Ajaz Ahmed was working on professional Web-design commissions when he was still in school. Since then, he’s founded award-winning interactive agency AKQA – and become one of the Web’s most successful entrepreneurs in the process. Digit asked him how he did it.
How unusual would you say your childhood was? How was it different to other children’s?
My family is bigger than most and we shared the house I grew up in with our cousins until I was about seven or eight so that meant there were always lots of kids running riot without a lot of grown-up supervision. Lots of kids means lots of laughs and lots of mischief which is probably the best kind of childhood you can have.
What technology were you using when you were programming and coming up with ideas as a teenager?
All sorts. I wasn’t just interested in one computer or one operating system or one technology, so I had all types of machines and different software. This meant learning how they all worked and how they did things differently.
How supportive were your parents of your extra-curricular activities?
Both my parents have always been cool about pretty much everything that I wanted to do, except leaving university. They were not happy about that, but when I was given an honorary doctorate I think that made it up to them.
What drew you to technology and computers in the first place?
We’ve grown up with computers everywhere so it was never the technology itself that was the draw but what it could do.
What were your objectives when you set up AKQA?
I was lucky that I worked with Apple before starting AKQA. I learned a lot from Apple and the first rule over there was to build great products. The kind of people who build great products are passionate about excellence. So our primary goal at AKQA is to create great work and that means working with people who want to make the best things in the world, who love what they do.
For us it’s not about being the biggest company. The work is all that matters and keeping it innovative so that we’re always trying new things is the most important thing.
How does it feel to be voted most respected agency by your peers?
There’s a lot of talent in the industry and a lot of cool things happening, so when people are giving AKQA recognition for what we do, it means a lot to us. Let’s hope that five, ten years down the line, AKQA is still respected for what we do.
You have said that you find it strange how interested people are in your age. Do you feel this detracts from your achievements?
The achievements are really AKQA’s and the credit goes to the team here. I’m just lucky that I’m involved while it’s all happening. What the team at AKQA has achieved is unique but we’ve always said that we’re only as good as our next idea, so that’s what all the emphasis is on.
You appear to be keen to support young people through charity initiatives. What is the biggest obstacle young ambitious people face, and how can it be overcome?
It sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget that young people are the future. There’s a lot of young people in the UK and around the world who have huge amounts of potential but it gets wasted either because it wasn’t encouraged or there were some other obstacles in the way. AKQA supports charities like the NSPCC and the Prince’s Trust because they take away some of those obstacles and for a lot of kids that means a better future.
What does an average working day for you entail?
It’s relentless, but not in a bad way. I wouldn’t want it any other way. I’ve always been quite restless so having a relentless day probably helps that.
How has the industry changed since you first became involved?
It’s a much bigger industry now and digital is setting the direction, but there is still too much old-school thinking holding things back. People are watching less TV and reading fewer newspapers, and instead they’re listening to radio shows on their iPods, watching TV on their mobiles, and having telephone conversations on their PCs. So millions of people are ahead of companies and broadcasters when it comes to manipulating content and technology.
Some of them are editing out advertising which makes them all the more difficult to reach. This isn’t helped by the fact that many companies treat people like couch-potatoes, using antiquated marketing models which just won’t get through. There’s also this global case of attention deficit disorder created by too many channels, too many messages and too much junk. The solution to get through is to create better products, services, content and ideas – the kind people tell their friends about and define culture rather than follow it.
How do you think life in Britain will change in the next 5-10 years as a result of new technology?
You have this really amazing situation right now where content, information, and entertainment is fuelling people’s appetite for new devices and technology. Costs have really come down and the functionality has really improved.
When you combine this with the lowering of trade and political barriers around the world it’s really profound because the planet has become a more level playing field. What that means is that innovative companies anywhere on earth can compete and win important assignments.
What does the future hold for AKQA? And for you personally?
The future for AKQA is to keep moving things forward through the work and not to veer from the reasons and values that we started with. I’ve always been a do-er so I’m happiest when I’m trying to achieve something. You lose yourself when you’ve got a goal.
What is the best and worst thing about what you do?
I tend to get obsessed with the detail that makes something perfect, and that’s the thing that will always annoy people about me and it’s also the thing that people respect as well.