Celebrating the agency

Ajaz Ahmed, founder of AKQA, one of the world’s most acclaimed digital agencies, whose clients include Nike, Red Bull and Google, answers an Artworks Q&A

6 min read

You’ve said advertising isn’t really about advertising any more. How can delivering or curating the arts help to please different companies’ target audiences?

Affiliating yourself to an area of the arts, in a thoughtful, relevant way can be crucial to forge an emotional bond, a shared sensibility, and thus create loyalty, affection, trust and all of those other qualities that are so elusive in a world of one-click shopping. Never in the history of human selling have businesses had so much information about their customers and their habits. Never before in the history of human buying have customers had so much choice about who to buy from, and such effortless technological tools for browsing whenever and wherever they are.

The famous, iconic Chupa Chups logo was designed in 1969 by Salvador Dalí. Arts have always been partnered with business from craftspeople who sold their handiwork at the market in ancient villages, through painters commissioned by the Medicis, to the way the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais ended up providing the original, and still most famous, poster for Pear’s Soap. When Picasso designed costumes for the ballet in Leicester Square, he was doing it because it was inspirational work, and good business for him and the ballet company.

Today, distribution systems change, the relationship between the arts and what we used to call “advertising” is, naturally, changing too. The old networks through which artists’ work used to reach the public via business – network TV advertisements, ads in glossy magazines – were set up because they were lucrative business models and now they’re evolving because technology has provided so many more options. 
 
Digital is dismantling this culture of media “gatekeepers” who control access to the public and charge brands big fees simply to distribute their creative work. The ability to reach people directly and inexpensively means that brands have increasingly taken up the slack from old advertising channels to become publishers themselves. They can spend on the work, rather than getting it out there. Look at how many fashion brands have sponsored exhibitions, commissioned short films and even opened their own arts institutions in recent years. They realise that the image of their brand and expectations of their audience mean they have to maintain a relationship with art to maintain their status. In a way, it’s back to the Medici model.
 
Consumer brands have always used communications to sell their wares to the mainstream, but increasingly business-to-business brands are joining them. How can the arts help businesses connect for possibly the first time?

Art has cultural cachet. It has instant impact. It has the recognition factor. It has emotional traction. It disarms our prejudices and makes us rethink our assumptions. So it follows that art and artistic approaches can break new ground and facilitate new kinds of relationships. The arts naturally bringing about a sense of co-operation rather than competition – an established example being the way different corporate sponsors so often all back a single event or institution. In the digital age, where smart partnerships are crucial to new businesses not missing the boat, art can help bring businesses together with each other, ideally through mutual interaction with their audiences.

Brands realise that their image and expectations of their audience mean they have to maintain a relationship with art to maintain their status

As well as the benefit of connecting brands with customers, the arts can also connect businesses with themselves so they become more ethical, social and ultimately valuable parts of society. What do you think?

The arts can do whatever the artists are capable of provided the audience responds and comprehends. For that reason, I think it’s healthiest to see what the arts can do for businesses as an extension of what the arts can do for individuals. Art can create delight, wonder, empathy. Art can provoke thought, illuminate otherwise unseen connections and re-engage people with the world around them. So, of course, an exposure to it can undoubtedly remind business to behave better towards others; I know from personal experience that it can make them more inventive, less conformist businesses too. But as soon as you start legislating for that process or being overly prescriptive about what makes something “value for society” or not, you’re closer to a set of rules for what culture should be than to any kind of artistic liberation.
 

Ajaz Ahmed (left) with Stefan Olander, vice president of Digital Sport, Nike Ajaz Ahmed is the advertising whizkid who so impressed WPP's Sir Martin Sorrell he bought an 80% stake in his agency. Ajaz founded AKQA at the age of 21. Today the company employs more than 1,500 people in 11 offices

Ajaz Ahmed (left) with Stefan Olander, vice president of Digital Sport, Nike
Ajaz Ahmed is the advertising whizkid who so impressed WPP’s Sir Martin Sorrell he bought an 80% stake in his agency.
Ajaz founded AKQA at the age of 21. Today the company employs more than 1,500 people in 11 offices

Despite being more social, honourable and creative at heart than, say, sugar water, fast food or clothes, cars and insurance policies, the arts seem to struggle a lot more. Why do you think that is?

I think that the distinction isn’t a neat one or even always a useful one to try to make. If your artwork is “social”, then by definition people will bond over it, talk over it, tell other people about it. If it is “creative” in a way that people notice and understand, then it will make its mark with its distinctiveness. If it’s “honourable” in some way that people’s lives as consumers lack, then art will have a massive impact. You don’t have to love Banksy, for example, to acknowledge that people love him because they see an honour in his willingness to express the things institutions don’t.
 
Then on the other hand, perhaps we don’t always serve the arts best by looking at them as something that “deserves” attention, funding and so forth. I’ve always been interested by the way the word “artist” originally started off simply meaning “somebody who puts things together”. Or how, in many Eastern cultures, there just isn’t the distinction we make between skilled trades and the arts, artisans and artists. If you don’t get hung up on those distinctions, if you stop thinking in terms of “worthy” art and “disposable” business, you can just start giving everything you do everything you’ve got. When Japanese businesses became an inspiration for companies worldwide, it had a large part to do with the sense of craftsmanship and design they applied to even the most ordinary goods and services. Nothing was phoned in. Nothing was deemed unworthy of love, attention and rigour. Whatever you’re doing, if you can do that, you’re on the right track.

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