AKQA Is No. 6 on Ad Age's Agency A-List

It's Not Small or Nimble, but This Growing Global Network Is in the Driver's Seat With Digital Strategy

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- By November 2009, lots of marketers had built and launched successful apps on Apple's iPhone platform -- so the fact that Volkswagen's GTI racing game had landed a top slot in the App Store was impressive, but not that unusual. What was unusual, however, was the strategy behind the app.

Tom Bedecarre
Sam Hadley
CEO: Tom Bedecarre
CLIENTS: VW, Autodesk, Claire's, Bethesda Softworks, Sprite, Warner Bros., Charles Schwab
VW and AKQA launched the newest-generation GTI exclusively on the iPhone -- a first for the auto industry and a pretty gutsy move for a brand that had historically spent $60 million in 2006 for a launch campaign with lots of network TV. But flashy TV spots aren't necessary when it comes to mobile-obsessed young men, and the GTI Racing app became the most-downloaded free app in the App Store in its first week, with no paid media driving downloads outside search.

Impressive campaign results -- such as the app's average interaction time of seven minutes -- aside, the GTI case demonstrates AKQA's ability to couch the latest and hottest media -- in this case, iPhone apps -- in a strategic framework since the target market, men, like games and phones, and mobile is more cost-effective than TV.

"There were a lot of nimble, smart pure-play mobile agencies, but we realized we needed somebody more strategic that could play in the same playground as our agency of record," said Charlie Taylor, VW general manager digital marketing and motor sports, of the automaker's mobile agency review, which culminated in choosing AKQA last April. "Ideas can come from anywhere; we didn't want just an execution partner."

At the end of the six-week campaign, the Volkswagen GTI app -- a racing game licensed from Australian developer Firemint and souped up with VW cars and branding -- had been downloaded 4 million times, doubling the automaker's benchmark of 1.7 million global downloads set by the VW Polo app in early 2009. What's more, the brand estimates 45% of those downloads were in the U.S., a market Volkswagen has publicly set it sights on as the key to becoming the world's top carmaker.

See work from AKQA on Creativity.

Globally focused
The 36,000 people who registered in the app for car giveaways were also tracked back to sales: during the campaign, the brand sold 94 cars and two-thirds of those sales were first-time VW buyers. "This game allowed us to reach people new to the Volkswagen family," Mr. Taylor said.

AKQA's marriage of proven interactive chops and solid understanding of marketing strategy might just explain how it closed the year with a healthy 18% bump in revenue for 2009, up from nearly $70 million in 2008, trumping 13% growth from the year previous, according to Ad Age's Data Center.

One reason for its success hanging on and growing business from such big brands? Agency CEO Tom Bedecarre added that his agency has been focused on global for 10 years. "There aren't many digital specialists that operate on that scale," he said. Mary Dillon, McDonald's global chief marketing officer, cites AKQA's global perspective and ability to translate across markets and cultures as the agency's primary value to the fast feeder, an agency client since 2007.

The San Francisco-based independent* has also managed to stay above the debate du jour -- whether digital agencies are ready to lead -- instead letting its new-business record prove its case. It won three full-service agency-of-record accounts for highly digital brands in 2009: The agency will be responsible for B-to-B designs beyond digital for software manufacturer Autodesk; campaigns to reach increasingly digital teen-girls for the accessories retailer Claire's; and online, trade-show and above-the-line advertising for Bethesda Softworks.

To staff that business, as well as new wins from Sprite, Warner Bros. and Charles Schwab, the agency upped headcount about 10% to more than 800, padding the ranks with hires from inside and out the digital sphere.

On the creative front, AKQA proved it gets the entire spectrum of interactive these days, from mobile to augmented reality in web browsers and social media.

On Facebook, AKQA created a portal for Gap's new jeans line, a partnership with fashion-collage site Polyvore and the Stylemixer social-shopping app. That netted 43% more fans -- to nearly 500,000 -- on the brand's Facebook page and a spot for Stylemixer in an Apple iPhone TV ad.

AKQA even managed to get augmented reality right, taking the technology digital types grew more than tired of last year from tech hype to utility. For the U.S. Postal Service, AKQA created the Virtual Box Simulator, where mailers can determine what size box fits their item by printing out a marker and firing up a webcam. The site has attracted 1.4 million views and generated more than 160,000 leads, which translates to 27% more requests for shipping supplies for the Postal Service.

AKQA even closed out the year with a blue-chip bang: It was assigned to Unilever's first global digital roster, joining the likes of Publicis Groupe's Razorfish and Havas' Euro RSCG. Affirming digital agencies' growing influence on communications in total, Unilever's VP-global communications planning Babs Rangaiah told Ad Age, some of the roster digital shops may end up as lead creative agencies on his consumer-packaged brands. With that, it looks like AKQA has its work cut out.

"We're no longer just trying to be the best digital agency," said AKQA's Mr. Bedecarre. "We want to be recognized as one of the best agencies full-stop."

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said AKQA was based in London.

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