A Conversation with Ajaz Ahmed – Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Founder & CEO of AKQA.

A Conversation with Ajaz Ahmed - Entrepreneur, Philanthropist, Founder & CEO of AKQA.

Ajaz Ahmed is founder and CEO AKQA, a design and innovation agency that employs over 7,000 professionals across 24 countries. Recent recognition includes being named by Gartner as one of the world’s leading global marketing agencies. AKQA is united with independently minded industry legends, including Grey, Universal Design Studio, Map Project Office and Made Thought. Ajaz has co-authored and written three books about business, creativity, scaling and technology: Velocity (2012), Limitless (2015), and Defeat (2019). Ajaz has also been involved in philanthropy since the start of AKQA for over two decades, and launched ajaz.org which has made over 15 grants since it was launched in August 2021. In addition to his own charitable organisation, Ajaz sits on the board of Mission 44 (founded by Sir Lewis Hamilton: empowering young people from underserved groups to succeed), Elton John AIDS Foundation (founded by Sir Elton John & David Furnish, funding frontline partners preventing infections, fighting stigma and providing treatment) and Virgin Unite (founded by Sir Richard Branson, uniting people & entrepreneurial ideas to change the world).  

In this interview, I speak to Ajaz Ahmed. We discuss what it takes to build a global creative business, the power of creative industries as a force for good, and his learnings from working with some of the world’s greatest brands. 

Q: How did entrepreneurship come into your life?  

[Ajaz Ahmed]: I owe a heartfelt thanks to my family – my elder sister, younger sister, dad, and mum – as they played an integral part in my upbringing in the picturesque Thames Valley. This locale was the mirror image of Silicon Valley during the nascent stages of the personal computer revolution. Cutting-edge organisations from California, known for their democratised workplaces and vibrant cultures, began to bloom around us.  

My father, a factory worker, would toil through the night and, when I was 12, he informed me one morning about a job opportunity at the local newsstand. The next morning, armed with a dot matrix list of buildings and homes to deliver newspapers to, I felt as if I had hit the jackpot. The list provided me with a legitimate excuse to visit a building I was enamoured with, the headquarters of the world’s third largest software company.  

After completing my paper round, I couldn’t resist peeking into a dumpster outside the building. What seemed like trash to this giant software company was akin to Aladdin’s treasure for a 12-year-old. I headed home, put on my school uniform and returned from school later that day to ask permission to rummage through their skip. Instead of citing safety concerns, they graciously allowed me to take what I wanted and even offered me a tour of the building. 

I’d witnessed the construction of this building and had fallen in love with its architecture. This love quickly transformed into admiration for the company that called it home. So, I seized this golden opportunity. I recruited my older sister as my business partner, and we began to gather discarded floppy disks using my youngest sister’s pram.  

These disks were sold at a steep discount compared to their retail price. We included a flyer in our newspaper deliveries, offering these disks for purchase. As an added bonus, we offered same-day delivery, a feature that we cheekily called “Amazon Now”.  

When I returned from school that day, my mum informed me that the phone had been buzzing with calls. Thus, my first entrepreneurial venture was a resounding success. It is often said that it takes a village to raise a company, and my village had certainly played its part in fostering my first entrepreneurial journey.  

In the subsequent years, between the age of 12 to 15, I wrote numerous letters to this software company, seeking employment. After several unsuccessful attempts, I changed my approach and detailed the skills I could offer. A week later, I received a hand-delivered reply offering me work during the half term and summer holidays, once I had a national insurance number.  

At 15, I was exposed to this exciting, dynamic, and nurturing Californian business culture. This experience not only altered my perspective but also showcased the kindness and generosity of my co-workers.  

The Managing Director of the company, who remains a dear friend and one of the many guiding figures in my life, gave me the chance to work across all departments. This rotation fostered an understanding of the mechanics of business at a young age. I hadn’t consciously planned to start an agency, but this invaluable experience laid the foundation for future entrepreneurial ventures. 

