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Agency Profile: AKQA, San Francisco

Posted on July 16, 2009 and read 9,680 times

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mayacredit Agency Profile: AKQA, San FranciscoMaya Zaremba
Account Co-ordinator
ihaveanidea Correspondent

If you’ve ever travelled across California, you know that San Francisco is very different from the rest of the state. On one hand, it’s one of the most accessible cities on the west coast –one can travel almost anywhere in San Fran and pay no more than $15 for a cab (see Brett’s misadventures in LA while visiting David&Goliath). On the other hand, the weather is often  colder side than the rest of Cali, with a thick fog that rolls in across the bay. There are its iconic cable cars that travel up and down the numerous rolling hills, and famous landmarks like Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s also the birthplace of one of the most influential and eclectic bands in rock n’ roll history, The Grateful Dead. It’s no surprise that the creative shops of San Fran are a little bit different as well, especially digital wizardry agency AKQA.

While the majority of San Francisco’s ad agencies inhabit skyscrapers stretched along Battery Street (the “Madison Avenue” of San Francisco), AKQA is located in SoMa (South of Market, for the rest of us non-natives. This up and coming neighborhood is home to numerous great little bars, café’s and restaurants, as well as a ton of ‘hipper-than-thou’ furniture galleries. Since we all know it’s all about location, AKQA’s space really can’t be beat; the office is located directly across from AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants.

AKQA resides in one of the more interesting office spaces I’ve seen — a historic one hundred-year old building that was once a coffee mill factory. In this space, AKQA takes over three floors which presently house 200 employees, about half of which are creatives working in either pure creative or creative development (a hybrid formed by both the creative department and the technology department). The old building still maintains some of its original structure –the wooden beams and brick walls are said to be from the original constructions; however, like any other older building, the beautiful space doesn’t come without some of its own eccentricities. Someone commented on AKQA’s quirky old elevator “it’s so slow in this building, it’s like you have to wait for someone to flush the toilet first for the thing to be able to move!” But once you do get to the rooftop patio, the gorgeous view allows you forget the horrible elevator ride. AKQA Bonus: don’t be surprised if a few of your meetings and brainstorming session take place there!

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nikewomenbutton Agency Profile: AKQA, San Francisco          ignitebutton Agency Profile: AKQA, San Francisco 

AKQA is the brainchild of Ajaz Ahmed and Tom Bedecarré, who in 2001 combined their existing companies (AKQA in London and Citron Haligman Bedecarré in San Francisco.) From there, four more shops were acquired to truly become global. Today AKQA has offices in New York, Amsterdam, Shanghai and Washington DC.

But what exactly does AKQA name stand for? The initials have been a bit of a mystery for some time now. Some speculate they stand for “All Known Questions Answered”; Others believe that the initials are a mishmash of the names of the two founders, Ajaz Quorum Kowaj Ahmed and Andy Kinneston Sutcliffe. “There’s a lot of myth around what AKQA stands for. I’m not going to tell you. If people have questions, they can email us,” claims Rei Inamoto, Global Creative Director. While Rei is not about to give up the well-guarded secret, he is willing to talk about what the company believes in and what they strive for. “We create ideas that solve problems. Innovation is a big part of what we do, so we bring innovation to each solution that we provide.” This testimony is summed up in the company’s mantra, “ ‘the future inspires us. We work to inspire’: whatever we are doing today will become the ingredients for tomorrow.”

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Innovation is a huge part of what the company brings to the table. Last year, AKQA was honored with the title of Fast 50 World’s Most Innovative Company by Fast Company. For Inamoto, it is one of the many valuable moments in the company’s history, “That was actually a good recognition to get, because people have no issue talking about other advertising agencies within the field, but that publication is not about advertising, just innovation in general. It was good to see us get recognized by a publication that’s definitely recognized outside the industry we work in.” A huge honor no doubt, but where does one go from there? Rei has a very clear vision for where he would like the company to go, “My ‘goal’ would be for AKQA to do work that has cultural impact. I think people in creative and advertising industries tend to talk to themselves too much, so there might be a piece that’s talked about in the community but does not necessarily have cultural impact outside of the circle.”

What about AKQA’s reputation of being a digital agency? Today many digital agencies are trying to shake that descriptor, but Rei isn’t averse to this perception of the company, “ That’s a fair perception that people have and we agree that in the past we did not shy away from calling ourselves a digital agency, but I think that distinction of digital vs. traditional is starting to fade. I think that five years ago, it was talked about, but finally that is starting to disappear slowly. At the end of the day, I don’t really think it’s about the medium, it’s about the message and not so much the TV spot, print ad, etc… If the idea is great, it should be explored and executed in the medium that suits the idea the best.”

