MD of AKQA talks all things digital

Rosie Baker
By Rosie Baker | 4 August 2015
Simon Jefferson

Ahead of the ADMA conference which kicks off today, Rosie Baker sat down with AKQA's San Francisco based managing director Simon Jefferson, to talk about all things digital and how Jefferson plans to combat the disruption happening in adland right now. 

Q:Around the world, AKQA is seen as one of the most progressive digital shops - how do you keep on top of all the change, developers and digital opportunities emerging?

A:It’s really about our team.

We attract naturally curious people who want to do things that haven’t been done before, and these people are always on top of what’s new in the industry.

We focus a lot of our time and energy on finding and hiring the brightest young talent because they bring incredibly fresh thinking that helps solve clients’ business problems in new ways. AKQA’s on-going Future Academy and Future Lions initiatives help create a constant flow of new talent

We hire people with different and interesting backgrounds and experience, because we believe the best ideas come from unusual collaborations. And we try and make it as easy as possible for people to work with colleagues from different AKQA offices and locations.

We’re also fortunate to have strong relationships with technology companies and start-ups in the Bay Area that continue to disrupt industries. This gives us insights that few other companies have and provide additional inspiration to our team.

Q: What are the three biggest trends/issues affecting agencies in San Francisco right now – and how is AKQA tackling them?

A: San Francisco is an extremely exciting place to be at the moment because of the amount of innovation and disruption that’s being driven from there. Here are a few of the biggest trends/issues:

1. Data

The use of data to create relevant and personalized experiences is probably the biggest trend we’re seeing right now. We knew data was going to become increasingly important as everything becomes digital, so we hired ahead of the curve and now have 35 data scientists in our San Francisco office. These incredibly smart people not only provide insights that our clients have never had access to before, they’re helping us create truly connected experiences across all touch points.

2. Talent

The biggest challenge everyone is facing is talent. Every company, whether it’s agencies, technology companies, start-ups or Fortune 500 companies are looking for pretty much the same people. Because of this, there are a lot of opportunities, which in-turn creates a lot of attrition. We’re fortunate to work with some of the world’s best companies that include Apple, Activision, Audi, Jordan, Levi’s and VISA, and the work we do for these clients is incredibly diverse. This is our biggest differentiator, so we’re constantly looking at ways to enable people to work across clients and have as broad an experience as possible.

3. Coffee

A new local, organic, hipster coffee shop seems to open every day in the quest to keep San Francisco caffeinated. The choice can, therefore, be quite overwhelming and that’s something I know keeps the city up at night.

Q: What’s the most exciting thing your agency is working on?

A: We’re working with a number of clients to imagine what their business may look like in 5 years time.

Q: How do you view the Australian ad market from a US perspective? Does it even come into your radar?

A: Australia has a great pool of talent that produces pockets of really intelligent and innovative work. We’re fortunate to have a number of great people from Australia on our team and they’re doing some of the best work in our network.

We’re creating more and more connected products, services and eco-systems that add increasing value to customers and we obviously look at brands doing this type of work around the world. It feels that fewer clients in Australia are currently asking for this type of work than in the US, so we don’t look to this market as often as we did (sorry).

Q: AKQA has agencies around the world, since you’re visiting – any sights on setting up shop in Australia? The weather and beaches are great in Sydney.

A: You never know. We tend to open offices in places that we see huge future potential or as a result of new opportunities with existing/new clients. If any client is interested in collaborating with us here in Australia, we could be convinced.

My wife would love it, as she’s Australian and her family lives in Sydney.

Q: You’ve worked in media agencies as a media planner, at direct agencies and now run one of the most progressive creative shops – how did those experiences on other aspects of advertising equip you for what you’re doing now and do more creative/digital agencies need a bit more understanding of the media agency side of things?

A: It definitely gives you a broader perspective and appreciation of other marketing disciplines.

As the world becomes digital and everything is connected, there is a greater need for collaboration than ever before. A coherent customer experience needs to be orchestrated and feel completely seamless. The best companies learn from every interaction a customer has with them, and take that learning to enhance the experience or interaction the next time they see them, whether it’s in a store, in owned channels or on someone else’s site.

In my experience, you get better results when creative and media agencies work closely together.

Q: What’s the biggest regret you have about something you’ve worked on, or mistake you’ve made in your career as a creative?

A: Not having a Plan B when launching something that’s never been done before. Sometimes passion, energy and hope are not enough to make something happen.

Q: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned in running a digital/creative agency?

A: The buck truly stops with you.

Q: We’re seeing more clients turn to agencies for project work, rather than long-term contracts. Do you think that the retained agency/agency of record model is still relevant or is it out of touch with how modern businesses and marketers need to operate?

Clients want to work with companies/agencies that have an intelligent point-of-view, improve their business performance, create product/brand differentiation, unlock new opportunities, help them disrupt and remain relevant for the future.

Companies/agencies should be focused on this rather than worry about the length of the contract.

Q: You were with AKQA before it was acquired by WPP in 2012. How has this affected the agency network and changed how it operates?

A: For my team and I, it honestly has not changed anything.

If anything, it’s allowed AKQA to open more offices in more locations quicker than we could have done without them, providing more opportunities to our team, which is obviously a good thing.

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