New Commercial Arts: doing it differently (again)
In the latest in our Founders Stories series, the six partners talk about how their new approach marrying CX and comms is working out
08 February 2024
The story of James Murphy and David Golding, two of the founders of one of the most successful and influential agencies of this millennium, is a well versed one by now: let's call it “going again”.
The yarn about how their first agency, Adam & Eve, was born in the doggiest days of the recession before last and how their latest agency – New Commercial Arts – was brought to life during lockdown is similarly familiar.
What is perhaps less well known is what brought together the six founders gathered around a table in a meeting room named after Dame Judi Dench (the star of NCA's Moneysupermarket ads - one of its early success stories) in its Bloomsbury headquarters.
What’s immediately obvious is that although the number of founders is greater (six versus Adam & Eve’s four), the agency is of course smaller. By their own admission Adam & Eve (and then adam&eveDDB following its acquisition by Omnicom) was huge – whereas NCA has all the buzz of a start-up, albeit a well-resourced one. The reason to go again was therefore both emotional and strategic.
“I think we became probably too distant from the day to day work [at a&eDDB],” says Murphy. “We were basically doing management HR the whole time. And we wanted to get back on to working with clients. So that was the emotional reason for doing it. And then I think the more strategic reason, we'd realised that there was a way of taking strict strategy and creative thinking much further than just advertising because people experience brands through digital channels, and their smartphones and apps and so on. And that experience of more entire customer journeys made us believe there was a gap for a new model.” New Commercial Arts was born with an emphasis on each of the words in its name to meet the needs of brands seeking to fulfil each aspect of the customer journey.
Murphy acknowledges that NCA isn’t the first agency to try and connect the touchpoints of the customer journey – from user experience to brand advertising – but what set NCA apart from the outset was that it was being done under one roof and with a tight-knit team.
“In holding companies, it's siloed…. CX is simply seen as a cross selling opportunity. It's not seen as ‘this is the right thing to do’. And because you're often selling a separate silo, a separate line of business with its own P&L, it means that the result for the client often isn't building a solution that's exactly right for them. It's building a solution that's right for the agency group,”` he says.
Golding adds: “[In holding companies] the communications and brand people weren't thinking about what they were saying through the lens of customer experience or customer journey." He adds that brand promises were therefore disconnected from the actual consumer experience .
Recognising that the link between advertising and sales isn’t a linear one (factors such as distribution, price point and format all come into play) might not sound revolutionary, but it’s noticeable how in the past agencies just focussed on the ‘promotion’ part of their relationship with brand owners. It’s something that clearly frustrated Golding.
“There are more and more chief customer officers that are coming in in certain enlightened companies, and they are less about marketing - they have a bigger control oversight: the website and the app and distribution and in-store look and feel, and those sorts of things,” he says. This means that they are responsible for more than just managing the relationship with their ad agency. He continues: “So actually giving them a bit of a one-stop-shop, that makes us on the hook as much as they are.”
While Murphy and Golding’s creds were already well-established on the national and global stage with their success at Adam & Eve (and later adam&eveDDB), finding the other partners to bring the one-stop-shop proposition was another matter. They had worked alongside NCA’s CX guru Rob Curran when he was at Wunderman and both agencies shared the Lloyds account; director of production and operations Matt Craigie-Atherton and artistic director Nicole Hofer had previously worked with the pair as some of the first employees at Adam & Eve. And the chief creative officer Ian Heartfield joined from BBH.
Hofer says that having worked at Adam & Eve from the start helped steel herself for the new venture. “[When it launched] Adam & Eve was so small - I think 10 people in St. Martin's Lane. So it was nice to remember back to this energy of a start-up, where you work so differently and you work so fast, and where creativity happens so organically. It was just nice to remember back to those days when we started this adventure.”
For Craigie-Atherton, the fact that NCA launched during the pandemic and in the thick of lockdown meant that they all had to learn to collaborate from day one, albeit remotely, while Hofer thinks that in some small way the fact that NCA was founded in adversity, when every agency was forced to WFH, worked to its advantage. “It was a benefit for us because we looked like every other agency on screen on our teams pitch,” she points out.
