Allowing ambiguity is 'the cruellest thing' for employees, says AKQA CEO

Exceptional organisation and discipline are the key to business success, argues Ajaz Ahmed, who co-founded innovation agency AKQA aged 21 and later sold it in a deal worth $540m.

by Kate Magee
Last Updated: 08 Feb 2024
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Chaos and unpredictability are the enemies of a well-run company, Ajaz Ahmed argues. While businesses often talk about chemistry, he believes that physics - inputs and outputs - are just as important.

It’s perhaps a surprising point for the global CEO and co-founder of AKQA to make; his agency is a creative design and innovation business after all. But he is convinced that “exceptional discipline and organisation” are the keys to high performance and it’s a trait he’s witnessed repeatedly among successful clients.

Ahmed is the latest guest on MT’s Leadership Lessons podcast, a conversation that coincides with the agency’s 30th anniversary.

A quick primer for the unfamiliar: AKQA (named after his full initials) employs 5,500 people around the world, has 50 ‘studios’, an enviable client list - notably a 25-year relationship with Nike - and has won more than 80 agency of the year awards during its time, including Campaign’s Global Digital Network of the Year 2023.

Ahmed’s backstory is straight out of the Silicon Valley playbook. In 1994, aged 21, he dropped out of university to launch AKQA with friends, from his parents’ basement. As he told Campaign in 1999: ’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.’

The gamble paid off. His first client was Microsoft, he was a millionaire by 24 and in 2012, he sold a majority stake in his business to WPP, in a deal that valued AKQA at $540m (£348m at the time). He has since been awarded two honorary degrees.

“My life's journey is just a remarkable adventure in serendipity. When I think about the story of AKQA, it has really transported me from the basement in Berkshire, where we started, to the boardrooms of the world's most successful companies,” he says.

So it’s a good thing that he didn’t listen to his school careers advisor who told him to work in a factory like his father.

On the podcast, he explains how his agency’s “operating system” provides clarity to employees, his one-minute MBA for CEOs and why good leadership is really about one thing: being a decent human being.

The following are highlights of the podcast conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

MT: Six years ago, you launched an internal measurement system called AKQA Framework. You credit this for the agency achieving a 0% gender pay gap and a 50-50 gender representation at every level. Can you explain what that framework approach is and why you think it works?

AA: Within organisations, people talk a lot about chemistry. But just as important is physics - inputs and outputs. The AKQA framework is a set of principles, concrete goals and metrics that define the standards, objectives and ambition we have for our work and from each other; it’s an operating system for the entire organisation.

It’s there to ensure consistency, collaboration and accountability. The idea was to stop employees having to operate in a system of ambiguity. Sometimes the cruellest thing is when employees don't know the company’s objectives, goals and shared purpose.

How does it work in practice?

We have a scorecard that covers four key areas: people, clients, reputation and commercials. Every month we review the scorecard with the senior leaders across our studios. We take steps to improve if any of the key metrics are off kilter.

Every quarter, we then share the AKQA Framework report with every employee in our company, so all of our employees can see how we're tracking against the objectives and the goals we've outlined.

One of the most important metrics is how likely would our employees or clients be to recommend AKQA?

Another is the employee engagement rate. The average employee engagement rate in companies is 35%. At AKQA, it's the high eighties. We receive around 12,500 job applications every quarter from people who want to work at AKQA. That really reflects the standing of the firm as an employer of choice.

We have a five person leadership team. There are three women, two men and two people of colour. As far as we know, that's the most diverse leadership team of an agency our size in the industry.

The way we think about diversity and inclusion is: diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is being able to choose a song for the playlist. Across a lot of different industries, you've got diversity, and there's also progress being made on inclusion, but belonging is something that really does need a lot of work.

What makes a good leader?

A leader's role is to be a brilliant coach that the team can believe in. When we think about effective coaching, it really involves helping to elevate an employee or an individual's vision to greater heights, improve performance to exceed conventional standards and also nurture personal growth beyond even their ambition sometimes.

Bad leaders publicly demean and denigrate. They make people feel small. By doing that, they just undermine the spirit of the organisation.

A good leader is able to harness their own energy in a positive way and also help to guide the collective energy of the team for good outcomes.

There's tons and tons of books written about leadership, but ultimately leadership is about one thing; being a decent human being.

We recommend people do a one minute MBA. Make a list of all the things done to you that you disliked, and don't do them to any employee, ever. Then make a list of all the things that you loved and do those always.

What do you prioritise as a leader?

I focus on two things. One is quality control, and the second is relationships. Part of my role, along with our entire leadership team, is to be a champion of the business’ values and purpose. But it's also to ensure that relationships endure and we find ways to collaborate and contribute in good ways.

It sounds like clarity is an important concept for you?

Clarity and knowing what to expect. Organisations do not function well when they're chaotic and unpredictable. I love Peter Drucker’s quote that only three things happen naturally in organisations: friction; confusion; and underperformance. Everything else requires leadership. The AKQA Framework and the way our leaders behave every single day is our opportunity to provide leadership.

