by Sean McCoy (@TheRealMcCoyTRM) The debate of the large international group vs the local independent agency is not a new one and is not my focus today. It is, however, evident that the independent agency, specifically one in which the founders are still involved, occupies a special space, particularly when it comes to creating a unique and differentiated culture.

Not all independent shops are shrouded in success and, indeed, there have been some spectacular failures of late, the names of which will remain unmentioned.

While the big global agency groups have something to offer in scale, potential shared best practice and learnings, and the ability to serve international clients across multiple markets, the small independent agency offers something different: focused hands-on management (predominantly from founders) and, very specifically, an ability to make independent decisions to suit the business in the short- and long-term without compromising people and without detracting from the principles in which it believes — potentially described as culture. So, no transient leadership but people who are deeply vested in protecting what is special.

King James Cape Town. Source: Facebook.
King James Cape Town. Source: Facebook.

Enter King James

From very modest beginnings with four people 18 years ago, King James is a highly acclaimed South African creative shop that today has approximately 320 people across the various businesses comprising King James Group. By no coincidence, all four of the original people are still there, as is no. 5, who is an ECD within the business.

Alistair King
Alistair King
James Barty
James Barty

Hence, by implication, are the originators of the agency, Alistair King and James Barty; needing very little introduction to the SA marketing communication and advertising industry.

King James is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading independent agencies and is highly celebrated in the SA context, across myriad industry awards. Ironically, awards have never been the primary focus — neither has revenue nor headcount-growth goals, but rather a preoccupation with great work.

So what is the special potion when it comes to the matter of culture and the internal King James brand?

No policy manuals — just culture

It is potentially as simple as that; it is who they are and how they do things. Unlike the multinational group that needs to develop policies, procedures and guidelines for every facet of human resource management and the various people aspects it impacts, the likes of King James just do what comes naturally — and have done so for the last 18 years.

The two founders are hands-on and actively involved in the business but, more importantly, preserve and protect the very DNA and everything they have stood for since inception, ensuring that the true culture is sustained, notwithstanding people- and (considerable) business-growth, reflected as approximately 30–40% pa over the last five years and now spread across seven different business units.

Perhaps the real point here is that its growth is not a function of specific business metrics but rather a result of what comes naturally in the culture of the business. It’s astounding, actually, when one compares this to the international model of quarterly performance, preoccupation with operating margins and ensuring that each employee doesn’t not occupy more than the defined square meterage of office space in order to contain costs. And that’s after the bar bill has already been slashed as a means of margin optimisation.

King James Group logo squareCreativity at the core

At the heart of this culture lies the notion of creativity, expressed in several forms and the natural energy and momentum in the business. Otherwise expressed as great work, clients wanting the mediocre are turned away; people delivering the ordinary do not survive; and the agency is not afraid to delay the client delivery until the work is great — and then it is great! And there is no busking and no scam work to win awards; the agency rises on the back of superb work delivered on substantial blue-chip clients.

Artwork on the walls of the office only come from within — a simple but powerful expression of what the agency stands for — not only the award-winning work, but quirky expressions from people within that capture the ethos of the business. As opposed to “does that tick the box” or “does it tickle your fancy”, one team member asked whether “it tickles your box” — expressed on the wall in copy form and anecdotal reinforcement of the spirit of the agency.

Trivial, some might argue, but powerful reinforcement of core values of a business reinforced without a policy manual — or the horrific corporate poster, with hands held together, expressing teamwork as a value!

Sustaining the magic

The cultural collapse of many independent agencies as the founders leave, or as they are integrated into a global group through merger or acquisition, is equally well-documented. King suggests that King James has plans for this and will never sell to a global group. Time will tell how this business may transition to the next generation, and King acknowledges the likes of Ogilvy which have made this metamorphosis work over the years.

As King James unsheathes the sword to welcome Pick n Pay on board, there is no shadow of doubt that it is as passionate now as it was 18 years ago and its unique culture marches on. And, by the way, it has a great bar.


Sean McCoyDr Sean McCoy, MD and founding member of HKLM, is a prominent figure in the branding arena, with his expertise centered on client service, brand strategy and business development. He contributes the regular “The Real McCoy” column focusing upon internal branding to MarkLives.

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