Heartfield’s journey to NCA came from a phone call from Murphy and Golding. “As you could expect, when you get a phone call from these two – and with what they've done - you're going to take it. We realised we're aligned on lots of things, not least the idea for the model for this agency. I think we're also very aligned on a belief that the industry was not making work that was working, and losing sight of what we're supposed to be doing. And then it just sounded a very exciting proposition,” he says.
With the founders in place, clients were the obvious next step – and the founding client was Halifax. “It was in some senses a lucky bounce, because as we were shaping the model that we wanted to do it really aligned with Halifax's ambitions,” says Murphy. "Catherine [Kehoe], at Lloyds Banking Group, was evolving into a chief customer officer role. The impression that we got was she was thinking: ‘OK this is an interesting agency model that suits the way my role - and the role of my team - is growing. Why don't we give it a run on Halifax?’. I mean, it was interesting that it was Halifax not Lloyds, in the sense of we could sort of prototype our offer. In the end, we ended up doing customer experience, diagnosis and design work on Lloyds as well. But that came later.”
Curran finds the disconnect between brand promises in communications and experience a “painfully obvious” one that needs fixing. “It’s something that we should have been doing as an industry for decades, but we haven't been doing it. And the trick is just the execution - it's really, really difficult to actually do it. So other people purport to have this model, but it's just very, very hard to do for a holding group. And that's what the new blueprint was like: can you actually do this properly? Not just say that you do it, but actually do it,” he says.
Being unencumbered with purely advertising commitments to existing clients meant that bedding in this new model, as a start-up, was easier, adds Murphy. But that didn’t mean that the conversations that Curran had around clients’ CX was always easy. "You need to create a sense of urgency. Often the brand is sitting there going ‘why are people leaving, and they're not being as loyal as we want them to be?’. And then over here, the customer is going, ‘why the hell have they designed it like that it's rubbish’," he says.
The best example of marrying comms and CX comes from NCA’s new Nationwide campaign, where the agency undertook a root and branch approach to the brand identity (down to and including its signage), its entire CX and its advertising, says Heartfield.
NCA is not prescriptive about clients taking on all of its package of services (some choose only the comms aspect), and given the agency's successful new business record it's clearly onto something.
In 2023 it won the Sainsbury's account, having previously worked on its Habitat sub-brand. The Sainsbury's Christmas ad, starring Rick Astley, contributed to a 4.9 per cent increase in sales, according to the retailer.
"The most important thing is the brief and puzzle to solve - and do we think we can solve it," says Murphy.
With Nationwide proving an exemplar both in scale, scope and speed of what NCA can offer, and with the importance of chief customer officers within client organisations strengthening, it's little wonder that its approach is bearing fruit.
Murphy says: "I think we're lucky in that we've got probably a disproportionate number of clients who have a vision, and they're on a mission. What we do for them is part of a much bigger journey that they're going on."
Luck or by design? Maybe a bit of both, but how pleasing to see another British agency success story in the making. It's also one that will also probably influence and inform what NCA's competitors do next (much like Adam & Eve did before).
But the six of them are only just getting started. Heartfield concludes: "We're just getting going, as well as feel like we're just getting into our stride now. We've had a fast start and we've done well but it is has been a period of getting to know each other and working out how we will work together.
"All that's out the way now. I feel like this coming year I'm really excited about what we actually can do together with all that behind us - the foundations are built and then now it's time to push for more and more and bigger stuff, better work."
The Quick Fire Questions
What one piece of advice would you give to other would-be/recent founders?
It’s 90% perspiration – David Golding, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer
What's been the best thing about starting your own company?
The people who join you are as excited and committed as you are. At a start-up, the flat hierarchy structure creates a fast-paced working environment that injects our projects with energy, informal collaboration and quick decision making – all of which contributes to a strong creative output. Our horizontal structure also allows the space for quick growth for mid and junior level team members; a growth-playground for people who want to get stuck in and shape their careers. I'd say this set up attracts exciting talent - and it is a great feeling to take a moment to reflect on the brilliant mix of talented people at NCA. – Nici Hofer, Founder and Art Director
And the most challenging?
You have to kill your own lunch (and get your own lunch). Both a far cry from C-suite life at a big agency. – David Golding, Founder and Chief Strategy Officer
What will the disruptive start-up of the future look like?
It will be a bunch of similar minded people, with complimentary skillsets and an idea, giving it a go. – Ian Heartfield, Founder and Chief Creative Officer