Looking back, it is clear that every step of my journey was a stepping stone to my future. The paper round provided by my father, the opportunity to scavenge through the dumpster, the help from my sisters, and the chance to work at this illustrious company all contributed to who I am today. As the saying goes, “the child is the father of the man”. My early influences undeniably shaped my personal and professional life. 

Q: What enabled your agency to outscale competition?  

[Ajaz Ahmed]:   Our core belief is in the immense potential of technology as a force multiplier, particularly when it’s rendered accessible and intuitive. From the onset, we have viewed the internet through the lens of software, rather than merely brochureware. This perspective was largely formed due to my early experiences working at a database-centric software company, which imparted a deep understanding of software. 

Additionally, we have always harboured a profound passion for design and storytelling, always aspiring to create something wholly unique. We view ourselves as an innovation agency, one that marries the spheres of art and technology. We also aim to foster an environment that magnetises highly skilled individuals who strive to produce groundbreaking and influential work. This, in essence, is our motivation and our starting point. 

Owing to our exceptional team’s ingenuity, we have consistently produced pioneering and cutting-edge work. We quickly adopt technologies we see potential in and dismiss those that don’t seem promising. Over the last five years, we have heavily invested in Artificial Intelligence, which has brought immense benefits to us and our clients. Conversely, we didn’t invest in the metaverse – or, as we call it, the “metaworse” – due to its inherent lack of potential as a force multiplier and clunky user experience. 

Today, we are immensely fortunate that our hard work is globally recognised. Not only do we consistently win highly competitive global awards, but thanks to our brilliant team, we also frequently receive global agency of the year accolades. Recently, we were named by Newsweek as the ninth most loved workplace in the world, a distinction we’re incredibly proud of. Further testament to our success is the staggering 20,000 applications we receive per quarter from individuals aspiring to join our ranks. 

Our company has always been guided by our foundational values: innovation, service, quality, and thought. We believe in embodying these values through our actions, rather than merely discussing them. 

Q: How can agencies create impact? 

[Ajaz Ahmed]: As a creative agency, our fundamental duty is twofold: ensure meaningful career experiences for our employees and provide a healthy, respectful professional environment, while simultaneously meeting and exceeding client expectations. Our foremost priorities are to make our team feel valued, seen, and heard, enabling them to make a significant impact, and to ensure our clients experience remarkable service and solid return on investment. This forms the bedrock of any professional services company. 

Contributing to society comes in many forms. Meaningful careers not only fulfil our team members but also drive the broader economy as employees become taxpayers. This virtuous circle is a fundamental contribution to society. 

With that foundation in place, an agency can further contribute in several ways. One is through mentorship and education. For instance, we’ve been running the AKQA Future Lions program for 18 years, an annual prize awarded to school and student teams. This gives them the opportunity to collaborate with a brand and bring their ideas to life, involving extensive mentorship and education from both our clients and our team. Sharing knowledge, skills, and experiences through such programs empowers the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs.   

Another critical but often overlooked aspect in creative industries is diversity and inclusion. Creative and media sectors haven’t historically been the best examples in this regard. Our approach is this: diversity is an invitation to the party, inclusion means being asked to dance, and belonging implies having the chance to choose a song on the playlist. This metaphor speaks to making a difference and feeling truly part of something. Promoting diversity and inclusion not only in the workforce but also in the work we produce leads to a more equitable, representative ecosystem. Encouraging diverse voices and perspectives fosters creativity and innovation. Our diversity at AKQA is commendable compared to similar-sized agencies, contributing to our breakthrough and diverse body of work. 

Other ways we can make a societal difference include social impact projects, where we use our creative capabilities to address societal and environmental challenges. We engage in pro bono work and launch ideas that raise awareness about various difficulties faced by people and the natural world.  

Lastly, collaboration with nonprofits is another avenue to make a meaningful contribution. Partnering with organizations that add value to society allows us to combine our expertise and amplify impact. This generates a ripple effect in the industry, furthering our goal of societal betterment. 

Q: How did you- as an individual- approach philanthropy?  

