When is a digital agency really more than just a digital agency? When its client says so.
This past Halloween, when AKQA  created an online ad for Audi to be shown in rich media and social channels, Scott Keogh, chief marketing officer for the car brand, liked it so much he wanted it on TV as well. So he placed it into airtime the brand had bought on ABC’s Desperate Housewives—a media buy that would normally involve an ad created by Audi’s lead TV agency, Venables Bell & Partners.
Shot from a camera plugged into the car’s dashboard, “Trick or Treat ” touts the ability of the Audi A6’s “thermal imaging night vision assistant” to help spot costumed kids in the dark. It addressed an obstacle for auto brands: marketing complicated car technologies.
“That’s creativity beyond creativity,” says DeLu Jackson, department manager, digital and relationship marketing at Audi. “That’s solving business challenges that we as an industry haven’t sorted out.”
It’s this acumen that has helped the agency thrive in a marketplace where the lines between media channels are blurring. And the creation of platform-spanning work while focusing on the less-charted terrain of new technologies is what’s made 2011 an especially impressive year for the shop—the name of which, by the way, stands for the full initials of co-founder and chairman Ajaz Khowaj Quoram Ahmed.
“I think our long-term success [is due to] looking over the horizon and seeing what’s going to be important next for our clients,” says AKQA CEO Tom Bedecarre.
A besuited Bedecarre, in from San Francisco, and Ahmed, in from London and buzzing with energy in a T-shirt emblazoned with the trademark swoosh of Nike, a flagship client, spoke to Adweek at the shop’s SoHo, New York office. Peeking out from Bedecarre’s jacket is a yellow Livestrong bracelet, an iconic symbol of the Nike-sponsored charity.
Ahmed and Bedecarre, who show an easy rapport, joined forces in 2001. That was when AKQA, the U.K. digital shop a 21-year-old Ahmed launched in 1994, and Citron Haligman Bedecarre—the San Francisco shop co-founded in 1990 by Bedecarre, an ex-Ogilvy & Mather account man and former vp at Hal Riney & Partners—merged with two other agencies to form the foundation of AKQA’s current footprint.
The agency has grown rapidly in the past five years, adding offices in Amsterdam and Berlin. (There is also an office in Shanghai, and one in Washington, D.C.) But its pillars remain the Bay Area, the heart of the booming tech business, and London, where a powerhouse creative team helps rake in industry awards.
This year, AKQA brought home five Cannes Lions and grew some 25 percent, adding approximately $50 million in global revenue to the estimated $200 million it earned in 2010. Winning lead responsibilities for Audi’s digital creative early this year drove 2011’s numbers upwards, along with other new accounts like Trident (digital creative duties) and Clorox’s host of brands (digital media buying). AKQA also became lead creative agency for YouTube, and has growing relationships with blue-chip clients like Visa and Target.
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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