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Flexible Flexible Working The Future of Work

‘We’re getting 65,000 applications a year’: AKQA’s talent strategy post-Grey merger

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By Sam Bradley, Journalist

March 22, 2022 | 7 min read

After one of its most successful years in business, AKQA founder Ajaz Ahmed shares how the company is consolidating its new way of working and why, in the face of ‘the great resignation,’ it’s seen a 110% increase in talent knocking on its door.

ajaz ahmed akqa leader

Ajaz Ahmed, chief exec and founder of AKQA, discusses the agency’s recent strong showing / AKQA/The Drum

The merger between Grey and AKQA, two of WPP’s crown jewels, wasn’t a sure thing. Each agency was a large company with an established corporate brand and clear (and wildly different) specialisms – the plan to enmesh the two organizations midway through a pandemic was ambitious, to say the least.

But arguably the only thing more challenging was not merging. In the years prior to the union, Grey saw top executives flee and long-standing clients depart. So sure were industry observers that the agency was on its way to oblivion that one trade publication reported the news of the merger with a gravestone for the 104-year-old agency.

But 18 months on from ‘GreyKQA’ – the industry’s pet name for the merged group – the balance sheet appears to bear out the underlying wisdom behind the move. The combined AKQA Group was one of WPP’s strongest performers in 2021, contributing to a 15% increase in net revenue (and a 2.9% increase since 2019). In the US, Grey picked up almost $90m in new business including accounts for Johnson & Johnson, insurer MassMutual and brewer Modelo, and was one of the main drivers of WPP’s network-wide Coca-Cola appointment.

”It’s growing, which is the key,” says Ajaz Ahmed, chief executive and founder of AKQA Group.

”Grey has a very distinctive and unique culture and it’s important to find opportunities to amplify and enable that culture to thrive. The momentum since the announcement of [the group] has exceeded expectations and hopefully will carry on doing that.”

Strong performance

Furthermore, it’s retained its spirit, keeping a little distance from the WPP mothership and maintaining its distinctive, multidisciplinary approach, represented by its architectural and design practices Universal Design Studio and Map Project and bolstered by the December acquisition of design agency Made Thought. Ahmed is keen to share the credit for the agency’s recent success, which he says is down to the ”entrepreneurial spirit” inculcated among its teams.

”The exceptional performance that AKQA has had, in a time of unprecedented worldwide situations, is thanks above all to the passion and quality of our team’s work and the entrepreneurial spirit that’s always been at the heart of our business.”

While the percentage points and a credit in WPP’s earnings report are welcome, Ahmed says the agency isn’t ”chasing growth, we’re chasing excellence.”

”If growth is a by-product of that, brilliant. But growth is not our objective. Our objectives are about brilliant creative work that our teams and clients are proud of and our audiences find useful and inspiring. They’re not mutually exclusive – if you produce work that is uniquely differentiated then it creates more demand.”

Pulling in talent

Another mark of the paired agency’s success is in the sheer amount of job applications it gets. In 2018, the two agency networks had some of the largest gender pay gaps at WPP, a fact that won’t have helped to draw in new faces. Prior to the merger, AKQA had begun cutting that gap right back.

Now, while other agencies struggle to attract talented people inwards, AKQA’s listings are oversubscribed. Last year it received 65,000 job applications, an increase of 110% on 2020 (the agency employs approximately 6,000 people worldwide).

Ahmed says the flood of cover letters is not just a reflection of the agency’s creative output for clients such as H&M and Nike, but also of its embrace of flexible working in recent years.

”I sincerely believe it’s down to two aspects. The first one is the quality of the work, which is attractive to people who also want to produce work at that standard. And then the second is the word of mouth of existing employee experiences,” he says.

”We’re absolutely dedicated to our role as the committed and responsible employer. We prioritize meaningful careers and job creation.”

In the US, AKQA is trialing a policy of unlimited paid time off, on top of its guaranteed vacation leave. Led by the agency’s chief people officer Amy Oliver, it gives staff a further degree of control over their own vacation time. Ahmed says it’s the result of a transition away from ”human resources and toward people.”

”Our approach is complete employee flexibility, where people can work from where they want, how they want to work, and we’re here to support them. We keep our studios open for people who want to use them.”

And with Covid restrictions all but erased in most of its territories, certain teams have transitioned back to an office-first approach. But the agency has delegated that choice to staff, regardless of seniority: ”We’ve really embraced this new way of working, rather than what some organizations are doing and fighting it. You can’t go back in history, you can’t go backwards. Once these improvements get made, they affect the fabric of the way an organization works. If an organization doesn’t embrace new ways of working, then it’s just going to get left behind.”

It’s no small commitment, given the costs of office space in central London, or Saint Germain des Prés in the center of Paris.

If ”flexibility, employee wellbeing, employee health and freedom are important characteristics,” Ahmed says, ”then adding in a layer of control is the opposite of that. We don’t want to add that layer of control because our teams are so passionate and conscientious and hardworking and brilliant that they take responsibility for the work. None of our people want to let anyone else down.

”We are fortunate that we hire conscientious, creative people who are focused on outcomes, not outputs.”

Key to thinking about all this, he argues, is discarding a strict costs-and-benefits approach. ”In business, people often think of it a bit like sport, as if it’s a zero-sum game. But when we think about creativity and innovation, for us it’s not a finite resource. There’s now a completely different dynamic in people’s expectations of their employers.”

”We’ve had the strongest start to the new year of any year in our history. I have this sense that if we had to choose between great work and solid growth, we would always choose great work. But as the results prove, these aspects aren’t mutually exclusive.”

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