AKQA. All Known Questions Answered. A pretty ambitious promise for
a new-media agency - some might say impossible - but it's certainly
typical of AKQA's founder, Ajaz Ahmed.
Ahmed founded AKQA in the UK in 1995 after dropping out of university.
Unable to secure funding for the agency, he built it up organically from
The agency's recent expansion into the US, via the acquisition of a
number of companies and a hefty funding injection from new partner
Accenture, was seen as timely by most industry spectators. More
perplexing is the choice of global chief executive to lead the
initiative. For AKQA has relegated Ahmed to the position of chief
marketing officer and handed the agency's reins to Rick Hadala.
Hadala will be best remembered by the advertising industry for his brief
stint as the chairman and chief executive of Ammirati Puris Lintas North
America, which ended in a blaze of controversy after only seven months
in the role. Hadala was brought into APL from McKinsey & Company in
At the time, his appointment was seen as an attempt by the then IPG
chief, Phil Geier, to bring a more strategic and consulting element to
the agency's make-up. Spectators suggested that his no-nonsense,
disciplined approach would balance the more creative style of the global
chief executive, Martin Puris.
Whatever Geier's motives, the appointment turned out to be a
Hadala departed the agency over 'irreconcilable differences' after he
introduced an aggressive management restructure. Some of the more
flattering comments from industry sources described Hadala as having
'failed to understand the advertising industry culture' and displaying a
'total lack of respect for the creative function'.
However, Hadala did not take his dismissal lying down and filed a
dollars 340 million breach of contract and defamation suit against his
former employer, which was eventually settled out of court.
Following Hadala's departure from APL, he joined Saatchi & Saatchi to
work on the agency's web-based media side and advised the agency on the
launch of its Darwin Digital division, which has since been swallowed up
by Saatchis' New York and San Francisco offices.
Fast-forward to the present day, and Hadala doesn't seem interested in
throwing stones. 'There was an extraordinary depth of talent and a
strong unwillingness to change,' he says of the APL debacle. 'It was an
interesting experience which taught me a lot about the ad industry and
what it will and won't tolerate.'
Hadala's appointment at AKQA raises two questions. First, one has to ask
how much say Ahmed had in his appointment. Accenture poured pounds 48
million of funding into the AKQA deal, and it's unlikely that such a
funding boost was granted without a certain amount of control of the new
company, if not a slice of the shares, being handed over in return.
Hadala's background and experience in management consultancy makes him
more of a favourite for Accenture than AKQA, especially given the
latter's strong creative offering. In return for the opportunity to
expand granted by Accenture, Ahmed has most likely had to sacrifice a
certain amount of control over AKQA. However, according to Ahmed:
'Details of equity remain confidential.'
There is no doubt that the disciplines of management consultancy are
much more compatible with a digital agency than a traditional ad shop.
The nature of digital tasks demands that web shops get more involved in
their clients' business and strategy than a traditional marketing
As Hadala rightly says, their approach is 'how to solve business
problems through communications'.
The construction of a digital brand by an agency rarely involves a
simple online advertising campaign. Rather, the agency tends to build
everything from the website interface to the nuts and bolts of the
technology behind it.
However, there are already hints that AKQA's future strategy is too
As part of its expansion into the US, the agency has stated its
determination to become involved in offline communications as well as
new media. Anything is possible, it seems, unless you ask Hadala. 'Total
solutions don't work,' he says firmly.
The second issue concerns the creative standards that are becoming ever
more of a priority for the agency. Has Hadala learned any lessons from
his time at APL? AKQA's acquisition of the US ad agency CHB signifies
its determination to make traditional advertising creative skills a core
part of its offering. In view of his past history, the fit between
Hadala and the development of these skills looks uncomfortable, to say
'There are changes happening but those changes need to accelerate,'
Hadala says of the future of new-media agencies. 'Clients want it all
integrated yet there are no firms of any scale which are approaching it
in this way. This is not an idea in search of a market, it's a market
that needs to be served.'
But is Hadala the best person to serve it?