[Ajaz Ahmed]:  One aspect that always fascinates me is the transformative journey an individual can undertake, becoming a symbol for a certain idea or theme. In my earlier years, I found myself in the role of a technology entrepreneur, seizing plentiful opportunities within that space. Then came the phase when my books were published: Velocity, Limitless, Defeat, and the AKQA family album. Consequently, I transitioned into the phase of an author, which introduced another dimension and platform to my journey. The persona of the technology entrepreneur seemed to fade, but now the conversation has evolved. I find myself discussing philanthropy with a new generation of entrepreneurs, and how they plan to contribute their insights and experiences to society. 

My own approach to this matter is influenced by my upbringing. Born into a family where my father made about £35 a week and both of my parents worked tirelessly, we didn’t have the luxury of material wealth. Yet, we were enveloped in an abundance of love, which I view as the ultimate luxury. This upbringing imbued me with empathy towards families facing similar circumstances.  

This empathy fuels our work at ajaz.org, where my colleagues Raj Chaim, Sam Kelly and Nicola Brentnall (formerly CEO of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust) are invaluable contributors. Initially planning to issue 12 grants, we ended up disbursing between 25 and 28 in our first year. Our primary focus is immediate impact for families in need. Despite narratives suggesting otherwise, the reality is that many UK families experience poverty, with children often going without meals. The rising cost of living disproportionately impacts certain communities, and it’s here where our aid can make a significant difference. 

In addition to the empathy ingrained in me, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by individuals of high moral standing, serving as remarkable role models. This has been a true blessing.  

Another significant part of my journey began when I became a trustee for several charities as a young tech entrepreneur. One of the first was the Prince’s Trust, where I had the honor of being their youngest trustee. Engaging at this level, learning about the people we were helping, heightened my desire to give back to society. 

When asked about what sets AKQA apart and supports our growth, our sense of service comes to mind. We are dedicated to serving our clients, employees, and the audiences that engage with our work. It’s through our deep respect for all these stakeholders that we create a tangible difference. In essence, it’s a constellation of efforts that drives us, each contributing to the whole. 

Returning to the topic of philanthropy and leadership, I believe it’s crucial to address an unfortunate tendency in the business world. Too often, organisations can engender an atmosphere of indifference towards others and the natural environment. This can stem from an excessive focus on one’s own tasks and an inflated sense of self-importance. However, this disposition stands in stark contrast to the warmth that a true leader should embody. 

One of the qualities that fills me with pride about our company is the genuine humility and kindness of our team. We are a group of good, decent people who don’t carry an inflated sense of self-importance.  

Another common pitfall that leaders may stumble into is an obsession with extravagance and material accumulation, often as a means to amass more power. However, it is crucial to remember that a leader’s position is granted and sustained by the people surrounding them. Therefore, if a leader neglects their core responsibility – which is to serve their employees, clients, and occasionally the work and its audience – their leadership, and consequently the organisation, will crumble. 

Q: What does it take to build great brands? 

[Ajaz Ahmed]: The primary factor that separates enduring, successful brands from the rest is their strong foundation rooted in purpose, authenticity, and a genuine connection with their audiences. We believe that each action a brand takes contributes to its narrative. Brands that manage to evoke positive feelings in us are the ones we truly fall for. 

When examining gripping, captivating stories, such as popular series like Game of Thrones or Succession, we notice a common element: conflict and crisis. Just like these stories, brands without a central conflict will fail to engage their audiences, leading to apathy. 

Consider Apple, a brand that personifies simplicity and is continually at war with complexity. It invests heavily in streamlining all its offerings, making simplicity the hero of its narrative, battling against the villain of complexity. Similarly, Nike champions the idea of motion and progress, embodying a constant struggle against inertia. You can see this principle at play in their societal contributions, as many of their campaigns aim to encourage diversity, inclusivity, and wider participation in sports. 

Disney, too, tells a compelling story. In its world, the happiness is the protagonist fighting against the antagonist: misery. These brands illustrate how effective storytelling hinges on the existence of a conflict between the protagonist and antagonistic forces. 

