Stay true to your values

Success in business is down to many factors, but a relentless sense of commitment and a constant striving for excellence are crucial, says Ajaz Ahmed

It is often said that ‘the journey is the reward’. My journey with AKQA began more than a decade ago when the Internet was seen as a transient fad or novelty, and there was strange speculation about its purpose and long-term impact.

But it was then that I felt able to combine a love of design and creativity with a passion for technology and commerce. Spurred on by an instinct that the Web was the place where these worlds combined, and against all advice, I co-founded AKQA.

Enthusiasm can only take a business so far, especially in the as-then-unchartered territory of new media. Luckily, I was well versed in the basic principles of management because of sacrifices made as a teenager when I surrendered holidays, evenings and spare hours to work for a leading software company.

Not only was it terrific fun, but I learnt valuable lessons. I was exceptionally lucky that the organisation pursued excellence and its people helped me understand the fundamental requirements for an innovation-led business.

Through them, I also learnt the value of analysing options before making decisions, and how to manage often complex issues. While I wasn’t directly involved in making any of the decisions there, l had a privileged front-row seat which allowed me the luxury of soaking up important lessons.

So I feel accountable to the people and the companies that I’ve been influenced by because otherwise you’re pretending that it came from nowhere when it didn’t.

I also learned it’s inevitable you’ll make decisions that you later come to regret, but in the business world you cannot plan for every eventuality.

But while this grounding was beneficial, it was just the start of an ongoing learning curve. As AKQA grew – especially overseas – that continued.

Much of what I have subsequently absorbed relates to defining the DNA and values of the business, finding and nurturing talent, effective team building, ensuring that we stay focused on the work and regularly journey into challenging, unknown territory.

From the beginning, we were absolutely clear about AKQA’s purpose. We wanted it to be known for innovation, but I didn’t want that to become a mantra. The work had to do the talking. There was no room for compromise, as the most consistently successful businesses are those that resolutely adhere to meaningful values and beliefs.

The next challenge was how to then impart this set of values across the team. A decade ago, AKQA was a far smaller company, but the core team understood, believed and reflected these values.

Over time, the DNA permeated every aspect of our business and became evident in the work created. Now, it has come full circle: designers, technologists and story-tellers are attracted to the consultancy because of its uncompromising core values, and, in turn, they ensure these are maintained and reflected in everything we do.

I continue to be hands-on and obsessed with the detail that makes something perfect. That’s always going to be the thing that annoys people about me, and also the thing that they probably respect.

But in any organisation, you have to have brilliant management, so we’ve always tried to hire the best people, work in small teams and take a long-term approach.

If you have strong foundations and real conviction you will be able to withstand many challenges. We make it clear what the goals are so the team is in control, and give them excellent tools.

As a digital pioneer, AKQA had a head start. Today it is the world’s most awarded digital group, but we have always been aware there is no room for complacency when our core proposition is innovation.

Every day, a new brilliance dawns in our industry, and it’s essential we lead or respond by setting new standards. It’d be easy to wallow in nostalgia or sit back on our laurels, but that would be the quickest way to jeopardise the business and demotivate the team.

To create great work a team must have desire, creativity and commitment. It’s the constant ability to innovate for clients that keeps an agency relevant, not the number of accolades accumulated.

The things that have helped AKQA to get this far – the labours of love, the sachets of delight, the pockets of excitement, the uplifting creativity and ideas, the stuff that just rivets us in unexpected ways – will have significantly more importance in the future. As will the need to broaden our scope, add more strings to our bow, keep trying to nail it, keep grafting, keep plugging away.

How to stay ahead

• Be clear about goals and what you want to achieve

• Create a set of values that everyone in your team champions and never let those values be compromised

• Don’t wallow in nostalgia – stay relevant by innovating

• Above all, create great work

• Relentlessly raise the standards

• If you make a mistake, move on and find new opportunities

• Stay foolish, stay hungry

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