Each week we ask a City figure to take a trip down memory lane. Today Ajaz Ahmed, founder and CEO of design agency AKQA, tells us how he came to love life in London.
What was your first job?
During my teenage years, I juggled four different jobs: a pre-dawn paper round; a Saturday job at a phone retailer; my own entrepreneurial side ventures; and school holidays and some afternoons at a multinational software company conveniently situated near my home, which serendipitously allowed me to gain experience in various departments. Balancing these commitments with school kept me busy, but I loved every moment!
What was your first role in London?
I founded AKQA in Ascot, Berkshire, because of its proximity to my hometown of Maidenhead and the favourable rental terms offered by our accountants, who were also our landlords. Roughly a year into the journey, one of our early clients said: “Out of London, out of mind,” which struck a nerve. We then rented space from one of our suppliers in Chelsea. Our growth quickly outgrew this first studio and outpaced every location we occupied, coinciding with the rise of the Internet and booming business landscape.
Our head office is now in Shoreditch and we’re a global company, operating in 30 countries. While I enjoyed living and working in California for a bit, I can’t envision calling any place other than London my home, as it offers everything I could ask for. For me, it genuinely stands as the greatest city on the planet.
When did you London was the place for you?
As a kid I would regularly get the train to Paddington. These trips weren’t just routine stops on the line; they felt like stepping into a whole new world. I’m far from alone in the sentiment that London is considered Earth’s Capital City. Its uniqueness lies in its remarkable ability to blend tradition and progress, creating an unparalleled mix of history, culture, modernity, and diversity.
London also thrives as a dynamic epicentre of innovation and creativity. Its vast, accessible parks and green spaces provide serene escapes year-round. The efficiency and cleanliness of the Elizabeth Line sets the gold standard for public transport. It’s always the people who infuse magic into any place and I can’t think of another city where you’ll hear such a wonderful multitude of languages spoken openly, and where the warmth of welcome, belonging, and shared identity is the same as it is in London.
What’s one thing you love about London?
London’s creative scene drives innovation, shapes trends, and plays a significant role in the economy by creating jobs and generating revenue. It also draws talent globally. The city’s cultural heritage, educational institutions, and creative hubs are key components of this dynamic ecosystem.
And one thing you would change?
Aspects of uglification across the city with excessive eyesores and overdevelopment that fail to enhance the surrounding environment or benefit the community. There’s an increasing amount of clutter like rental bikes and electric scooters that are dangerously abandoned or negligently discarded. Paris has bid adieu to e-scooters by banning them. In the UK, it’s also imperative to reconsider tax-free shopping for tourists, as it has become increasingly challenging for British businesses to compete with international markets.
What’s your most memorable lunch or dinner?
Before WPP’s successful acquisition of AKQA, there were previous attempts in 2007 that didn’t come to fruition. It was in 2012, five years after General Atlantic’s successful investment in AKQA, when Mark Read, the current CEO of WPP, and Sir Martin Sorrell, WPP’s founder and former CEO, invited me, along with AKQA’s chairman Tom Bedecarré, to a lunch in a private dining room at the Berkeley Hotel in Mayfair during the weekend. This significant meeting marked the moment when we made the decision to partner with WPP, a pivotal next step in the future of our company.
What’s been your proudest moment?
In 2014, when AKQA received the prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise Innovation, we were honoured with an invitation to Buckingham Palace and a meeting with Her Majesty and the Duke of Edinburgh.
And who do you look up to?
I consider myself very fortunate to have encountered several remarkable individuals who have influenced and inspired me throughout my life. However, the two people whom I hold in the highest regard are my parents. They emerged from the most humble of beginnings, where the odds were not remotely in their favour, instilling a strong set of values and the sense of responsibility to make a positive contribution to society.
Are you optimistic for the back half of 2023?
The brilliant author and anthropologist, Wade Davis teaches us the wisdom that “despair is an insult to the imagination.” In my journey as an entrepreneur, I’ve consistently held onto an optimistic perspective grounded in the belief that the UK offers a wealth of opportunities, a sentiment that doesn’t necessarily hold true in many other parts of the world. I firmly believe that the future holds greater promise than the past, even though the present may not always feel like that because we are continually being bombarded with a news narrative that is either overwhelming negative or centred on the trivial.
Around this time last year, a few self-proclaimed experts were predicting catastrophic economic conditions, none of which materialised, as many economies have since displayed remarkable resilience. Signs are now pointing to inflation getting under control, interest rates beginning to decrease, and capital markets opening up, instilling greater confidence among investors to deploy the substantial reserves of ‘dry powder’ available. Economic cycles naturally involve periods of expansion and contraction, and we are now on the brink of a period characterised by increased activity.
We’re going for lunch, and you’re picking – where are we going?
Most likely, Scott’s in Mount Street as it holds a special place in my heart. I celebrated my 40th birthday there with my mum and my late dad, creating a treasure trove of cherished memories.
And if we’re grabbing a drink after work?
We’re not. I’ve never drunk alcohol and I find myself working harder today than ever before. But we can always enjoy a cup of tea at Little House in Mayfair, especially during this time of year when there’s a cosy setting by the fireplace!
Where’s home during the week?
I’ve lived in the same area of Notting Hill for about three decades now. It offers the best of both worlds – the convenience of the city combined with the comforting proximity of nearby parks.
And where might we find you at the weekend?
I feel entirely at home in West London, where a 15-minute stroll in one direction transports me to what feels like the serene countryside, while heading in another direction unveils an entirely different dimension of the city.
You’ve got a well-deserved two weeks off. Where are you going?
While there’s always the inclination to jet-off to a far-flung destination, my work-related travel has made me cherish the idea of avoiding another trip to the airport. I’ve come to realise that there’s an abundance of enriching experiences waiting to be discovered right here in the UK. Perhaps opting for a peaceful staycation across the country could be rewarding and rejuvenating.
- Favourite book: ‘Narcissus and Goldmund’ by Hermann Hesse and ‘Misunderstood’ by Florence Montgomery.
- Favourite film: ‘Gattaca’ by Andrew Niccol is a stunning, provocative film with a protagonist that challenges the system. I also love the tagline on the posters: “There is no gene for the human spirit.”
- Favourite artist/musician: Max Richter – his version of Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ is exquisite.
- Favourite place in London: Kensington Gardens
- Coffee order: Green tea – coffee keeps me up at night!