AKQA Chairman Ajaz Ahmed Discusses 'Velocity,' Co-written With Nike Digital Chief Stefan Olander | Adweek
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Fast Chat: Ajaz Ahmed's New Book

AKQA chairman discusses 'Velocity,' co-written with Nike digital chief

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For some 12 years, AKQA has been on Nike's digital roster. Now, top brass from the agency and brand teamed up to write a book—somewhat ironically, available in print—that offers advice on how to stay ahead of the digital curve. This Thursday, May 3, marks the release of Velocity: The Seven New Laws for a World Gone Digital, co-authored as a conversation between the Ajaz Ahmed, the agency’s founder and chairman, and Stefan Olander, the brand’s vp of digital sport. Adweek caught up with Ahmed to talk about the book's target audience, its insights and how AKQA first found its way onto the radar of Nike—now its largest client—thanks to a unsuccessful pitch for a financial services company.

Adweek: Who's your ideal reader?
Ajaz Ahmed: It's a broad range of readers, [but] the main audiences are CEOs, chief marketing officers, managers within any organization and entrepreneurs who are thinking about embarking on their own journey or who need some encouragement.

What in your mind makes it most unique as a management book, compared to the abundance of others out there?
The main difference between Velocity and other business books is that there's a lot of how-to guides, so they're very systematic how-to guides which give you a checklist of the different things that you need to do. This book is more about the mind-set and the way you need to think.

You write that the best advertising isn't advertising. What is?
What great brands have always done is created emotional resonance with their audience by telling their story in the most relevant way for a particular time. So in the print age, that was through linear storytelling. In the radio age that was through audio, and we're kind of making the migration from the TV age to the digital age. Our belief is that audiences want to have more engagement and more of an experience, rather than be bombarded with endless messages.

So what's the biggest challenge for brands looking to keep pace with digital?
I think to make the transition from saying to doing. So rather than sending out messages that say what the brand thinks they should be, they should instead create services and experiences that demonstrate what the brand is. That's the biggest transition that advertising needs to make—from message pushers to service providers.

You write that "mantras are cheap." Did you have any concerns when you were writing this about the seven laws becoming or feeling like mantras?
No, because it's about context. We feel like our point of view in those seven rules of thumb or seven laws is something that we can stand by and passionately believe in. We [discourage] creating meaningless phrases that don't have any conviction or any substance.

How do you stay so optimistic?
[Laughs] Do you know what it is? Stefan and I are just absolute believers in the virtuous circle—that if you do good and have good intentions, then long-term, good things happen…One example: The whole reason [AKQA] first won Nike was because we didn't win another pitch (for B2, subsidiary of Barclays that was going to be an Internet-only bank when the dot-com theme was going insane and the bricks-and-mortar companies felt that they needed to create sub-brands to compete with the digital disrupters). The chief marketing officer from that pitch phoned up his counterpart at Nike and said, “I've just met an agency who aren't right for us, but they're perfect for you.” If we hadn't given [the B2] opportunity our all, if we hadn't really put our passion and hard work into it—and if [it weren’t for] that great, incredible gesture, that unlikely turn from a stranger—there's a good chance we wouldn't have gotten the opportunity to have worked on Nike.

We talk in the book about how every one of us goes through calamities, and we go through good days and bad days. Our belief is what we have to do and the thinking we try to encourage is that you have to take that calamity and turn it into a defining moment in your life. An example that I don't share in the book which I probably should have…When we started working with Nike, it was in one country, with Nike UK. Nike Europe and Nike globally caught attention of the work we were doing for Nike UK, and they invited us [in late 2000/early 2001 to pitch for the Nike football account, which was a global account [supporting the 2002 World Cup]. We met with Nike in Europe, and we presented our thoughts and recommendations. A week went by and I got a phone call from the client…and the client said, “We think you guys have the right values and the right attitude. We can see that you're the kind of agency that Nike works with, and we really like the work you're doing…but we're not going to hire you for this assignment because you're too small at the moment.”

At that time AKQA only had one office in London, and we weren't in multiple geographies and multiple countries—and so the client was right, they made the right decision. I was completely gutted because to me it was one of the most prestigious accounts on the planet, [and] I love football, so it was just one of these things that was an incredible opportunity. So I remember it being a calamity, and I remember putting the phone down and thinking, I’m never ever going to lose a pitch for being too small again. The thought that went through my head was "Get big or die trying." That's actually one of the reasons that fueled our international growth from London across North America and Europe and Asia [through our strategic partnership with Accenture].

And by the way, [some years later, by late 2006/early 2007], they did award us the account—when we were the right size.