Thursday, September 29, 2022

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    New AKQA president Tesa Aragones on what she learned at Discord, Nike

    AKQA North American president Tesa Argones opens up about inspiring the next generation of innovators.

    WPP-owned communications and design agency AKQA this week announced that it’s appointed Tesa Aragones as its new North America president. Aragones, who takes the new post beginning next week, will be charged with heading up strategy and helping to develop the agency’s business in the region and internationally.

    Aragones comes to the San Francisco-based agency from the gen Z-beloved communication platform Discord, where she served as chief marketer. At Discord, she spearheaded a major rebranding effort, complete with a raucous ad campaign starring Danny DeVito, Awkwafina and a handful of other stars. Before her tenure at Discord, Aragones held executive marketing positions at Nike and at popular photo editing and sharing app Vsco. 

    After working with AKQA in various capacities for more than a decade, Aragones felt the draw of joining the team. Now, she’s stepping into her new role with years of storytelling experience, a passion for inspiring younger generations and a determination to amplify diverse perspectives in the industry. Here are her plans for this new role. 

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    Using creativity to power activism 

    Aragones stepped down from her role at Discord last November, following the deadly Oxford High School shooting in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan, of which her niece Kylie Ossege is a survivor. She has spent much of the last six-plus months with her family. 

    During an unimaginably challenging time, she was nonetheless able to apply her creative skills for good. She teamed with the Tennis Channel to create a short film about Kylie’s story. Featuring firsthand testimony from Kylie, her family, her tennis coach and her occupational therapist, the film follows her recovery journey, with a special focus on her passion for tennis and her athletic goals. “[The film] is just full of inspiration and positive messaging for her generation,” Aragones says. ”It’s important to me.”

    With the help of her connections at Nike, Aragones was able to rally professional tennis heavyweights including Coco Gauff, Billie Jean King, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys around a mission of uplifting Kylie; they each sent her a personalized video wishing her a speedy recovery. Four-time Grand Slam singles champion and top-ranked female tennis star Naomi Osaka went out of her way to visit Kylie in Michigan and offer her support – a moving scene that’s depicted in Aragones’s film.

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    Tennis Channel aired the film this month during the US Open tournament. 

    Time to move the world forward 

    Now, Aragones is harnessing her passion to inspire as she steps into her new role at AQKA. “I want to amplify the AKQA’s mission ... to create a better future. There are so many ways we can do that,” she says. “[AKQA’s mission] aligns very much with my personal brand mission, which is to empower the next generation to move the world forward.” 

    Part of that task will involve growing the agency’s client base – an area with a lot of promise in Aragones’s eyes. “If I think about some of the brands that AKQA already works with [and has worked with], like Netflix, Nike, Coca-Cola and Delta ... there are so many other brands that I believe have the power to help create a better future. I’m looking forward to letting people know what AKQA stands for and helping us to achieve our purpose.”

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    Putting the consumer at the heart of innovation

    As Aragones takes her post as the agency’s first-ever president, she brings with her a wealth of knowledge and experiences from her previous roles that will inform her priorities and approaches. “All of my roles prior to this have given me an opportunity to learn,” she says, “whether it’s being mission-driven in the way that Nike is ... [or tapping into] storytelling that we could do with our gen Z audience [at Vsco].” 

    One of the biggest lessons she’s learned on her professional journey thus far is how to create, adapt and develop brand stories in the midst of different phases of growth. “There were a lot of learnings from going from a Series B startup at Vsco to a pre-IPO Series G company like Discord. We were moving very fast, with hyper growth,” she says. “I’m very proud of the work that the team did with the brand reset and the storytelling [at Discord] – when I think about the brand campaign that we launched, it ... was showing people what the metaverse could look like without literally ever saying the word ‘metaverse.’ For the audience we were connecting with, Discord could be what you bring to it.” 

    Most importantly, she says, her experience has taught her to prioritize the consumer above all else. “The world has shifted so much. Consumer behavior has shifted. There are also business challenges. And we’re ... trying to be on top of cultural trends.” Among all of this disruption, she says, it’s critical to “be really mindful of staying close to the consumers that we serve.”

    What that means in practice is letting consumers and consumer behavior lead the decision-making process at all times. “It’s easy to get caught up in shiny objects. But the best source of innovation that helps companies and brands grow is true consumer insights,” says Aragones. To illustrate this disconnect, she points to the difference between brands jumping carelessly onto the NFT bandwagon and those that are investing in thoughtful ways to create real value for consumers through blockchain and decentralized technologies. 

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    Dialing up diversity and representation

    While she’s sure to find relevant applications for all that she’s learned, Aragones also recognizes that this is a new kind of responsibility. She’s shifting from marketing and advisory roles into a more strategic leadership position at the helm of a high-growth agency. And she’s doing so with humility. “I welcome the opportunity to learn more,” she says. “I want to be able to let the team do their work and learn, but I want to be there to help guide. And I hope that in this role, I can continue to help bring the best resources and talent for our clients to help them solve the challenges that they have.”

    Though Aragones places a lot of weight on the responsibility of the role, she also takes pride in the unique opportunity she has to expand diverse representations of leadership in adland. “When I think about being a woman of color, being raised in an immigrant family in Detroit, [AKQA founder and chief executive] Ajaz Ahmed is such a huge inspiration for me, and what he has built has been super inspiring,” she says. 

    “I want to represent more. There’s all this research [suggesting that] companies with diverse founders are proven to actually be more innovative. My hope in this role is to continue to grow the AKQA legacy [in this spirit of diversity and representation] – yes, I’m the first president, but I’m also a woman of color coming into leadership. It’s very important to me that the next generation of women and people of color and all of our children see people that look like them in leadership roles.”

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