Building Ads in the 21st Century and Beyond

CEO of award winning digital ad agency AKQA Tom Bedecarre tells us how his independent company has become an industry titan.

Whether it’s sheer intuition, being in the right place at the right time, or both, Tom Bedecarre has managed to steer AKQA as its CEO through a rapidly evolving industry and above the competition to become the world’s largest independent digital ad agency. As an ad veteran with deep roots in Silicon Valley, Bedecarre has not only been pliable and accepting to change, but has had the acumen to consistently look beyond the now to game changers in the immediate future. Bedecarre spoke with Inc.com contributor KC Ifeanyi about the advantages of staying independent, the key to AKQA’s success, and the convergence of technology, social media, and advertising.

One of your largest investors is General Atlantic, but private equity firms aren’t necessarily in it for the long haul. Will there be a tipping point anytime soon?
We like being entrepreneurs. We like having the autonomy and nimbleness our independence provides, but private equity companies eventually look for exits. So sometime in our future we’re either going to have an IPO, a strategic sale, or another private equity firm would come along to buy out our current investor, but that’s not what we focus on. We focus on building the business, opening up new offices, keeping clients happy, and hiring people so we keep growing at the rate we’re growing. But how our private equity partner has an exit in the future isn’t something we spend a lot of time worrying about.

Social media has obviously become a key component in digital advertising, with Facebook and Twitter leading the charge. Do you feel as if there are any untapped social media platforms?
Most of what’s going to happen on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ is still being written, so there’s plenty coming from some of the bigger players–but we’re always looking for new outlets. We just launched something for Gap called “Styld.by” and it’s leveraging blogs and social media to create a virtual, digital catalogue for Gap, and we wanted to make sure people could connect with the content that inspired them with Pinterest, StumbleUpon, and Facebook. I think that’s a very contemporary way of creating a marketing campaign.

You mentioned Pinterest, which seems to be the hottest commodity in social media these days. Any thoughts on its presence in the ad space?
At the moment Pinterest is the Jeremy Lin [of social media]–it’s Pinsane. The truth is there’s always new things that are coming up. Pinterest has a strong female audience and a strong interest in fashion–it’s the perfect opportunity to leverage it with what we’re doing with Gap. So it means customizing for each audience what’s right and what activity is right.

Speaking of customization, is there anything different you do when integrating social media in marketing campaigns abroad?
As a global company working on global brands we need to be familiar and flexible to put our programs on multiple platforms, including whatever the local strong platform is. So we use mixi in Japan, Orkut in Brazil, and Renren in China.

AKQA is indeed quite the global company. Is there a method to choosing where you set up shop around the world? Anywhere else you plan to be?
We’ve been following where our clients need us to be. We moved to Shanghai in 2006 in advance to the Olympics in Beijing. We opened up in Amsterdam because we had clients like Johnnie Walker scotch and Heineken. And just a month ago we opened up in Paris because Nike France wanted us to be local. We’re about to launch a big social media campaign for Nissan in India. Depending on whether we get some traction there, it might be on the horizon to be in India.

Over the past 11 years, you’ve amassed eight offices across the world with more than 1,000 employees–how have you managed to grow so substantially in such a competitive industry?
I think part of it is keeping our eye on the horizon and seeing what’s coming next. We’ve been involved in mobile marketing for more than 10 years; we’ve been involved with social media from the onset of brands coming onto Facebook. So I think we’ve just made good bets on where technology is taking marketing communications.

So where do you think technology is taking advertising next?
The next frontier is about bringing more utility into communications. Sometimes it’s more about creating apps than creating ads because we have the ability to bring huge amounts of data into the messages we create so they can be personalized, they can be real-time, they can provide video. Being able to do all those things makes our communications more valuable, more entertaining, and adds more utility, so that’s one of the big trends we see happening.

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