Vroom, Vroom: Leader of the Pack Goes the Extra Mile
OMMA's 2006 Agency of the Year has momentum.
In fact, AKQA is as smokin' fast as the sleek race cars featured in the advergame the agency created for Xbox's "Project Gotham Racing 3." While handling global assignments for some of the world's biggest brands, the interactive shop stays nimble enough to help marketing behemoths tap into the latest consumer crazes.
Last year, OMMA cited AKQA for excellence in Web design and development and awarded the agency Silver props for overall excellence. But in 2006, AKQA topped itself. Reporting $350 million in online media billings for the year, and with 450 staffers, the agency racked up heaps of awards, including Interactive Agency of the Year honors in the U.S. from Creativity magazine and a gold medal in the Interactive Advertising Bureau's Creative Showcase for Yell.com's "Results for Real Life" campaign.
AKQA's rising profile hasn't gone unnoticed: The digital hot shop, with offices in London, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and Shanghai, is quietly shopping itself around and is attractive to agency holding companies including WPP, Publicis, and Omnicom. Some reports have the agency fetching as much as $150 million. AKQA's revenues are more commonly estimated at $75 to $100 million.
The agency designed the interface of Microsoft's Xbox gaming console and counts Coca-Cola, Nike, Visa, McDonald's, Smirnoff, and Unilever among its heavy-hitting clients. The agency added Nike and Microsoft's msn in 2006 by winning global assignments from McDonald's, Smirnoff, and Johnnie Walker. It also rolled out a new global site for Coke, a job awarded in late 2005. British local search service Yell.com hired AKQA to manage all aspects of its ad campaign, including both online and offline activity. And the agency rounded out its new business with major engagements from Target, Gucci Group, Dell, Sky Broadband, Windows Vista, and Sprite.
In the driver's seat of this agency, which also has virtual offices in Second Life, are Tom Bedecarre, CEO; Ajaz Ahmed, chairman and co-founder; and Andrew O'Dell, president of interactive marketing.
Bedecarre offers an understanding of the needs of major brands honed through decades of experience as CEO of Citron Haligman Bedecarre, the ad agency he co-founded in 1990. In addition to helping direct the company's business strategy, Ahmed works with the top business brains at MIT's Sloan School of Management. Interactive pioneer O'Dell was a co-founder of Lot21, the influential digital agency acquired by Carat Interactive. The newest member of the management team is Scott Symonds, executive media director, formerly of Agency.com.
The agency's strategy is to build long-lasting relationships with major brands, Bedecarre says, adding that the world's biggest brands are ready to move full-speed into interactive. "These very large agreements are important for us, but they also reflect what's going on with large marketers who want to see a bigger percentage of what they do shifted online."
Tim Kopp, vice president of global interactive marketing for The Coca-Cola Company, says he challenged AKQA to take the venerable brand beyond the traditional monologue approach that most packaged goods brands take. "Ajaz and Tom are visionaries, with a relentless focus on innovation," he says.
AKQA created a partnership with Apple's iTunes to launch Coke Music, a program that combines a Web site, audio, and video podcasts with social networking, live gigs, and digital downloads to feature some of Europe's hottest indie bands. The agency helped Coke embrace consumer-generated video, building on the momentum of EepyBird's wildly popular "Mentos Fountain," with The Coke Show video challenges. In the Big Challenge, visitors are invited to upload 30-second videos illustrating how everyday objects can move in extraordinary and beautiful ways.
The agency rose to the additional challenge of rolling out the site in 12 languages and 40 different countries.
"Digital media enables communication to be more fluid," O'Dell says. "It's not talking to, it's talking with."
Visa charged AKQA with the task of translating its "Life Takes Visa" brand campaign to the digital medium. The agency used a mix of rich media and traditional banner ads to supplement mobile efforts, and even included a real-world installation that let passersby digitally "paint" abstract designs on an interactive panel on the sidewalk. The agency reports that the campaign delivered more than 594 million impressions in one month, with visitors spending an average of five highly engaged minutes each.
"What's impressive about AKQA is that they're always looking for something fresh and always working on new paradigms," says Jon Raj, vice president of advertising and emerging media platforms for Visa USA. "It's not about creating banners and placing them on sites, it's about understanding what we need to accomplish."
AKQA connected Visa with real life via a series of short Web videos that extended the TV campaign by featuring vignettes of people enjoying special moments. Even more real was a series of banner ads using photos consumers had posted on Yahoo's Flickr photo-sharing service.
"A lot of [agencies] talk about real life and then recreate the life they want to see," Raj says. "When you talk about life, you don't want Visa's interpretation; you want to see real life."
For MSN, AKQA created a multi-component awareness campaign for Windows Live Messenger, positioning it as a "cool" IM application with a site featuring animation by a well-known artist.
It created The Mighty Zoltar, a character who predicts your friends' futures. Viral video combined with online advertising sent people to the site in order to discover which of their friends would enjoy fame or wealth. Once there, they could sign up for Messenger to stay in touch with them. Microsoft executives liked the campaign so much that they used the character in a presentation at a global conference.
AKQA launched a mobile practice in 2006, and Bedecarre says it has won substantial business, deploying mobile marketing initiatives via wireless SMS, games, short codes, video sponsorships, and mobile ticketing applications for clients including Coca-Cola, Nike, Yell.com, and Xbox.
Although its roots are firmly in the digital realm, AKQA isn't afraid to get down and dirty.
For an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it sent street teams out to chalk artist Matthew Barney's secret personal symbol at hip locations. Curious people could search for the symbol online and discover a Web site designed to spark dialogue about the controversial show.
As part of its multi-channel campaign for Yell.com, AKQA took the client's message to public transit, installing interactive screens at bus shelters and train stations; it even installed smart screens on the sides of buses that displayed ads specific to the vehicles' actual locations.
The agency continued its work for Nike with several substantial projects in 2006, including the Festival of Air at NikeTown London, celebrating the release of the Nike Air Max 360 running shoes.
During the five-week in-store promotion, shoppers could attempt to match the performances of sports stars. Their athletic feats were captured by a video camera and combined instantly with a stadium shot featuring participants' names and stats, thanks to a custom-built application designed and implemented by AKQA. Images were fed to a microsite where participants and their friends could see how they ranked against others.
"People live in a cross-platform kind of world," Bedecarre says. "So we approach engagements that way from the start."
AKQA practices what it preaches; it opened an agency office in Second Life with the aim of recruiting among the digital elite. While the virtual agency hadn't resulted in any hires by press time, it has garnered plenty of free publicity.
Says Coke's Kopp, "It's a phenomenal time to be working in this space, and AKQA has done a nice job of continuing to differentiate itself in a pretty competitive landscape."
This fast-moving agency has some intriguing projects under wraps that play at the border of consumer-generated video and advertising.
"The role that agencies have in creating and distributing content is changing, and certainly the lines are blurring between viral video and the video we create," Bedecarre says.
Count on AKQA to continue to blur the lines - in a blur of speed.