Rei and his team are very serious about the work they do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to have fun. Within their San Francisco office, AKQA has enough extracurricular activities to put any high school to shame. AKQA staff kick back by joining the office softball team, bowling league, ski ball tournament, ski trip, or go to the weekly yoga class held on Thursdays. Let’s not forget the agency picnics, ‘Spin Dig’ (where AKQA DJs get to show off their skills monthly at local club Butter), happy hours, and occasional Xbox Live Halo tournaments with other AKQA offices, “it’s kind of tricky, because we’re in a lot of different time zones” Inamoto says about the Halo games. With all of these activities, AKQA copywriter Ellen Karas describes working there as “what you would do with your friends if you were stuck in a building with them all day.”

zinger1 Agency Profile: AKQA, San FranciscoAKQA San Francisco doesn’t just offer a lot of things for their team to blow off steam and goof around, they also have activities that encourage creative development. This includes a annual all-day off-site for the entire creative department. “We give them different assignments or different sorts of activities to generate different types of ideas,” says Rei. “We also let people work with others who don’t work together and mix people up. It’s very open, very collaborative, a sort-of ‘free for all’.”

AKQA is also happy to keep their creative’s skills in top shape, offering them the ability to take a series of InDesign, Photoshop, and Illustrator workshops, “The classes are a full day or a half day; you can bring in some of your work and ask ‘how do I do this, or how do I do that?’ It’s usually a pretty small, intimate group. The company encourages that here; anyone, at any position, can do them” explains designer Diana Povieng.

The offices in the AKQA network are fairly well connected to each other. In addition to the steady flow of creatives moving from one AKQA office to another, Inamoto makes sure that his team of creatives are connected in other ways. “Another way that we foster exchange and sharing is from something we call a ‘creative council’”. In the creative council, Inamoto meets together with the executive creative directors from the other AKQA offices, for a show and tell of the different types of projects. Rei then takes examples of these pieces and brings them back to San Francisco for his own presentation that he gives to the creative department. “I find that to be, both personally and professionally, the most inspiring and encouraging way of motivating myself as opposed to looking at what other companies have done”. However, the exchange of creative ideas across different offices doesn’t stop there. The San Francisco office offers an AKQA employee incentive program, in which one lucky employee is picked from a series of nominations every quarter. The chosen staff member receives two weeks of paid vacation and a trip to one of the other AKQA offices to check out the work themselves.

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Aside from a roster full of amazing clients (Nike, Coca-Cola, Visa, Target etc.) numerous recreational activities, awards and achievements, the most amazing thing about the AKQA San Francisco office is its ability to be remain open and approachable within its office doors, despite housing 200 employees on three separate floors. “We don’t really have closed offices. We try to make it very approachable for anybody to come up to me. I made a pledge, and made it public, that I’m going to talk to everyone in the creative department at least every three weeks“ Rei explains. It’s a very ambitious goal for the global creative director, especially considering the amount of travel he takes on to oversee other offices and non-local clients. The open office policy that extends to all members of the team is one of the many reasons Karas has been happy to stay at AKQA for over four years, “Because everyone is so open here, it’s easy for people to learn and get better and feel comfortable. You can just walk up to someone and you don’t have to knock on a door, or ring a bell. You just walk up and say, ‘hey, what’s up?’” “We’re about 200 people now, but there is this small agency culture to it” confirms ACD Michael Takeshita.

The open-nature of the office extends to other areas as well, such as the hierarchy regarding the distribution of projects. “AKQA does a really great job at nurturing great talent so they do put junior talent on projects fast. These junior teams do get exposed to some pretty hardcore clients. I think that if you’re a junior creative, you will get the opportunity to flex your muscles and the ability to prove yourself,” boasts Takeshita. Designer Diana Poveing, who got her big break at AKQA after doing some temp work at other agencies, is only too quick to agree, “It’s kind of what makes this place really awesome. If you have an opportunity, you go for it. At a lot of other places, there’s a lot of hierarchy and superiority. Here, it’s not like that.”

Between the agency’s open policy, the toys and gadgets around the office, abundant activities both within and outside of the office, and equal opportunity project distribution, AKQA San Fran office nurtures amazing talent that goes on to stay with them for years and years. There’s no doubt that we will be keeping our eyes on this extraordinary agency, and hope that a lucky few of us can sneak by and work in this amazing shop!

Finally, I’d would like to give a big “Thank-you!” to Rei Inamoto, Michael Takeshita, Ellen Karas, Diana Poveing and Kali Lamping, all of who took the time to chat to us and help us feel welcome in the office!







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