Beyond storytelling, a brand’s actions speak louder than any advertisement. For instance, Patagonia doesn’t need to promote its values via ads because its actions and behaviours show its commitment to environmental conservation. This makes a brand memorable and evokes an emotional response in the audience.   

Another crucial aspect is creative judgement—the ability to differentiate between an extraordinary and an average idea. Great brands not only excel at storytelling but also elevate their execution into art. A critical element here is taste; although it may be subjective, brilliant work tends to command universal acclaim.   

Moreover, successful brands understand the value of scarcity and exclusivity. This doesn’t imply limiting supply, but instead, refers to the scarcity and exclusivity of thought and creativity involved in crafting outstanding stories, products, or experiences. For instance, Disney’s films or experiences embody a unique creative genius that’s rare and scarce. 

Enduring brands also democratise what’s typically exclusive for the elite, making it accessible to everyone. These brands are highly customer-centric and are devoted to removing customer pain points. For instance, Apple demonstrates exemplary customer service by ensuring prompt and effective solutions to problems through various channels. 

Lastly, these brands are marked by their commitment to innovation. Rather than following trends, they contribute to cultural shifts and consistently strive to differentiate themselves. They perceive risk as an opportunity for excitement, continuously pushing boundaries in their storytelling and products. These are some of the key lessons we’ve learned from observing great, enduring brands. 

Q: What have you learned from leading a scale business? 

[Ajaz Ahmed]: Allow me to delve deeper into this. Success in any organisation, be it a small startup or a multinational corporation, lies in its mechanisms and systems. As we contemplate scaling from 500 to 6,000 or 10,000 employees, we acknowledge that the elements that brought us this far may not necessarily take us to the next level. We firmly believe in the triad of process, performance, and outcomes. We are diligent in defining the processes that drive performance, which in turn yield the desired outcomes. 

Previously, we engaged in an annual strategic planning exercise, resulting in an extensive volume of ideas. However, we found that many of these ideas were left unrealised. In light of the familiar saying that insanity is repeating the same actions and expecting different results, we abandoned the annual strategy process. Instead, we developed what we refer to as the AKQA framework, a live system that replaced our former approach. 

The AKQA framework empowers every employee by providing clarity and direction, eliminating any ambiguity. It revolves around our central purpose and emphasises what is important to us. The framework consists of four pillars: employee, client, reputation, and commercial, each of which is tracked by a set of key performance indicators (KPIs) relevant to our organisation. Every quarter, we distribute the AKQA framework report to all our employees, detailing our performance on each metric. 

This systematic approach guarantees consistent meetings with all our leaders each month to discuss the framework metrics. The results are twofold: it eliminates random, unproductive actions and fosters a robust organisational culture.   

When we first introduced the AKQA framework and initiated the associated meetings, we discovered a vital principle. While business conversations often touch on chemistry, they seldom discuss the importance of physics—the process, performance, outcomes trajectory—in scaling an organisation. This focus forms a robust organisational culture and empowers leaders by setting clear expectations, fostering autonomy—a key motivator according to Daniel Pink’s principle of autonomy, mastery, purpose.   

Furthermore, our hybrid work approach treats each employee as an entrepreneur, fostering a sense of responsibility. This not only enhances communication and continuous learning but also aids in decision making. We only make decisions that impact our key metrics; anything else is deemed unnecessary. This framework has allowed us to cease certain programs that no longer aligned with our goals. 

The AKQA framework fosters accountability and performance evaluation, enabling everyone to understand and meet their expectations. It fosters a sense of continuous improvement within our organisation. I hope this clarification is helpful. 

Q: What does legacy mean to you? 

[Ajaz Ahmed]: Legacy, in essence, is the sum of your meaningful contributions. It encompasses the innovative ideas you bring to the table, the individuals you employ and mentor, the core principles you instill in your organisation, as well as the societal impact of your actions. Your legacy is the trees you’ve planted and the seeds you’ve sown in your journey. That’s what true legacy embodies. 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.

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