AKQA's ad whiz has cred with techies and Mad Men alike. But with agencies snapping up digital shops, how long can he stay independent?
FORTUNE -- In the bifurcated world of digital advertising, where Madison Avenue's besuited creatives clash with Silicon Valley's engineers, Tom Bedecarre is the rare hybrid. An ad guy with a warm handshake and 75,000 Twitter followers, he is CEO of AKQA, the largest independent full-service digital advertising agency. His company helps big brands like Nike (NKE), Visa (V), and Clorox (CLX) build social technologies into interactive campaigns. With digital ad spending projected to grow 20% this year to $31.3 billion in the U.S. alone, his services have never been more in demand.
As a Bay Area native and Stanford grad, Bedecarre, 55, has built deep relationships with tech companies since the earliest days of the web. Back in 1999 he arrived at a tiny Mountain View office to make a pitch directly to Stanford Ph.D. students Sergey Brin and Larry Page. "They didn't get it," says Bedecarre. Though it made a business out of ads, Google (GOOG) did none of its own advertising for years. Once it did, it joined AKQA's client roster.
These relationships with executives at Google as well as Facebook, Twitter, and other hot startups have helped Bedecarre bring the newest technologies to his clients. In April, AKQA worked with Heineken to launch Heineken Star Player, a game played on a smartphone or Facebook page that lets fans simultaneously watch televised soccer matches, play the game, and publish their results on Twitter and Facebook. "It works because AKQA puts consumers at the heart of the experience and then uses technology as the enabler," says Floris Cobelens, Heineken's head of digital.
Bedecarre got his start as an account executive at Ogilvy & Mather in New York and moved to California in 1984 to join Hal Riney & Partners. In 1990 he co-founded Citron Haligman Bedecarre, an early digital agency. Then, in 2001, just as many competitors closed shop after the dotcom bust, Bedecarre merged with London-based creativity agency AKQA and two smaller agencies. (The agency takes it's name from the letters of AKQA-founder Ajaz Ahmed's full name: Ajaz Khowaj Quoram Ahmed.) In 2007 private equity firm General Atlantic bought out investors to become the majority shareholder. Meanwhile, Ahmed and Bedecarre have expanded the agency to more than 1,000 employees, and this year AKQA is reported to be bringing in roughly $200 million in revenue.
Bedecarre's boutique status and San Francisco location give him credibility with his tech partners; they like that he's an entrepreneur too. If he should choose to sell out someday, he'd surely fetch a high price (Publicis picked up Rosetta for $575 million in May) -- something his Silicon Valley friends would appreciate.
This article is from the October 17, 2011 issue of Fortune.
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