As The Drum launches its peer review to identify the cream of the digital crop, associate editor Richard Draycott catches up with Ajaz Ahmed, founder of AKQA, to find out what makes a great leader.
What does it take to be a great leader? As the head of one of the world’s largest digital agencies, which he started at the tender age of 21, Ajaz Ahmed is very well placed to answer that question. The Drum’s associate editor Richard Draycott catches up with the CEO and founder of AKQA to talk leadership.
What is your earliest memory of taking a leadership role?
Since the day I started at school, I was nearly always asked to go first. (Being called Ajaz Ahmed, it never mattered whether it was alphabetical order by first name or surname).
What was your first leadership role in business?
I started working when I was about 15 and in the jobs I had I usually worked for the person in charge. So it meant I had a fair amount of responsibility even as a kid. In terms of setting the direction and vision for an organisation, then it would have been starting AKQA when I was 21 years old.
What made you want to become a business leader and a leader of people?
It was never a conscious decision to be a ‘leader’. I just wanted us to help society embrace the digital revolution by contributing work that’s of benefit.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Part Dalai Lama, part Sir Alex Ferguson.
Would you say you have worked hard to improve yourself as a leader, have you studied leadership or does it come naturally to you?
It’s my job to hire and coach the leaders within AKQA and look out for the next generation. That aspect of my role has not changed since we started.
AKQA’s a very collaborative culture and even though we’re now 1,300 people across 11 different offices, we are still organised like a start-up. There is tremendous teamwork with the top people at AKQA and that tends to filter through to the rest of the company which strengthens the collaboration between everyone.
How far ahead do you plan for your business as its leader?
The AKQA journey is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to be constantly looking ahead. We reach a goal, take a moment for a sip of water to get our breath back, then we’re back on the road to hopefully achieve the next defining moment. We work on some assignments that span a couple of years or more.
For example Nike+ Kinect Training was two years in development. There are also projects or services we are launching at AKQA right now that we always wanted to do but the timing was not right because maybe the technology or infrastructure was not where we needed it to be when we had the idea, but it is now.
As an effective agency leader, how do you approach making important decisions? Is it down to you or by committee?
If you hire good people you have to let them make the decisions. We have zero committees at AKQA. We have an entrepreneurial environment that means decision making is as autonomous as it can be. Hire good people who share your values, trust them and give them the freedom to do their jobs.
What has been the toughest leadership decision you have made?
Did you make the right decision? A tough decision was in the early days of AKQA and the dot.com hype was going crazy. There was one venture-backed start-up after another that had just received massive investment and needed organisations to build their services.
Despite huge pressure from our team, I made the decision not to be tempted by all the business on offer, because my instincts told me it was short-term and was not sustainable. The start-ups were burning through their new found cash at an alarming, unprecedented and irresponsible rate. So we focused on our existing clients and the business models we believed in. After the dot.com crash the money ran out and we were one of the only survivors in the industry because we focused on sustainable businesses. Most of the other companies in our space hit the wall because they worked with these short-term companies that ran out of money.
What key interpersonal skills or attributes do you feel every effective leader needs?
You have to let the idea win, not the hierarchy. That’s the key.
What is the key to being an effective agency leader?
Let the work do the talking, don’t believe the hype (especially your own), and remember that no player is bigger than the club.
If you weren’t leading your agency, what role would you like to have in it?
I love what we’ve built at AKQA so there would be plenty to keep me busy. I think every role is a canvas where you can paint your career the way you want to create the right opportunities.
How honest does an effective leader have to be?
You have to tell the truth, even if it’s not what people want to hear.
As a leader, how do you react when someone in your organisation makes a big mistake?
If you can’t accept failing, then you can’t win either. The issue isn’t making a mistake – only when the mistake is repeated.
How do you react when someone you view as integral to the success of your business leaves?
We’re fortunate that the culture and DNA at AKQA is pretty strong and sustains beyond any individual. You just have to make sure that when someone good leaves you’ve found someone even better. Ultimately, part of your legacy is the people you hire so we are very proud of our alumni and what they go on to achieve.
How do you react when you lose an important client?
If you have given your all to a client and something happens that’s out of your or their control, then there’s no point getting all emotional and navel-gazing. It’s better to take the long-term view; look ahead.
Who else do you admire as a leader of people?
My parents, because my dad is like the Dalai Lama, providing wisdom and my mum is like a soccer coach, providing encouragement.
What do you do to relax? Can you ever switch off as a leader in today’s connected world?
Yep, I’m obsessed with music and films so can easily get swept up by a great tune or epic story.
You have recently written your own book, did you enjoy the discipline of writing and will you do it again?
Yes, it’s a good way to get your thoughts organised. Maybe there’s another book or two in me. I have a few ideas, so we will see.
If you lost it all tomorrow, what would you do with the rest of your life? Would you become a leader in another area of life and, if so, what?
It depends what you mean by ‘lost it all’. My dad taught me: ‘When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.’
Who would you nominate as your most influential individuals in digital?
My three nominees are Sir Martin Sorrell, founder of WPP; Tom Bedecarre, chairman of AKQA and Mark Read, CEO of WPP Digital.
I serendipitously met Tom when I was 25. We discovered a shared sense of values and have been working together ever since. Tom is a saint in my life. He has given me extraordinary encouragement and support over the years. (At a board meeting, it was Tom who suggested I write a book). We then launched the no.1 bestseller Velocity (and also raised tens of thousands for charity).
AKQA joined the WPP family last June. With Sir Martin’s leadership, drive and team, we are inspired everyday with WPP’s belief and investments for the future – whether that’s the organisations inventing it or the people shaping it.
The Drum has launched the peer review for its annual Digital 100 publication, inviting the digital industry to nominate its most respected and influential agencies and individuals.
To nominate the digital practitioners you find most inspiring, complete the peer review survey online.