Digital A-List 2009

AKQA Embodies New Digital-Agency Model

Shop Has Made Investments and Grown Global Footprint While Preserving Creative Cred

By Published on .

Illustration: Pete McDonnell

SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Few big brands would call AKQA a truly full-service agency, though it's one of a handful of traditionally interactive shops that's managed to snag agency-of-record status for a client. But if there is a new model for a digital agency, this is it.

The shop has invested in below-the-line areas such as analytics and search, buying SearchRev in 2007; launched a video unit to stave off competition from traditional agencies and production shops; and managed to grow its global footprint to a half-dozen offices around the world, all while maintaining its creative cred.

The strategy has paid dividends for the independent, privately held agency. In the current climate, its broad offerings mean it isn't dependent on any one area to deliver its bottom line, said CEO Tom Bedecarre. He declined to break out the agency's revenue by service area.

Even as it achieves scale, AKQA hasn't suffered any dilution of its reputation as a shop with technical smarts, creative chops and other attributes usually ascribed to boutiques. In short, it's managed to stay a cutting-edge shop that pushes big ideas.

Its London office created NikeID, a way for European users to connect to the footwear giant and use their cellphones as design studios. Users can take pictures of things they like on their cellphones, send the pictures to Nike and, seconds later, Nike sends them a picture of a pair of trainers designed in the colors they have chosen. If they like what they see, they can purchase the shoes on the spot.

Tough benchmarks
For McDonald's, AKQA conceived and drove a worldwide multilingual alternate-reality game that centered on and coincided with the 2008 Olympics.

"AKQA represents a very strategic, yet idea- and creative-driven shop that is bigger than a hotshop but still has the true value of a creative hotshop," said Johan Jervoe, McDonald's corporate VP-global marketing.

WORK
AKQA

With NikeID, consumers can send cellphone photos of the shoe giant and get back photos of custom-designed kicks.

As tough as it is to engage young people, who often disdain blatant marketing, McDonald's put tough benchmarks and objectives in place before the campaign launched, Mr. Jervoe said.

The game, which involved user-generated content, began unbranded; one objective was for players to find out who was behind it. When the campaign concluded, purchase intent was 67%, and 5 million people in more than 100 countries had participated during a six-month period. The game snared more than 430 million measured media impressions.

"The very definition of advertising is changing," said Rei Inamoto, AKQA's co-chief creative officer. "Even as recent as three to five years ago, it was a cookie-cutter approach."

What is certain, Mr. Inamoto said, is that AKQA does its best work when it's anchored to consumer insight.

Data for consumers
When the agency realized the engineers at client Fiat didn't know what to do with diagnostics data its vehicles' computers collected, AKQA came up with the idea of the data to appeal to consumers' growing consciousness of environmental sustainability. The result was a device drivers can plug into the vehicles' onboard USB port that stores driving habits such as acceleration. They can take those data to their PCs for analysis and tips on how to improve fuel efficiency.

Almost one in three visitors to the Fiat microsite has downloaded the application, and more than 6,000 unique users visit the site daily, thanks word-of-mouth and PR; there has been no media spending to drive people there.

Mr. Bedecarre said AKQA's agency-of-record duties for Flip Video, maker of pocket-sized camcorders, could be a harbinger of things to come. A few other clients have "toyed with the idea but haven't pulled the trigger," he said, then asked: "As more and more media becomes digital, at what point does the digital agency assume the lead agency role?"

AKQA recruited Flip's demographic target of young adults to create content using cameras it gave away, and the content was repurposed to showcase new bands on MTV. The campaign reached 17 million viewers, resulting in a 14-point boost in Flip's brand awareness and a six-point boost in purchase intent among the target audience.

Simon Fleming-Wood, VP-marketing at Flip's parent, Pure Digital, said the brand is not interested in marketing its products in traditional ways, and AKQA gets that.

"They have been instrumental is helping us craft our media and marketing partnerships to not only deliver the brand message but to do it in a way that represents the authenticity of the brand," Mr. Fleming-Wood said. "We don't spend big media dollars, and we never want people to feel like they are being directly advertised to."

Slowing 2009
For all its success, AKQA's growth should slow this year amid the economic recession. It also sees a quiet year ahead on the acquisition front, although Mr. Bedecarre said the agency wouldn't rule out good opportunities if they came along. "We'd certainly have the resources," he said.

There's also, of course, the question of what comes next for a growing, digitally savvy independent shop -- and Mr. Bedecarre wouldn't rule out anything from an acquisition to a public offering.

"In this business, there's always [companies] reaching out to us," he said. Of an IPO, he said only that the agency is "a strong candidate ... in terms of being a growing company in a growing area."

MOST IMPORTANT DIGITAL LESSON I'VE LEARNED

Tom Bedecarre
Continually focus on innovation.

"We have pushed ourselves to develop mobile, search, online video and social media at the earliest possible time, so that we can build our experience using new platforms and help educate our clients about the pros and cons of emerging opportunities," said Tom Bedecarre, CEO of AKQA. "Of course, focusing on innovation requires some risk taking -- and sometimes it requires some salesmanship."

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