by Herman Manson (@MarkLives) Miles Murphy (@mileswmurphy), Wunderman Thompson South Africa CEO since the start of April 2020, stepped into his new role shortly after South Africa’s ‘hard’ lockdown came into effect. He tore up his 100-day plan and changed his set of priorities to accommodate the new realities of running an advertising agency under lockdown amidst a global pandemic.

Across the range

Looking at SA’s competitive landscape, Murphy sees large integrated agencies leaning towards creativity product, creative hot shops and specialists (including tech, digital, social etc), but few of them are able to work across the range of creative, tech and digital and consulting, all of which he believes are now required by large client organisations.

MarkLives logoWhile we have your attention, please would you consider taking out a MarkLives membership to help finance our operations? The covid-19 pandemic is having a huge impact on society and industry. With your support, either as a once-off or monthly contribution, we can continue our coverage of its impact on our industry.

“Not one of these agencies currently does it all convincingly, with the depth of expertise in each discipline,” he says. “With the media space becoming increasingly fragmented and tech-enabled but still needing communication that is insight-driven and creatively innovative, the holy grail for clients is to find a single partner who has the depth of expertise in all these specialist disciplines to provide integrated solutions across multiple customer touchpoints.”

Wunderman Thompson has all the required component parts (creative, digital, tech, social and data consulting, each employing more than 100 people at the moment), he argues, and his job will be to “join all the dots” (so, integrate) between the various elements of the business effectively, and then to get the message out to market that it’s been done successfully.

Depth of expertise

Its depth of expertise is matched with a great client list (which includes Absa, Telkom, BMW, Unilever, Diageo, Vodacom, Ford and Standard Bank), says Murphy, and a senior, diverse management team. It also enjoys the backing of Wunderman Thompson globally. He believes that, once the integration between all the different units are complete, clients will quickly see value in tapping various pillars of expertise inside the agency.

Murphy joined Wunderman Thompson from Publicis Groupe Africa, where he served as chief operating officer. He is the founder of Liquorice (today Digitas Liquorice), which he sold to Publicis in 2014. Originally from the US, he started his career in Silicon Valley before moving to the UK, where he worked at several creative agencies plus a management consultant. In 2005, he moved to SA.

Although he hadn’t been considering a move from Publicis, the opportunity to start at Wunderman Thompson, an agency he admires for the way it’s put technology and digital at the heart of a creative agency, was a relatively easy decision, he says. Wunderman Thompson is the marriage of agencies Wunderman and J Walter Thompson (JWT), with the former known for its technology and digital offerings, and the latter for its creative credentials. The fact that Wunderman is listed first in the name, according to Murphy, is a nod to creating a future-focused agency and where its heart lies.

At the heart

Agency groups have long tried to digitise agencies by integrating digital and technology specialists into creative agencies but this rarely has the desired effect, he says. In contrast, Wunderman Thompson puts technology and digital at the heart. In SA, the agency integration has involved multiple specialists, including Wunderman, Aqua, Applogix, Base Two and Cerebra initially, to be followed by J Walter Thompson, The Hardy Boys and Mirum (formerly Quirk).

Murphy likes how the agency stretches over creative, tech and consulting, saying it creates an offer relevant to client demands and changing (some would say changed) times. This also matches up well with his own work experience, having run or worked for a tech company, several creative agencies, a digital agency and a management consultancy. He believes this skill set is what brought him to the attention of Wunderman Thompson, as its range of services is what will bring the agency to the attention of clients.

“The agency has been built through the amalgamation of some of the best and most-iconic businesses in the SA marketing landscape,” he says. “Entrepreneurial leaders started each entity with drive and unique culture. As an entrepreneur, I aim to channel that energy and passion. So, we are working to build a culture that is very open and diverse, reflecting the variety of our skill sets, backgrounds and cultures.”

Working remotely

According to Murphy, the agency had been working remotely for two weeks before the hard lockdown started in SA. He’d been watching the economic and health environment deteriorating, having first had to cancel one trip, and then cut short a second, in the mini one-month sabbatical he’d hoped to take between jobs. He was impressed by the speed with which the Wunderman Thompson senior leadership team managed to organise and equip staff for remote working, and set up protocols for client and staff meetings.

For now, he’s focused on ensuring staff members continue to be properly set up for working from home, are healthy and remain supported, even as the agency moves to reopen its offices in a limited way. All employees who can do so are encouraged to continue working from home. He’s also met (digitally) with the leadership teams of the agency’s 20 biggest clients, and is working with them to ensure they remain supported and that the agency continues to deliver great work timeously.

Agency teams have already participated in several global pitches while working from home, as well as a medium-sized local pitch, without much hassle.

The right support

Remote working has caused some stress among staff, as has the general economic situation and the strain of isolation, but the agency is working towards ensuring that everyone has the right support. As a slight silver lining, he notes that people have upped communication and seem more-focused on tasks at hand. Client relationships have also become less transactional, with real empathy visible between the various client and agency teams. He hopes this can extend into relationships post-pandemic.

Although all clients are suffering in some way because of the pandemic and resultant lockdown, some have been harder hit than others, but the digital and technology components have helped shelter the agency from the worst effects, and Murphy is confident that the agency will emerge stronger over both the short and medium terms. His advice to clients is to look after their people and partners, and to accelerate their own digital transformation, something most clients were already working towards. The right tech processes and marketing messaging will allow clients greater direct engagement with their customers.

Over the next 12 months, he expects the agency to get through the pandemic while retaining its strong market position; to deliver on his promise of joining the dots in terms of integration between the Wunderman Thompson specialist divisions; and to grow its share in servicing international clients of the global company.

Strong talent pool

SA has a strong talent pool, especially in technology and digital, and Murphy would like to build the agency as a hub for global work. “Our local team increasingly acts as a centre of excellence for the global network,” says Murphy. “We’re already operating as a technology hub for clients worldwide, and we plan to expand this substantially. My vision is to position Wunderman Thompson SA as the leading tech-enabled integrated agency with creativity and innovation at its core.”

See also


Herman Manson 2017Herman Manson (@marklives) is the founder and editor of

Sign up now for the MarkLives newsletter, including headlines and become a MarkLives Member, too, to ensure continued coverage.


Published by Herman Manson is edited by Herman Manson. Follow us on Twitter -

Online CPD Courses Psychology Online CPD Courses Marketing analytics software Marketing analytics software for small business Business management software Business accounting software Gearbox repair company Makeup artist