Ajaz Ahmed: The Way I See It
Ajaz Ahmed, founder and chairman of AKQA, gives inspirational insight intohis view of leadership and what matters.
As founder and CEO of ideas and innovation giant AKQA, Ajaz Ahmed is one of the biggest success stories in advertising today, despite dropping out of university aged 21.
He launched the agency in 1994 as a riposte to identikit advertising, and oversaw its meteoric rise, building an enviable client list spanning Virgin, Nike, Delta, Starbucks and Rolls-Royce. Now, more than 20 years later, AKQA continues to dominate the digital and interactive space with a slew of award-winning, groundbreaking work, from a fitness app that has democratised the world of personal training to the first ever interactive basketball court.
A prolific voice on business, leadership and innovation in the digital space, Ahmed has also found time to publish two bestsellers while presiding over AKQA’s global expansion. He tells Selena Schleh how beautiful bricks-and-mortar led him to the online world and why modern ads will rot your brain.
I was born at the Canadian Red Cross Hospital in Taplow, a village in Buckinghamshire, England that sits on the River Thames.
My earliest memory is my mother peeling and deseeding a pomegranate for us to eat.
Both my parents worked remarkably hard. My father has a zen, meditative calm about him and my mum is a force of nature: restless, very energetic. My mother worked in the local hospital and my dad as a machinist in a local factory. We didn’t grow up with much but what they did give me is the best gift: a limitless love of learning and liberty.
My childhood was wonderful. I grew up in a big family surrounded by nature, the sunshine and freedom, which is a paradise for me. As a teenager, I went sailing most weekends and in those moments the sea cast its endlessly seductive spell on me, creating many of my life’s happiest memories. It was idyllic. Nature makes all the senses light up: sight, touch, smell, sound and taste. Digital is not truly multisensory in the way that nature is, not even close. My memorable moments with nature are engraved into my heart. I can’t say that about digital experiences yet, but it will happen.
I’ve always loved reading, so as a child the idea of becoming a writer had an appeal.
At school, I probably asked too many questions because I’m curious about examining the root of things and the way things work. But if it was a choice between being a good student or being able to enjoy my life at school then I chose the latter option. There’s no rule that says you need to be at school to be a good student because the desire to learn never actually stops.
There are so many subjects I’m interested in but what got me into technology and communications in the first place was architecture. I fell in love with a building. I grew up in the Thames Valley, essentially the Silicon Valley of the UK. There were technology companies sprouting up all over the place. Most workplaces were anonymous office blocks that lacked soul, but there was one perfect building that I used to walk past almost every day on my paper round when I was 12 years old. I wanted to know everything about the company that occupied it, what kind of work they did, what the people in it were like.
I went on to learn that they were the world’s largest database software company. They had about 80 per cent market share at one point. When you think that almost all the digital services we use these days are databases of some kind, this company could have been one of the most powerful in the world if it was still around today.
I wrote one letter after another to try and get a job with them. Then one day, after I had written my 11th letter, an envelope arrived at my parents’ house. The lady who delivered it looked like an angel to me! The letter said that as soon as I had a national insurance number I could work for them. That year I got my national insurance number and they employed me for a week. A week turned into a few years, working after school and during holidays. I loved it. They had me work in every department: development, logistics, distribution, finance, marketing, sales, operations, training, everywhere. I learned such a massive amount.
At university in Bath, I lived on campus with two friends who also had four names [Ahmed’s full name is Ajaz Khowaj Quoram Ahmed] so we would playfully refer to each other using our initials rather than forenames. It’s a very ‘university’ thing to do.
In the same way that I knew if I didn’t go to university I would regret it, I also knew if I didn’t leave university to start AKQA then I would have regretted that too [Ahmed dropped out of his business studies degree aged 21]. By the time I got to university I had already been working for about six years. In that time I had learned a lot about the standards that the best companies have. I won’t ever encourage anyone to drop out of university but I do encourage people to never lose their curiosity. I enjoyed my time at university because I met people who have become friends for life, and AKQA still has an association with the university today. We hire a lot of people from Bath University because it’s a wonderful place that attracts good people.
There’s no question that while I was growing up every adult I met was a mentor of one kind or another – there were so many saints in my life. Today, we hire people for what they can teach us and not just what we can teach them. Over the years I’ve been tremendously lucky to have worked with or learned from remarkable people like Angela Ahrendts DBE, Gail Rebuck DBE, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Martin Sorrell, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Jamie Oliver.
