Rich, young, and seemingly tireless, Ajaz Ahmed is the kind of
person who makes you sick, or certainly envious. At 26 he heads up AKQA,
the UK’s largest remaining independent new media firm, valued last year
at pounds 26m by management consultants PriceWaterhouseCoopers.
AKQA now advises new media godfather Microsoft on its UK web site and
has a client list most rivals would sell their granny for - including
the likes of BMW, Orange, Sainsbury’s and Durex.
Ahmed set up the firm with three friends from his youth after dropping
out of university at the age of 21. He remains the company’s public face
as well as its largest shareholder, with an 88% stake in the firm. That
stake will be diluted as Ahmed prepares to float 40% of the company on
the Nasdaq exchange in 2002.
His CV remains deceptively slim. Although he achieved millionaire status
by the age of 24, he has had just three jobs - two of those while still
at university. And the last, as founder and chief executive of AKQA, has
occupied the past five years.
His Muslim faith means Ahmed has few vices. He doesn’t drink, smoke or
even take caffeinated coffee and rarely attends new media parties -
perhaps a reason why, despite his often high profile in the press, Ahmed
is less well known among his contemporaries in the industry.
The AKQA boss has been variously described by contemporaries and
industry watchers as ’talented’, ’dedicated’, ’precocious’ and
’arrogant’. But even his rivals have a grudging admiration.
’I think he’s an impressive guy; very confident and very seductive with
clients. AKQA is independent, which is good. He he doesn’t want to sell
up, he wants to be there with an empire in 20 years,’ says Alistair
Duncan, managing director of APL Digital.
Felix Velarde, managing director of Head new media, says: ’From the
beginning Ajaz was an inordinately capable marketer; he knows how to
talk about new media in marketing terms. He is very good at reassuring
brand managers who might be worried about the internet,’
Undoubtedly one of the keys to Ahmed’s success is his ability to bridge
the gap between technology and marketing. He says: ’What annoys me is
the perceived confusion; people spend too much time talking about bits,
bytes and baud rates rather than business. It’s not about technology,
it’s about ideas - technology is just an enabler.’
From an early age Ahmed was driven by an interest in both business and
communications; he was a precociously young subscriber to Marketing at
just 14. At 16, while still at school in Maidenhead, he wrote to the
managing director of Ashton-Tate, then the world’s third largest
software company, asking for a job. He was taken on to do odd jobs in
the marketing department before graduating to writing financial systems
After leaving school he spent a year working in marketing and public
relations for Apple Computer, turning down jobs as a copywriter at BBDO
and a Unilever brand manager for Lynx, before opting for a business
course at Bath University.
But keen to put his skills to more practical use, Ahmed dropped out
after only nine months and started looking into starting a multimedia
Says Ahmed: ’There was a lot of talk about the information superhighway
and we knew if we didn’t start then we would have missed out forever. It
was better that I started AKQA than finished my degree; timing was
absolutely of the essence.’
Before establishing AKQA Ahmed went on a fact-finding tour of the US,
talking to the head of interactive development at QVC about how it was
using the web. AKQA’s first win was a project to develop a site for
Coca-Cola’s Frutopia drinks brand. Today the company specialises in
setting up and maintaining web sites that are integrated across all
business functions of the client: sales, marketing, communications, and
Ahmed’s own profile and wealth has risen with that of the new media
This year he appeared at number 13 in The Sunday Times’ Young Rich List
- just one spot below Prince Naseem - in a survey which valued him at
pounds 14m and led to several offers of marriage, with staff at AKQA’s
offices screening calls for weeks afterwards.
Ahmed stands to expand his wealth further from AKQA’s flotation, and
recently restructured the company into two business units in
Does he think that internet stocks are over-valued? ’When a company like
Yahoo! is worth more (on paper) than British Airways, it does make you
question the value. Market analysts don’t completely understand the
influence of internet companies. It’s like any new market; it’s
embryonic and everyone’s getting very excited, but I think it will
For his part, Ahmed maintains that it is love of the business and not
money that is his main motivation. At a time when other players are
looking at cashing in their chips Ahmed jealously maintains control over
the company he helped to build.
’My motivation is exactly the same as when I started - doing smart
things for smart people. AKQA is very entrepreneurial; our independence
is everything You’re only worth what someone is willing to pay for you
and AKQA is not for sale.’
Marketing executive/programmer Ashton Tate
Marketing executive Apple Computer