How I became an… agency founder
When Ajaz Khowaj Quoram Ahmed was 12 years old, his father secured him a paper round that would set the course for the rest of his life. One stop on that round was the office of Ashton-Tate, at the time the third largest software company in the world. The firm had just moved into the building and, when he dropped off their papers early that first morning, Ahmed noticed a skip filled with office supplies, from stationery to floppy disks.
“To a massive corporation this was seen as garbage,” he says, “but to a 12-year-old boy it was an Aladdin’s cave.”
After school that day, Ahmed returned to Ashton-Tate and asked if he could help himself to their rubbish. The people manning the front desk thought this was “the cutest thing” and not only agreed but offered him a tour of the building and a cup of tea.
Having dug through the skip, Ahmed recruited his older sister - “my first employee” - to help him take home the floppy disks and clean them up. He then made flyers, which he distributed to local offices on his paper route offering the disks for sale. By the end of the next day, every one had been sold and Ahmed was hooked.
For the next three years he wrote to Ashton-Tate regularly asking for a job, still overwhelmed by the beauty of the building, the kindness of the staff and the exciting nature of the work they did. At 15, he started working there during the holidays, rotating through each department to learn as much as he could. At the time Ashton-Tate represented 80% of the database software market and Ahmed was introduced to “this new wave of technology companies from California that were completely changing the status quo and transforming the world.”
For the rest of his teens, Ahmed had several jobs - sometimes up to four at a time - including stints with gaming company Ocean Software and Apple. His relentless enthusiasm flourished because it was mirrored by the executives he worked for. “Every adult in my life was someone who I could learn from and was a genuine role model. My first experience of business was that the company said to me ‘you can have whatever you want’,” he recalls.
At the University of Bath, where he studied business, someone showed Ahmed the internet and he realised exactly what it was that he wanted. He took the money he had been saving since that first paper round and founded AKQA - his initials - when he was just 21. It started out publishing guides to marketing and customer experience on the internet called Interface and Netiquette.
From here, the agency began attracting big-name clients, from Virgin and McDonald’s to BMW and Microsoft, all of whom were looking to improve their digital capabilities. Early projects were all around website design, helping these companies capitalise on the promise of the internet to impact sales, marketing and communications.
Over time, however, AKQA branched out into product design and innovation. In recent years, the agency has worked on everything from video game interfaces to vast multimedia advertising campaigns for brands such as Coca-Cola; from fitness apps to music videos.
The company’s success drew investors early on. In 2001, Accenture invested $71m into the agency, before AKQA merged with three other agencies to become an international marketing powerhouse. The brand continued to grow and win awards, eventually attracting the attention of WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell in 2012. It became an autonomous subsidiary of the advertising giant before merging with the Grey Group in 2020, bringing its workforce to more than 6,000 employees across 50 countries.
But while the nature of the business has changed a lot over the proceeding 30 years, the role of founder has stayed similar.
“The job is the same now as it was when I was 21,” says Ahmed. “It’s still about being entrepreneurial, looking for great ideas, and applying technology in a useful and interesting way.
“I love technology. I love creativity, and I love business. And I’m in this occupation where I get to work with people that I love in a company that I love, doing work that we love.”
Ahmed finds it impossible to think of single thing he dislikes about the work he does. “I think of my role and career as a privilege,” he says, “because it’s so unique and remarkable. In that environment, there’s so much good that it’s impossible to dislike aspects of it because they’re part of the process.”
Beyond a love for the work, there are particular characteristics that budding agency founders need. The first is a steeliness that may seem at odds with Ahmed’s eagerness and passion. “The key attribute of successful people is grit,” he says. “Even when you’re facing overwhelming and sometimes catastrophic challenges, if you have the grit and the focus to keep ploughing on and keep pioneering, the results compound.”
He also believes it is important not to get caught up with the accoutrements of leadership - be that the perceived power or the healthy remuneration. Whether leading an agency of seven people or 7,000, great leadership is about caring, he says.
“As business history shows, the leaders that are most successful not only have the passion and the understanding of the products, but genuinely care about their employees and genuinely care about their customers.” No one who met Ahmed, even for 10 minutes, could doubt that this is true of him.