‘Welcome to the fast lane!’ was my attitude to work in the early days of my career. There’s always been restlessness and even as I’ve got older it has not been diluted. If anything it has accelerated.
[At AKQA] we are so fortunate to work with progressive clients around the world that share similar values and perspectives, creating a ripple effect that extends far beyond any of our own organisations. Virgin has been with us since the beginning, when a project I designed and programmed as a youngster caught its attention. They invited me in for a meeting and we just clicked. The shared values, the enthusiasm, the fun, the love of creativity made a strong connection and it has got stronger ever since.
I’m always going to be grateful to Nike for the journey so far and the adventures ahead. There really isn’t a company on earth like Nike. It’s in a category of one. We’ve learned so much working together. In the early days we were approached by one of their competitors who offered us an extraordinary amount of money to start working with them instead. We turned the offer down politely and told them: “Nike isn’t just another client, it’s a part of our soul.”
What sets AKQA apart is we’ve never lost our ability to surprise. All our best ideas can be explained in one line. They have a sense of humanity and universality to them. Our work is the imaginative application of art and science. We know we are not in the business of creating technology, but we are in the business of applying it in an exciting way. That’s why we say that the most powerful force in the universe isn’t technology, it’s imagination.
How would I define innovation? Well, they say ‘Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s tradition.’ And there’s a quote by William Gibson: ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.’ So I think of AKQA being in the ‘evenly distributing the future’ business.
You have to stay hungry, otherwise you go stale. AKQA is about the duality of what may first appear to be opposing forces. We’re about pushing the limits and explorations, counterbalanced with good engineering and execution. We’re about youth and energy, counterbalanced with maturity and experience. We’re about the cutting-edge, the state of the art, but we’ve never forgotten our origins. We’re about creating what’s next, but nostalgic and loyal too.
This means we’re open to drawing upon outside influences beyond the narrow confines of one industry. We’re always searching for sensory material that can challenge us in new ways. But while the pillars and foundations of our company are firm, we’re adaptive, sensitive to changes in the business environment and society.
Two truths have given us a head start. The first is that technology will shape culture. The second is the need for professionals to help organisations navigate this landscape in the best way so the productivity of their investments is amplified.
The advice I’d give anyone seeking to enter this business is that you need to be vibrant and resilient. If you can’t tolerate the honest feedback it takes to make the work better and if you can’t suffer failures and setbacks then this business is not for you. From our early days we’ve aimed to hire as many fascinating, eccentric, abnormal and unusual misfits as we can.
When [CCO] James Hilton decided to leave AKQA [in 2014], it honestly wasn’t something we really talked about much. I suppose that’s how it is with brothers. The history and respect is there so there’s no real need to get too far below the surface.
The advertising industry is fighting a perpetual battle against its own obsolescence. Most of the work produced is destined for the scrap heap and this makes for inconvenient knowledge. If the ad business is rooted in creativity then why are most ads disposable and dull? How many commercials are a revelation and leave the screen with you? Most ads are like fast food. You eat it and a few minutes later you’re hungry again. If you do it too much it will numb your mind.
The problem with a lot of advertising is simply that the sum is less than the parts. It’s become too much about the copy and not enough about the feeling: that’s just lazy. If the words were any good then it would be more bearable but there’s an abundance of clichés. We live in a world of images, but there are more words than ever. Given the visual sophistication of international audiences, you’d think the industry would try harder to raise its head above the parapet and avoid just going through the motions.
Then there’s the predictability. Take the ‘manifesto film’ that’s so popular at the moment – usually a voice-over set to a montage of feel-good images tuned to a trite rendition of a long-forgotten song. Audiences filter out this self-righteous ‘talking to itself’ nonsense. Good work carves a crevice in your synapses, it stays with you.
What’s the secret to my success? The conventional picture of entrepreneurs as ‘one-person-wonders’ is a romantic one. We need a hero behind the events we witness to help make sense of them, but the reality is more complicated. We need to get away from the narcissism that comes from propagating the idea that the progress of an organisation can be down to just one person. It’s not about being an auteur. It’s about the humility to accept that everything we do is an ensemble piece.
You can read as many books about leadership as you like but it basically boils down to one thing: be a decent human being. There’s a straightforward course in management for anyone who wants to be better and it goes along the lines of: make a short list of all the things that have been done to you that annoyed you. And never do them to others. Then make a list of the things done to you that you’ve loved. And do those always. I think business is not about complexity but about simple philosophies that anyone can understand. That’s what really resonates.
