Ajaz Ahmed (pictured left, 2002) experienced the Internet revolution far from the Silicon Valley scene. He started AKQA in a London basement in 1994 when he was only 21. Last week holding company WPP agreed to buy the agency for about $540 million.
Ahmed's formative years were spent on London's western edge, where numerous global tech companies had set up shop. As a teenager he worked for Ashton-Tate, at that time the world's third largest software company, and Apple Computer where he first heard people talk about how technology and media were converging. He was taking university business courses when he decided to ditch the classroom and start his own Internet agency. Along with a handful of co-founders Ahmed went after a select group of large, sexy and innovative brands, starting with Richard Branson's Virgin.
At the time London was enjoying a fleeting "golden era" of entrepreneurialism. Inevitably the British media came clamoring after Ahmed for the ultimate young Internet entrepreneur story. But instead of turning on the charm, the low-key CEO turned down interviews to concentrate on his cherished start-up.
Then came a series of mergers and acquisitions. The 2001 merger with San Francisco ad agency Citron Haligman Bedecarre - brought AKQA into Apple's home territory and established San Francisco as the agency's U.S. hub.
Now Ahmed, 39, (pictured right, 2012) is leaving his position as chairman to retake the reins as CEO of the sprawling digital agency, which has eight offices and more than 1,100 employees worldwide. The plan is to preserve the shop's independent spirit under the WPP umbrella, while delivering "innovation and creativity at scale." Prophetically, Ahmed's newest project is "Velocity," a book he wrote with Stefan Olander, VP of digital sport at Nike, as a guide for prospering in the digital age.
While crisscrossing the globe in the wake of the WPP deal, Ahmed shared with ClickZ his dreams for AKQA and memories of his early days as a young Digital Mad Man.
ClickZ: Will becoming part of WPP further unleash the agency's potential that you foresaw in the beginning?
Ajaz Ahmed: Yes, the partnership with WPP has us tremendously excited. We are really energized about the adventure ahead.
CZ: Take us back to the early days. What was London like for ambitious young people in the 1990s?
AA: The U.K. does not tend to celebrate entrepreneurs or entrepreneurialism in the same way the U.S. does. That's one of the reasons the U.K. has never managed to create the equivalent of a Silicon Valley, with multiple billion-dollar tech companies. But for a brief moment in the late 1990s and early 2000s, young people were celebrated, inspired, encouraged and energized to start amazing businesses on a grand scale with great vision. Technology made business more meritocratic so that good ideas, rather than elites and monopolies had the environment to win.
CZ: How did you meet AKQA's co-founders and shape your vision?
AA: It helped that the four of us were all about the same age. James Hilton replied to an advert I placed in Creative Review magazine and I just got a feeling when I looked at his resume and cover letter. Matthew Treagus was introduced to me by a good friend in the tech field. Dan Norris-Jones was headhunted because I wanted a person who was brilliant at mechanical engineering and software for our first chief technology officer. I didn't want any bugs or errors in our work. It meant our methodology had a more physical, mechanical engineering, product design mindset rather than conventional software development. These foundations were not your typical agency setup; in fact our shop was more akin to a product or software company.
As for what to call our company, I was living in a house with two friends, and we each had four names, so we ended up using our initials as our nicknames. Mine was AKQA and that seemed like an interesting name for a start-up. It completely differentiated us then and continues to now.
CZ: What did your offices look like during the boom?
AA: Once we got out of the basement, our offices were gorgeous in terms of design. We had a studio in Chelsea, then a house in Kensington. Next we moved into several floors on Jermyn Street, in the heart of Mayfair. The office was in between McKinsey [management consultants] and The Economist [magazine], which I thought said it all.
The Jermyn Street office was absolutely stunning - all steel, glass, oak and limestone. Just like an Apple store - but before they launched the first Apple store. It even had glass elevators. I miss that office most because we had many defining moments there and because I love the design and materials of it. I still drop by every few months to look at it.
CZ: How did you dress in those gorgeous quarters?
AA: I tended to wear the same clothes as I do now: a Ralph Lauren crew neck sweater, t-shirt, jeans, Nike shoes.
CZ: Were large ad agencies and the media curious about what you knew back then?
AA: We always focused on product development rather than advertising. In the 1990s we launched the first service that lets you search for a used car online. We also created the first hiring website that let you enter your CV and preferences and the system would help you find a job.
The big agencies all seemed to know that the Internet, digital [and what we did] was very important, but they couldn't switch gears fast enough. Internal structures and politics constrained them. Many had become factories for the 30-second ad or the double page spread.
Yes, there was a huge amount of media attention at the time. I decided to turn off all interviews and everything because they became a distraction and were taking on a life of their own. Fame for individuals wasn't why we set up the company. I turned off [the media coverage] so our work would do the talking.
CZ: What mistake did you wish you hadn't made?
AA: Actually, there was an important mistake we did not make. We didn't take projects from vaporware dotcom businesses that were getting funded easily and being handed to us on a plate.
There were not many sustainable business models at that time. We would have these weekly marathon board meetings and the team would be shocked that I turned down so many accounts from the latest dotcoms. There would be a lot of arguments. I reminded them of what happened in the 80s with the personal computer companies.
It turned out to be the right move. When the dotcom crash happened, AKQA was one of the few businesses that survived and grew.
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Joan Voight is a Contributing Editor to ClickZ. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has covered online and offline media, marketing and advertising since the mid-1990s for several business publications. She spent nine years at Adweek magazine, where she was San Francisco bureau chief, national senior writer and contributing reporter.
March 19, 2014