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Ajaz Ahmed of AKQA Ajaz Ahmed co-founded the agency AKQA some 12 years ago. Last week AKQA revealed that private equity group General Atlantic had bought a majority stake, for a rumoured $250m.

We caught up with Ajaz to ask him about the investor situation and also to chew the fat on a range of internet marketing issues and trends.

Read on for the full interview...

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Can you tell us more about the General Atlantic deal? Terms, valuation, etc?

In 2001 Francisco Partners invested in AKQA to help us to create a global network. Francisco viewed that investment with a five-year time horizon, so in 2006 we appointed Morgan Stanley to have initial discussions with investors who might be interested in buying Francisco's share.

A significant number of organisations came forward and showed interest given the quality of the team at AKQA, the track record and the future potential of the business. AKQA's board of directors reviewed the various options and in early 2007 we approved the decision to make General Atlantic our new investment partner.

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Why is the deal good for AKQA? What will it help you to do?

Firstly, it’s a great testament to AKQA's work and approach that the market has given our team this kind of global recognition. We want to build the best digital network while at the same time keeping our independence and commitment to our founding values. During the process of the last few months it was perfectly clear to us that our independence, the independent mindset of our company and our people, means a lot to our team and our clients.

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Will you remain at the helm?

I'm very lucky to be part of the team here and the Chairman of a company that I love. AKQA is an amazing adventure and learning process for me as everyday, I get to work on innovative projects with brilliant people all over the world.

I think one of the problems with our industry is the frequency of changes in management which can be very unsettling for the teams and clients. So my main goal is to continue to serve AKQA, our people and our clients in the best way that I can.

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What sort of work at AKQA are you focusing on?

We are helping our clients with strategy and communications planning. Our goal is to be the best in the world at creating interactive experiences, e-commerce, interface design/usability solutions and content creation.

We're fortunate that we have exceptional work in each of these areas and it's getting every detail right that makes a project successful. We also launched AKQA Mobile last year and it’s been a tremendous success, getting a lot of industry recognition. I think that AKQA Mobile is already bigger than many of the pure play mobile specialists, but our goal isn't to be the biggest with this, only to be the best.

One of the reasons that in fact we launched AKQA Mobile was that I was in a meeting with a client who had got in a mobile specialist that their traditional agency had recommended and I could feel this sense of frustration from the client that the job just wasn't getting done and I thought there's got to be an easier way. So we recruited the best team we could and AKQA Mobile was born. The team has been delivering some great projects globally ever since.

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What proportion of your business is retained vs project work?

We want to find the best way of working with a client so it's often a combination of both. Many clients start by hiring AKQA for projects, then they often decide to put us on a retainer.

This year, for example, we celebrate ten years of partnership with many of our clients that we have had pretty much since the beginning; that's quite unique for any agency in this sector, to have relationships with clients that amount of time and it's something that the team can be proud of.

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Do you think traditional marketers have truly woken up to the web?

Yes, I think the marketers and consumers have, but I don’t think their traditional agencies have. Marketers are putting digital at the core of their activity now. The problem they encounter is when they work with the interactive department of an advertising agency and they don't get the thought leadership or ambition for the work.

So there’s a sense of frustration there, and that’s why they are leaving the big bureaucratic traditional agencies because you have to go through layers of people and process, to get stuff done; instead, they’re working with specialist partners who are becoming the client’s lead agency, because – from a client perspective - they get a better layer of thinking, a more streamlined process and higher quality execution.

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Why do you think some brands have yet to commit any significant budget to internet marketing?

Some brands do not have a champion for digital either internally or at their agency. When there is someone to evangelize digital then it encourages great work and results throughout the organisation. My fascination is with the return on investment that the brands are getting, both in terms of sales and brand equity. This is now encouraging them to invest more in digital.

Good digital activity is having a halo effect for the brand, and as a result it is building brand equity as well as sales. So for many clients digital has become their priority in terms of marketing investment, and I’m certain that more will follow their lead.

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We live in a multichannel world nowadays. Would you agree that business executives need to understand that consumers have a single view of brands, eg Tesco in the high street is the same as Tesco.com?

It used to be that the most visible expression of a brand, apart from the product itself or the service experience, was the TV commercial. Today, the most visible expression of a brand is the web site.

It's important that companies join the dots between the mediums so that they can deliver the kind of intelligent, thought-through experience that the consumer demands. 

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How can outdoor, mobile, web, TV and press work in conjunction with one another?

It's about making sure that the successive outer layers of the product or service express themselves in a consistently good way. Integration is much more about how something feels and the uniformity of core experiential values rather than just about the look.

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Which digital trends and technologies do you find most exciting? How far away is a truly integrated brand experience, across mobile, TV and the web? Any pointers/examples?

I find ideas more exciting than technology. So the way a technology is applied has got to be the priority, in order to facilitate the right user experience.

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How does online compare as an advertising platform, against magazines, TV, radio etc? What are the best performing acquisition channels?

I think that right now digital is the most cost effective of all the channels when it’s done right. Hopefully that will continue to be the case because that will allow more brands to benefit from great digital work.

A lot of organisations love search engine marketing for example, because of the results compared to other channels and the direct effect they can see it having on their sales.

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Is it time to step away from the view of the internet as an acquisition platform?

If you take the standard purchase cycle model, the different phases of it are Awareness, Interest, Trial, Purchase, Loyalty - digital is the only platform that can deliver all five of these phases in one place and that's the real reason why it's so important to business and consumers.

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Do you believe that mobile advertising will ever take off, and why?

Yes, very much so. If you look at the sales of mobile devices versus televisions or PC's it's incredible, a much larger market. So there's no question that advertising on mobile devices is already a great growth area.

If agencies try and retro-fit a TV advert onto a mobile then chances are it won't succeed, but if they think about using the mobile platform to do something you can't do on the web or on TV, like using location-based ideas for example, then it will most likely achieve better results. 

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What do you think will be the main online media trends in 2007?

Alan Kay - who used to work at Apple - once said that "the only way to predict the future is to invent it". Well, there are plenty of companies that are inventing the future at the moment; Microsoft, Google, Apple and, hopefully at AKQA, we're also doing our bit to pioneer new approaches.

Products like Windows Vista and the Apple iPhone change everything because they are bringing the multimedia-on-demand reality to everyone. The hardware, software, applications and services that are being delivered are powerful, and that's driving consumer acceptance.

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What are your views on branded content such as games, videos and blogs?

The thing about blogs and sites like MySpace and Facebook is that they show the potential for just about everyone to have their own channel of communication. The fact that today it's a more level playing field because in the past you needed to be a media baron to reach millions of people and now anyone can do it if you put the effort in.

They also show that unless your channel is any good, it won't get much in terms of outside interest. It's the same with brands, just because they can do something doesn't mean that they should, unless they can make it brilliant. That's where the focus needs to be.

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Can you suggest five things to avoid, on pain of death, to the web designers and developers out there?

The digital experiences I like are fast, simple and intuitive. If I get all three, even if I get two out of the three, then it's usually an enjoyable experience. Sometimes there’s too much unnecessary complexity because the designer has not thought something through or puts the priority on the 'look' rather than the 'feel'.

To craft a beautiful digital experience, something has to both look and feel beautiful.

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Chris Lake

Published 6 February, 2007 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

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