Velocity [Ahmed’s first book, published in 2012] has been the gift that’s not stopped giving. People used to know me as the founder of AKQA, but now I often hear: ‘Oh, you’re the guy who wrote Velocity.’ Then they tell me about the impact that the book has had on their life and the way they think about business. It was written for entrepreneurs and businesses but a lot of feedback I get is from not-for-profits and community organisations implementing the thinking and getting results. That’s rewarding.
My co-author Stefan Olander [Nike’s Digital VP] and I had been talking about writing a book for some time, but with demanding day jobs and families it was tough to dedicate the time a project like this needs. It was the combination of the financial crisis in 2008 and the 2011 London riots that really spurred us on to complete the book.
We started AKQA in a recession and I wasn’t exactly born with a silver spoon in my mouth, so I suppose Velocity was a humble reminder that, with the right motivation, you can help create jobs in a world of business turmoil. The thought was that if this book inspires a single company to keep investing or helps an entrepreneur to start something, then that’s mission accomplished.
Shortly after finishing the book I came across some pretty remarkable figures about the absence of longevity in business today: 87 per cent of companies in the Fortune 500 in 1955 no longer existed in 2011. The 500 most valuable companies in the USA today will only have a lifespan of 18 years. In 1958 that lifespan was around 61 years. For start-ups it’s even more accelerated: 71 per cent are gone within 10 years, while 55 per cent disappear within three years. But we all know there are companies that have existed for decades. So I was curious to discover if there was a philosophy common to those organisations that I could learn and share.
In that respect Limitless [Ahmed’s second book] was more of a personal project, paying respect to the organisations and people that have meant something to me by telling the stories of leaders who, with egalitarian vision, invite the chance of creating real change by giving to the many what is held by the few. But the learnings from it are universal, namely that the most transformative organisations and teams aren’t the ones whose leaders shout the loudest.
The last book in the trilogy will be out in 2017. And then I’m done with writing for a bit.
My dad doesn’t talk much but when he does he usually has a proverb or some wisdom to share. The best piece of advice he ever gave me was: ‘Health is lost, half is lost; wealth is lost, nothing is lost; character is lost, all is lost.’ The point is, basically, don’t sell your soul. If you lose money you always have the opportunity to make it again but with the others once they’re gone, they’re gone.
In the beginning and the end, what matters is the results. Is our work effective and enjoyed? Creative merit and commercial success are just two sides of the same coin. Brands that vault past their competitors are the ones that have purpose at the core, creativity in their veins and a strong sense of identity.
Whenever I’ve done a personality test, it always says I’m an introvert, but I think most people, including me, fall somewhere in the middle of being an introvert or an extrovert. We all recharge our brains through sleep. When we’re with interesting people or being stimulated through learning or trying new things, we get energised and when we’re not, our energy gets depleted.
I’ve never done a digital detox. In my job I don’t think it’s the responsible course of action not to be connected. But the way that I use technology is that it is of service to me rather than the other way around. I’m not particularly organised with my life outside of work and there have been so many occasions where my phone has pro-actively helped me get somewhere on time or given me health advice just because an algorithm recognised its importance in my life. When the technology is an agent of sorts, then that’s the ultimate detox because it takes the pressure off.
My hobbies are swimming, reading and movies. In addition to family, friends and work, these are my greatest sources of pleasure. My happiest days involve sport or being with family and friends. I’ve not been sailing since I was a teenager and I’m saving it up so when I go I can really enjoy it.
The greatest human invention is probably the compass or inventions related to healthcare, medicine and improving people’s lives. The worst are the ones that harm the lives of people or species we share this planet with. But you don’t want to be part of the problem, you want to be part of the solution. As Leonardo da Vinci said: ‘Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does nature because in her inventions nothing is lacking, and nothing is superfluous.’ Nothing is lacking, nothing is superfluous – I think that’s the ultimate aspiration.
I’m an optimist and an idealist so, if I were UK Prime Minister for the day, I would champion the idea that world peace is both possible and inevitable. I would make it our government’s single most pressing priority to help create world peace with all nations in the smartest, most intelligent and non-violent way. And that’s mostly about education.
With the combined forces of knowledge, technology and wealth that the world has access to today – an abundance that’s really unprecedented in history – I really believe we can create more progress in the next few decades than we have in the past 200 years. Considered collectively, the world has an unlimited amount of knowledge and resources: hopefully it will lead to more meaningful and enjoyable lives for everyone too.
The older I get, the more I learn how little I know. But if I am remembered then it should be for being a man who had nothing left to give. I love this quote from Robert Frost: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”