone) would you not be without? 

My Mac.

 

What are your top tips for business success? 

Your ego is not your amigo. Take the long-term view.

 

What would you have done if you hadn’t been an entrepreneur?

Something that involves creativity, creation and contribution.


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