James Hilton of AKQA in London.
Change is our natural habitat.
The man behind this issue’s selection of recent digital work is James Hilton, creative director of AKQA, the UK’s largest independent digital advertising agency, which he founded in 1995 together with Ajaz Ahmed, Dan Norris-Jones and Matthew Treagus. In the interview that follows, James Hilton responds to Michael Weinzettl’s queries.
L.A.: Hi James, can you first of all introduce yourself and tell us a bit about AKQA, for the very few who might not have heard of it. And what, by the way, is behind the name?
James Hilton: My name is James Hilton. I am the co-founder and Chief Creative Officer of AKQA. AKQA is an ideas company with technology at its heart. We work with the most innovative brands on the planet to help transform their businesses and the lives of their customers through world-class thought leadership and creativity. AKQA is the name of our brand; it has no meaning or value beyond that which the quality of our work, our clients and people, give to it.
L.A.: You founded AKQA back in 1995 together with Ajaz Ahmed. You were 22 at the time and had just left Southampton Institute of Higher Education. They had denied you a degree course in Graphic Design on the grounds that there was nothing more they could teach you. How did that come about?
James Hilton: Their exact words were: “No. We will not accept your application for a degree. Stop hiding under the skirt of education, get out there and make a difference. There is nothing more we can teach you.” The beautiful irony of this is that, four weeks later, they asked me to come back to teach design to degree students.
L.A.: How did you and Ajaz Ahmed meet?
James Hilton: 1) Ajaz puts an ad in Creative Review looking for an ‘Interactive Programmer/Designer.’ 2) I steal said copy of Creative Review from a housemate. 3) Circle job ad and send in CV. 4) Go to London, meet Ajaz. 5) Get brief. 6) Go home and spend rest of week on it. 7) Go back to London. 8) Ajaz and I present work, get round of applause. 9) Move in with Ajaz. 10) We work. 11) Hard. 12) Go to 10.
L.A.: Tell us something about the early days of AKQA. How, over the years, has the company evolved to become Britain’s largest independent digital agency?
James Hilton: We didn’t know the rules, nor care. We focused solely on our view of the world, and no one else’s. We wanted to be the best. Nothing has changed.
L.A.: Where is AKQA now?
James Hilton: Geographically: London, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Shanghai. Emotionally: In love with the work.
L.A.: What would you say is the recipe for AKQA’s success, also in terms of – in this fast-changing industry – having these long-standing relationships with clients such as Microsoft or Nike, which go back more than a decade?
James Hilton: Work hard. Work your socks off. Make your clients and your people famous. Then do it all over again with passion, love, integrity, and a complete and unwavering belief in doing the right thing.
L.A.: Would this type of success story still be possible today?
James Hilton: Of course.
L.A.: What has changed in the digital world since 1995? What, back then, was it like to be working in a brand-new field?
James Hilton: To us, in 1995, it was obvious and it was normal. Today, everything is different again and the same applies. Change is our natural habitat.
L.A.: What are some of the projects you created, or were involved in, that you’re proudest of. Can you describe them for us please?
James Hilton: I’m proud of everything AKQA creates. I’m proud of every new piece of work that pushes the boundaries, that leaps forward with innovation, and that transforms the moments of our clients and their customers. Work that not only transcends the very idea of “advertising” but creates completely new categories and therefore ever more opportunity to create something amazing. Projects such as Nike’s NTC app and Heineken’s StarPlayer, to name just two, are clear demonstrations of our beliefs and the passion, dedication and brilliance of our team, as well as showing fantastically well the scale of ambition of our clients.
L.A.: In an interview you gave .net magazine in 2008, you said that you were one of two executive creative directors in the London office “because there are so many pieces of work that need to be looked at,” and added that, since going global, AKQA have had a “global creative council,” which consisted of all the other executive creative directors from all the other offices. Is that still how it works?
James Hilton: Yes. London is led by its two Executive Creative Directors, Duan Evans and Nick Turner. Berlin is led by Chris May, and Amsterdam by Nick Bailey.
L.A.: What were the criteria for the list of 15 outstanding digital projects you compiled for Archive? I noticed there are several educational and child-related projects on it. Coincidence?
James Hilton: I wouldn’t say they all fit into the category of “outstanding.” My criteria was to highlight projects we had heard about – for good or bad – and to discuss them. Work needs meaning and integrity. These values are often abundant in educational and child-related work, but at times conspicuous by their absence in others. This is an issue.
L.A.: In 2010, your name was on Creativity Magazine’s list of the fifty most influential and inspiring creative personalities (with Lady Gaga being on the same list). How did this feel, and does this type of recognition also carry a burden for your future work?
James Hilton: It is always an honor to be recognized in this way but it is also vitally important to remember that this is an honor for the entire team, not just one member of it.
L.A.: What do you think about the way traditional advertising today is dealing with digital media? Have they learned from past mistakes?
James Hilton: There are many marketers, traditional or otherwise, who make fundamental errors in the way they address digital media and their audience. But as most of them also appear to have similar issues with TV and print, this shouldn’t come as much of a shock.
L.A.: Do you think the importance of social media in brand communication today is a fad that will pass and give way to something different in the future – or is it here to stay?
James Hilton: Great ideas are social. The question of propagation is purely one of cultural, technological, demographic and economic relevance. Seeing as social media has been around since man first learnt how to communicate, I think it’s safe to assume it isn’t a fad. What’s more interesting to me is that a lot of brands and marketers are suddenly really interested in having a dialogue with their customers. It really makes you wonder what they were doing all that time before. The bottom line is that great ideas are social, they travel, people share them with each other; a few hundred thousand years ago that was done by painting where some bison were on the cave wall, now it’s done by posting a picture of the bison you’re just about to eat on your Facebook wall. Same idea, different mechanic. And that’s the important point: it’s the mechanics that change, the skill is in knowing how best to use those mechanics to your advantage and an audience’s benefit.
L.A.: Do you think there will be a role for print in the future (and, subsequently, a role for print advertising)?
James Hilton: Of course.
L.A.: Where do you get your inspiration from?
James Hilton: Nineteenth-century horology. Astrophysics. Darth Vader. Boobs.
L.A.: How do you relax?
James Hilton: See above.
L.A.: Can you tell us something about your love of motorcycles? When did that start and how has it manifested itself over the years?
James Hilton: I began riding about five months after leaving hospital, where I had been given a one-in-two chance of surviving a pulmonary embolism. I find the feeling of speed, the need to process the outcomes and trajectories of a hundred moving objects every second, the possibility of a “life-affirming moment,” the noise, smell and sheer mechanics of the things, completely intoxicating. I own a Ducati 999R and a custom Triumph Thruxton. There will be more, I am sure.