AKQA Brings Home the Gold

Want clues to AKQA‘s success?

Just check out “The Lost Ring,” an Olympic-themed alternate reality game sponsored by McDonald’s. Since April, participants around the world have searched for clues on- and offline to solve the mystery of the lost ring.

Or play along with Mortarman or Kissy Puppy, characters featured in Coca-Cola’s “Happiness Factory, Open for Work,” a branded interactive game.

AKQA, which worked with partners to develop these campaigns, has won accolades for its ability to deliver top-shelf creative.

“AKQA bridges the gap between understanding the client’s perspective and translating that into breakthrough agency creative,” said one client from a Fortune 500 who asked not to be identified because I didn’t clear our conversation with his PR machine.

To its credit, AKQA has coaxed Fortune 500 brands to experiment in new media platforms, such as the interactive games for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, the “Dorm Survival Guide” sponsored by Target on Facebook, and a mobile brand-building campaign for Smirnoff.

“Their work resonates with consumers. It causes people to think differently about a service, product, or brand,” said a marketing executive at a financial services firm that had planned to hire AKQA. The firm didn’t go ahead with the work, which included a Web site redesign, because its marketing budget was slashed due to troubles in the financial sector.

As AKQA CEO, Tom Bedecarré, 52, is best known for his entrepreneurial spirit. He’s been described as gracious, collaborative, and cool — very cool.

“I have tremendous respect for him and the way he does things,” said P.J. Pereira, AKQA’s executive creative director from 2005 until recently, when he left to establish his own agency. “Especially for his ability to keep his cool on the most tense or exciting moments. Some people may think it’s cold blood. But having had an agency before and being back to my entrepreneurial mode, I have to say it’s way more than that. Tom has that wise temper of those who have seen a lot, you know?”

Indeed, Bedecarré has seen a lot. In the 1980s, he worked at an advertising agency in New York before heading to San Francisco, where he planted his roots. In 1990, he and two partners struck out on their own to launch Citron Haligman Bedecarré (CHB).

While at CHB, Bedecarré is said to have focused the agency on digital work. The move paid off, with CHB reportedly seeing its billings double to nearly $200 million over two years back in 1999.

In 2001 — just before the boom turned into the bust — CHB merged with AKQA, based in London, England. AKQA’s founder, Ajaz Ahmed, serves as chairman. Since that time, AKQA has been steadily growing, opening offices in Washington, DC; Amsterdam; and Shanghai.

Like any CEO leading a fast-growing agency, Bedecarré faces the challenge of attracting the right talent, maintaining a culture that fosters creativity and innovation, and delivering creative that resonates with clients and their audiences. It also includes successfully building out and integrating other agency offerings, such as its search engine marketing services, Web analytics and optimization, mobile marketing, and more.

“AKQA is run like a major traditional agency, but with all of the creative ingenuity you’d expect out of a digital agency. You wonder how he’s been able to merge the two,” said the marketing executive from the Fortune 500 company.

What’s been Bedecarré’s formula to success? In addition to hiring talented staff — such as Rei Inamoto, global creative director; and Lars Bastholm, co-chief creative officer — here are a few takeaways based on interviews with people familiar with AKQA’s work.

Fosters Collaboration

Bedecarré knows when to bring in outside partners and how to encourage those relationships to flourish, said one AKQA business partner. When AKQA was hired to develop an online complement to Coca-Cola’s popular “Happiness Factory” television ad, the agency tapped Shift Control Media, a game development studio, to assist. “That’s a mark of high emotional intelligence for an agency to recognize what they are and where they can use expertise from outside resources,” said Tim Zuckert, Shift Control’s chief executive.

Grooms New Talent

AKQA sponsored a student competition, Future Lions, at an international advertising festival in Cannes. More than 500 entries were submitted, with five winners named. Among them were Jeremy Claud and Mollie Patesotti, whose marketing concept for Sharpie permanent markers called for the use of motion-sensitive media to let users create digital messages in their own handwriting.

And AKQA swooped in to hire 6 out of 12 students graduating one term from the Miami Ad School‘s San Francisco program. “We have found [AKQA] to be incredible at recognizing what young talent can add to the creative process, creative department, and clients needs,” wrote Miami Ad School president Pippa Seichrist in response to a query I sent her via Facebook. “It is quite interesting that they brought in six grads who already had developed strong relationships and chemistry with each other. You can imagine what a head start that group has in working as a cohesive team,” she added.

Possesses an Intellectual Curiosity

And that includes staying on top of industry trends. For instance, Zuckert said Bedecarré twice a year attends Under the Radar, a conference for emerging technology companies. And Bedecarré, the son of two educators, doesn’t drop in for just an hour or two. He stays the entire day to absorb what he can about the latest technologies, said Zuckert. “A lot of times, when someone becomes CEO, particularly a very successful CEO, they become a bit more distant from the inner workings of that business. That’s very telling about Tom’s approach. He personally believes in seeing new technology and new creative first hand.”

Yet, there’s one characteristic that’s far more important.

“In the end, Tom is a nice, smart guy who genuinely wants to do something good for people around him. And that’s the most important thing anyone should know about him,” said Pereira, AKQA’s former executive creative director.

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