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Agency of the Year: AKQA

The Silicon Valley favorite has a banner year
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AKQA’s Cannes wins reflect the agency’s particular strengths in mobile and social. The gold Lion-winning Heineken Star Player game, for example, upped the profile of the beer brand’s UEFA Champions League sponsorship by letting soccer fans participate, in real time, in upcoming plays. Users could also access the app from Heineken’s Facebook page, and boast about their wins on the social network, whether they were participating via smartphone, tablet, or computer.

“The more you can marry [social and mobile], the better the experience will be,” says AKQA chief creative officer Rei Inamoto.

The independent shop, majority owned by private investment firm General Atlantic, also has aknack for growing assignments that start small. Its work for Nike began some 12 years ago on a project in the under-$100,000 range. Other decade-long clients include Visa and Xbox.“We’ve found mobile has a halo effect,” says Ahmed, citing the Royal Bank of Scotland as one client that increased its work based on the success of a mobile assignment. Now, AKQA is also working on social media and in-branch digital signage for the bank.


 

And Clorox, which hired AKQA to work on its paid search in November 2010, this year expanded that assignment, after a pitch, to include digital media buying—a relatively new area of focus and significant area of growth for the agency. Clorox spent $13 million on online display ads in the first half of 2011 alone, plus an additional $1.75 million on paid search, according to Kantar Media estimates.

Clients are also quick to cite the agency’s ties to Bay Area tech companies as an asset. In October, Fortune anointed Bedecarre “Silicon Valley’s favorite adman.” And Torrence Boone, managing director of agency business development at Google, says that AKQA is “one of the most sophisticated of the agencies in terms of how to leverage digital platforms. . . for their clients.”

At a time when companies are competing for digital talent, AKQA is hiring aggressively. This year it broke the 1,000 employees mark, including new creative directors from more traditional agencies like Taxi and TBWA.

Of course, no agency is invincible. Smirnoff and Western Union, for instance, both stopped working with the shop this year. Daniel Bonner, one of AKQA’s European CCOs, left after 14 years for Razorfish. Ginny Golden, a creative director in the D.C. office, and creative lead on its successful VW account, left for Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore.

But its successes far outshine the rough spots—which makes the agency a prime target for acquisition. It has yet to succumb to the overtures of holding companies, in part because the right deal hasn’t come along. But independence is also a point of pride. “We have to earn our right to work on every single brand . . . because we don’t have a sugar daddy, a holding company, a pipeline of different clients,” says Ahmed.

“We have no plans to sell,” adds Bedecarre, “but that hasn’t stopped people in the last 10 years from asking.”

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