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When chief creative officer James Hilton started AKQA sixteen years ago in London with co-founder Ajaz Ahmed, their goal was simple: “We wanted to work with brands our mums had heard of,” Hilton says. That meant working with companies that were large, well known, with a global reach. The twist was that AKQA would do it using technologies completely foreign to anyone's mum.

“When we started,” Hilton remembers, “we worked in new media, not Web. We knew that those new mediums required new thinking. We didn’t want to just do Web sites as we didn’t want our ideas to be constrained. The medium wasn’t the message. The idea was the message, along with the most relevant way to communicate it.” Today those new ideas are being communicated via Twitter, Facebook, Photosynth, iPhone apps, cell phone shot codes, USB ports onboard cars—technologies that weren't even invented when AKQA began.

The ability to exploit new technology, combined with cutting-edge creative, has enabled AKQA to grow during the current economic downturn. It’s a mindset that's poised for growth, as AKQA finds itself at the center of a revolution that has upended the norms of traditional advertising. AKQA CEO Tom Bedecarré says, “People don’t want their lives cluttered up with ads. They want entertainment, engagement, information. AKQA builds a smarter way to engage with brands.”

As an example of how technology can drive brand engagement, Bedecarré points to the work AKQA did for Fiat. The new line of cars from Fiat came complete with a USB port on board that leveraged technology from Microsoft called Blue&Me. Fiat put it there so owners could transfer their music from their media players to their cars. AKQA was curious enough to ask, “What else could it do?”

The result was eco:Drive, an application that downloaded all the car's telemetry data—braking, acceleration, shifting patterns—to a thumb drive. With the data transferred to a computer, the owner could calculate an eco:Index that showed how to save gas, reduce CO2 emissions and become more efficient drivers by changing their driving styles.

If you are smart enough to take advantage of it, “data is empowering,” Bedecarré says. “The most engaging things you can do with an audience can be done with applications, not traditional ads.” Long after the sale, an app from AKQA is helping position Fiat as the most eco-friendly car maker in Europe.

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How do you find an audience that's not only immune to traditional advertising, they're downright allergic to it? That’s not a trivial question if you are a brand like Nike trying to reach a demographic of fashion-forward 16- to- 24-year-old urban hipsters. As a generation they account for over $29 billion in disposable income.

For Daniel Bonner, AKQA’s chief creative officer, the question centers on how to connect with people who “duck and dive the traditional broadcast medium.” These are the sneaker-heads who pride themselves on knowing when a hot new line of shoes will drop; the cool kids who hold huge sway in the marketplace as influencers, trendsetters and opinion shapers.

To reach them on behalf of Nike Apparel, AKQA designed an app called “True City” for the iPhone. Using a shot code—a high tech bar code designed for cell phones with built-in cameras—plastered on city walls, the True City campaign left a lot to the imagination. Emblazoned with the Nike Swoosh, and the phrase “Make the Hidden Visible,” the shot code doesn't shout its marketing message; it whispers an invitation. Today’s equivalent of a speakeasy password, the shot code acts as a portal, telling those in the know that there's more content available. Advertising like this, Bonner says, is “less about persuasion, more about participation.”

With the True Cities app downloaded on their iPhone, a user takes a photo of the shot code, texts the photo to a number, and in return receives an invitation to a Nike-sponsored, under-the-radar event—a gallery opening, a DJ party or a skateboard competition. As Bonner explains, “We collaborated with gallery owners, curators, musicians and artists in cities like Berlin, London and Amsterdam to find the places where they hang out. We then published it as an application, and invited the audience to contribute, by offering what they think is the coolest place to be in that city. They drop a pin on the map, select a genre, a place to hang out and then upload their contribution. The app logs it for others to see and use.”

True Cities expanded Nike’s reach into the culture in a way that sponsoring traditional sporting events could not. “Once you download the app you’ve given Nike permission to market to you,” Bonner says. “Nike gets a direct channel to the audience. When a load of kids turns up at an art gallery or shoe launch, it shows that the app is working.”
Do I look fat in this app?

