"We didn't go out and say, 'Let's find a guy from Denmark and Japan and Brazil and bring them into the company," laughs chief executive officer Tom Bedecarre, who spearheaded the hirings of Lars Bastholm, Rei Inamoto and PJ Pereira all within the past 16 months. "But half of our employees are outside of the United States, and we do make a conscious effort to hire people that are worldly and have worked and grown up in different environments. A big part of our success is being able to develop campaigns globally for global advertisers-and obviously the web is global by its nature."
Indeed, the agency has sported a global culture ever since San Francisco-based agency Citron Haligman Bedecarre joined forces five years ago with the original AKQA-a top interactive shop in London founded by Ajaz Ahmed and James Hilton in 1995-to form its current incarnation. Headquartered in San Francisco with offices in London, New York, Washington, D.C. and Singapore, the agency has leapt to the forefront of the emerging interactive revolution with a philosophy that emphasizes creativity over technology-an unusual mandate for a company built for the digital divide. "Technology is a part of our DNA, but I don't think we lead with it as much as we lead with innovation and ideas and problem-solving," says Bedecarre. "And that's very attractive to clients for the kinds of brands that have been drawn to AKQA."
Those brands are enough to make any big-name agency drool. From Nike to Xbox to ESPN, AKQA boasts a roster filled with forward-looking clients that demand innovative and edgy work. And that's just the way AKQA likes it. "It's all about ideas," says Bastholm, executive creative director of the newly-established New York office. "Some agencies with technologically-driven backgrounds ask, 'What can technology enable us to do?' Whereas AKQA asks, 'How can technology improve on this idea?'"
Some of the most eye-opening ideas of the past year include the campaign for Microsoft's Perfect Dark Zero video game, an integrated tour de force incorporating an ultra-cool web experience, a mobile element in the form of a cell phone call from the game's sexy star, and an email notification of a friend's "assassination." Further flexing its technological muscle, the agency continued its strong work for Nike with a website and interactive experience for the annual Run London 10K event, which offered runners equipped with a tiny chip in their shoelace and a 3G mobile phone the chance to see video of themselves crossing the finish line within 24 hours of the race.
But what put AKQA over the top was the agency's work for Xbox. Coming off its groundbreaking viral campaign for Halo 2 in late 2004, which teased Halo-hungry gamers around the world with a website written entirely in the alien language of the game's ruthless enemy alliance known as Covenant, AKQA went on to spearhead the online launch of the rabidly-anticipated Xbox 360 game console and also demonstrated its surprisingly broad capabilities in designing the box's innovative user interface. The latter also illustrated the disintegration of the barrier between marketing and actual product design-a frontier in which AKQA is also leading the charge.
All of this was made possible by the aforementioned hires, including Bastholm (formerly creative director of Framfab in Denmark), global creative director Inamoto (previously executive creative director at R/GA) and executive creative director Pereira of AKQA's San Francisco office (formerly creative director of AgenciaClick in Brazil). "The metaphor Tom used was that he was trying to build the Real Madrid of the internet," laughs Pereira, an avid soccer fan. "Take some of the best stars, not to compete against each other, but to challenge and inspire each other." Along with executive creative directors Daniel Bonner and Hilton of the London office, the elite creative quintet was dubbed the Global Creative Council. "Having a close-knit collective of creative directors with such similarities and differences is a huge inspiration to me," says Inamoto. "We meet a few times a year to share work that different offices have been doing, to talk about the creative places that we can take the company, and just to stimulate us in different directions. It definitely widens your perspective, being able to work with such an international roster of really great talent."
In the meantime, AKQA continues to widen its client list, having just been awarded the global digital business for Coca-Cola in October-a major coup for an agency already riding high from a wildly successful 2005. "A year ago, when we first announced we were bringing these people on board, I would never have dared to hope that we'd have an office in New York up and running, that we'd get the Coke global assignment, and that we'd have all this great work to show for it," says Bedecarre. "It's been an amazing year for us, and it really does feel like a year in which AKQA grew up."