Drucker also says that vision without execution is hallucination. Execution is an art, strategy is a commodity. You need concrete systems to reach the vision.

That’s interesting because creativity is not a linear process. Many would assume an innovation agency would embrace chaos not structured process.

Let me share a couple of stories. We’re incredibly lucky that we get to work with extraordinary brands. When you get to see behind the scenes of the most acclaimed restaurant in the world, what you discover is it's the opposite of chaos. It is run with this extraordinary organisation, precision and excellence. It's brilliant and inspiring because it shows you that to achieve the best cuisine, to achieve the best results, there needs to be exceptional organisation and discipline.

The same is true of car factories. The car factory that I was the most impressed with is Ferrari. There was no mess. It was just this immaculate, incredible organisation that's reflected in the product.

So this idea that creativity is chaotic might work for some, but it doesn't work for us and it doesn't work for the clients that we're lucky to collaborate with.

Have you come to this realisation recently, or is that something you’ve prioritised throughout AKQA’s growth?

We've always tried to be incredibly organised and thoughtful about everything we do as an organisation. I’ve been lucky enough to study alongside working. I discovered there are five characteristics woven into a company’s DNA that helps it endure.

The best organisations counterbalance creativity and experimentation with operational excellence because they realise that progress comes from outside of the comfort zone. So they tend to run a lot of experiments, kill off the experiments that don't work and focus on the ones that do.

In addition to being organised and disciplined, another characteristic is they democratise what's for the few and make it for the many. I love the quote from Steve Jobs, who founded Apple, where he described the Mac as the bicycle for the mind. What could be a more democratic way to talk about a phenomenal machine that helps reflect and amplify humanity?

The third characteristic is that these organisations are revolutionary, not just in the products, but also other aspects of their organisation, like the service they provide or their customer engagement.

Another aspect that helps companies scale is they understand the simple will always displace the complex.

The last of the five attributes is that these companies know that persuading people is about uniting an idea with emotion to create a memorable and compelling story. So the best organisations are fantastic storytellers as well.

We try to apply as many of those principles as possible.

You co-founded a business when you were just 21 and sold it for multiple millions. You don’t have to work now, so what’s driving you?

I am driven by so many aspects. One is my love for our team, our clients and the work that we do. I was passionate about creativity and technology when I was 11, and I continue to be passionate about creativity and technology today. AKQA is an incredibly broad canvas that invites contributions from so many people that it's a privilege to be one of the people who contributes to that canvas. So that drives me. I think the sense of duty also drives me.

One of my key insights is that the learning never ends. The dynamic leaders who I've learned from are just able to catalyse change. And ultimately what is an entrepreneur? An entrepreneur is someone who changes things to make them better.

How have you dealt with the challenges that come with running a big business?

Challenges never really end. Where I have hope and optimism is, I don't think I've ever faced a challenge that someone in history hasn't dealt with before. I try to have humility and an absence of ego. That makes me aware that continuing to learn is the way to respond to challenges.

One of my great teachers is the incredible anthropologist and author Wade Davis. Davis has this brilliant quote - despair is an insult to the imagination. Humans have a unique ability to contribute something beautiful to the world. That's such an incredibly optimistic and wonderful act and privilege.

How has your upbringing impacted your approach to business?

The thread of my early years interweaves a unique dimension to my journey. I came from an underrepresented group and there was definitely a sense of some economic and cultural exclusion. But I was very lucky that I had this incredible example of my really kind, compassionate and hardworking first generation immigrant parents. They had multiple jobs to make ends meet. So I never viewed any unfavourable circumstances as hindrances. I suppose I saw them as sources of resilience and determination.

I can remember to this day that at the age of 12, I was told by my state school career advisor that I should follow in my dad's footsteps and become a factory worker. I was surprised about that because I had a fairly good academic performance, but there was still this sense of stereotyping.

When I launched AKQA at 21, I was unleashing that torrent of youthful, naive energy by embarking on this somewhat audacious and visionary venture. I defied the expectations that may have existed. There’s lots of aspects that interweave to make us the people we are.

I think you see that in a lot of entrepreneurs - if you don't feel like you're part of the system, it's less of a risk to try something new. Looking back on your career, is there anything you would have done differently?

You learn much more from the defeats and despair than you do the triumphs. Each of those defeats might have been incredibly painful at the time. But when you look back at it later, you kind of think actually that's just part of the journey.

My favourite film is called Gattaca and it has this brilliant line - there is no gene for the human spirit. I still believe the most powerful force in the universe isn’t technology, it’s human imagination.

What’s your biggest leadership lesson?

There's a few. I love one that a client taught us, ‘‘your ego is not your amigo’. All of us have to make sure that we keep our egos in control. Another bit of advice is don't quit a winning horse.

But the leadership lesson that I've been taught recently is to make sure that I invest in relationships that have a compounding effect. They are relationships that are mutually beneficial and keep improving with time. Invest in the relationships that compound.

Illustration created using picture from AKQA