In AKQA’s San Francisco office, Rei Inamoto, chief creative officer, is showing off Gap 1969 Stream on a shiny new iPad. The latest Gap app is a seamlessly stitched together canvas of Gap fashion, requiring only a finger flick to scroll and pan like a Mobius strip complete with video clips of designers, Gap catwalks, Twitter feeds and content from third-party sites. “The goal was to create a digital tapestry of fashion culture,” Inamoto says. Tap an individual item on 1969 Stream and it reveals more detailed product information and connects to the Web to enable direct, specific shopping from Gap.

The most engaging things you can do with an audience can be done with applications, not traditional ads.”—Tom Bedecarré

Over the last two years, AKQA has worked closely with Gap as its digital agency. “There was a time,” Inamoto explains, “When the culture of the brand was the culture of the country. We wanted to remake Gap into the cultural icon it once was.” To bring Gap into the new digital age, AKQA designed a series of campaigns that constituted a whole-hearted embrace of digital and social mediums. And required Gap to hand over control of their content to consumers, as well.

Gap 1969 Stream begins where AKQA’s Style Mixer app for Gap ends. To coincide with the 40th anniversary Born to Fit 1969 campaign AKQA built an app for the iPhone that integrated the Gap catalog with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and third-party mix-and-match fashion site Polyvore. Consumers could mix and match Gap styles, take photos of clothing already owned, create an outfit, then use their phones to post the ensemble to Polyvore and to Facebook where their friends could comment on their new look.

When the Gap Style Mixer iPhone app was featured in Apple’s own ubiquitous “there's an app for that” television ads, Inamoto knew AKQA had succeeded in making the Gap part of the cultural conversation again.

Behind the great firewall of China, Johan Vakidis runs creative in the Shanghai office for AKQA. The Montréal native speaks fluent Mandarin and has been working in China for more than ten years.

He knows the culture. He knows the electronic bulletin boards where people hang out. He knows there is a preference to copy—and not create. He points out that on the streets of Shanghai you can buy a knock-off iPhone, run a copy of the Nokia Symbian OS and decorate it with diamonds. The phenomenon even has a name: shanzhai.

Consequently, Vakidis says, the creative culture in China has a long way to go. “Only a fraction of the work coming out of China is world class, and that’s where we come into play. We’re all learning in China,” Vakidis says. “Facebook is blocked. Twitter is blocked. YouTube is blocked.”

The constraints of working in the Chinese market are more than compensated for, by the opportunity to do work that can communicate with millions. The recent AKQA campaign for Lipton Milk Tea reached 100 million people. “That’s one third of the Internet population,” Vakidis proudly points out.

One of the first things ‘global’ means for AKQA is there’s no house style. Our house style is quality, innovative thinking and an entrepreneurial mindset." —James Hilton

“Our client came to us with the goal of attracting university students to this traditional warm drink during Chinese New Year,” Vakidis says. “Basically the brief was ‘I want young people drinking Lipton Milk Tea at Chinese New Year parties.’”

The viral campaign AKQA created capitalized on the Chinese penchant to “over greet” with a personal message that materialized out of a cloud of steam rising from a cup of Lipton Milk Tea. AKQA created an animation and a snippet of code that allowed users to customize their own greeting then send it to a friend via QQ, China’s most widely used instant messaging platform. “You can simply drop a link inside your friend's list, and everyone on the list gets the message. You write a note, we send it out and the note appears coming out of the steam rising off the cup.”

The elements of the campaign did not necessarily break new ground. In the Chinese market where AKQA operates, creative work is evolutionary, not revolutionary. His mission, Vakidis says, is to embrace the hybrid home-grown social media environment and do great work in this funny landscape we’re in.

With offices in London, Shanghai, New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Amsterdam and recently-opened Berlin, AKQA is thriving as a global company working for global brands. According to co-founder Hilton, “One of the first things ‘global’ means for AKQA is there’s no house style. Our house style is quality, innovative thinking and an entrepreneurial mindset. No two bits of work are the same.”

At the end of the day, Hilton explains, “A truly brilliant global company is really a truly brilliant local company that uses its intelligence and connections for global brands. There’s more to it than just translating the message into a different language. We can be near our clients. Every office is a center of excellence. That allows us more reach so we can share skillsets and thinking. That means we never have to learn anything twice. I imagine AKQA as one office, it’s just that its floors happen to be in different time zones.”

Or, as Tom Bedecarré deadpans, when asked where he is based, “United Airlines. Seat 9B.” ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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