NCA Heartfield, Murphy, White, Curran

So How's It Going At NCA? (Spoiler Alert: Not Bad At All)

Sainsbury's, Nationwide, a Cannes Lion and work that client CEOs single out - it's quite a year for New Commercial Arts

By Creative Salon

When New Commercial Arts launched nearly three and a half years ago its founders had everything to prove.

Two of them – James Murphy and David Golding – had already launched adam&eve, the most successful agency start-up of the 21st Century (and made themselves tens of millions of pounds each in the process). And, well, there was no way they could do it all again. Was there?

Plus they had new partners in creative chief Ian Heartfield and customer experience expert Rob Curran, and a young leadership team that includes MD Hannah White and artistic director Nici Hofer. Could the new newcomers really be grafted on to form a new tight-knit team? Or would NCA really just be the James and David show Season Two?

Now half way through its fourth year, the agency has really hit its stride. And more: NCA has already become one of the most successful agencies in the UK with a client roster that includes Sainsbury’s, Nationwide, MoneySuperMarket, Nando’s, Alzheimer’s Society, and Habitat.

And its work – across the breadth of the customer journey – is being called out by CEOs for its tangible contribution to business success. Unveiling his first half profits this summer, Peter Duffy, CEO of MoneySuperMarket, said that the most recent ad – which stars Judi Dench – has been the company’s “best performing to date”, driving brand consideration up by 14 per cent and purchase intent up by 6 per cent. That’s quite a statement when you consider that MoneySuperMarket has produced some of the industry’s most celebrated commercials before it landed at NCA.

Anyway, you get the picture. This is an agency on a mighty roll.

So we decided this is a good moment to check in and ask the NCA crew to reflect on their success so far.

Creative Salon: So you’re having a good year, right. When you started three years ago, did you think you’d be doing this well by now?

James Murphy: I'd say personally that we’re further than we expected to be. But equally, I think it's really unpredictable. I think if your timing is good and there are two or three interesting clients in that first couple of years that put you on a pitch list, and then you convert it, then I think the sky's the limit. At adam&eve we wondered if anything would happen and I think it was similar with NCA - wondering if anything would happen particularly after a year in the garden and then lockdown happening. The markets were so disorientated.

Ian Heartfield: I think if you take out lockdown this is exactly where I pictured us being in year three.

James and David - did you ever have any doubts that you could do it again?

David Golding: Yes, definitely. I don't know how many people have done two successful start-ups. There aren’t that many that do it twice. There were definitely doubts about whether the second one would perform even vaguely like the first one, and whether it could be done, or we could do it again. I think you need the doubts to fuel you. You need that paranoia. You need to prove it to yourself. It's not a walk in the park, it's bloody hard every single day. There's permanent doubts and we’re still right at the beginning of this particular one.

With agencies an awful lot of it is energy, graft, drive and determination. Turning up more than the other people. That sense of getting a gang together who can legitimately keep turning up, because there are a lot of weekends and midnights; it's not easy. An awful lot of it is an exercise in action rather than anything else. We’re much further down the line than where I thought we'd be after three years. We are twice the size now of adam&eve after five or six years. It's all we could have hoped for, in many respects, and I wasn't convinced that we would be able to do it, because there's so many variables.

You started New Commercial Arts with a blank sheet of paper. How did you build this agency differently from the agencies you left behind?

Rob Curran: In some ways, entirely differently and in some ways entirely the same. I view the Customer Experience offer here as blissfully simple in that we just have to have the best CX team and the best CX work. You can do flash-in-the-pan experiences and get some PR around them, which is easy for everyone to do. But it's really difficult to do proper customer experience work.

In the ways that we are trying to be different, we're finally doing what should be done and that’s why the model was really easy to arrive at. It's so obvious that you should marry the promise in your communications with the reality of your experience. When brand works together with customer experience, for the client, you get work that I've certainly never seen before.

Murphy: We wanted CX to be absolutely part of the offer, from the get-go, not an add on, not in a separate line of business.

The way we structured the agency was in response to the way we felt the market was changing, because for consumers you have a situation where any promises you make on behalf of brands are put to the test in real time, because most people are seeing marketing communications with at least a smartphone in their hand or a tablet. They go straight on a website, straight to an app, etc. That was the consumer reality. But the client reality was that if you looked at a lot of senior clients, CMOs were evolving into CCOs. We now live in a CCO era, where lots of these people have become chief customer officers because they realise that you can't just make a powerful promise, you've got to try and make it live.

Golding: There are several differences between us and the direction of travel in the industry. With CX we're not messing around. It's remarkable and it’s weapons grade. And one of the benefits of the model is that it allows you to have very deep relationships with your client, because you get involved with the digital and the regulatory department as opposed to just the marketing team.

How does this melding of CX and communications change the tangible output of the agency?

Curran: It’s hard because when you’re dealing with an entire customer experience, you need to be confident with many things such as architecture and spatial design, user experience in an app, communication in a retail environment, websites, colour theory and behavioural economics. We have to switch lanes very quickly. The reason customer experience can be difficult is because you're trying to take clients from non customer-centric organisations to customer-centric organisations and that takes time. A lot of it's not very flashy, but I'd rather be solving the real problems for clients.

Golding: There’s the idea that we’ve added on a CX function as a PR story but the reality is I'm slightly gobsmacked at what we do. It's astonishing. I think our proudest piece of work won’t be a typical piece of work - it will be something totally different. Three years ago, I certainly didn't think we'd ever make the kind of stuff that we have and have the impact we’ve had in the real world.

But another thing that is quite significant for us is that we all still believe in campaigns. We live in a world where you've got a client body who are research-driven and who have a focus on distinctive brand assets. What the clients really want is campaigns, something that builds on the last thing and grows perceptions in people's minds. But our industry celebrates creative one-offs, interesting fireworks that are typically never part of the main campaigns.

I'm struggling to think of that many campaigns out there now. But we never go ‘here’s a one off’. As Jim Kelly (Golding’s former boss at the agency Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe) would say, ‘I can see the ball of wool but I can’t see the cardigan’. We’re trying to knit cardigans here.

And are you doing creativity differently - philosophically, practically, the people you hire and the way you structure your department?

Heartfield: As much as we are trying to come up with these big organising platform ideas we have to make sure an idea genuinely flexes across the whole journey. In the other agencies, you pretend a little bit, as you’ve got your own side of the business to look after. Here, we’re looking for ideas that we can all execute, across the whole journey, with one unifying idea in the middle. Despite all the new words and new worlds, fundamentally on the creative side it’s about amazing writers and amazing designers. That hasn't changed.

Curran: And there's also a hell of a lot more creative opportunities when you're going across the whole customer experience. We were talking to a client this morning about all the various touchpoints in their customer experience that we had documented which equalled over 120 opportunities for creativity. In all of these different touch points, for example in-store, you’ve got quite literally hundreds of different opportunities to be creative.

And increasingly, we have a type of person here that is comfortable switching lanes of creativity very quickly, which is quite remarkable to watch. We’re hiring people who do out-of-home, have redesigned a part of the retail store, who are talking about social ideas, and also digital ideas: they’re one person and they're prototyping it all. And when you've got a team of those people, it's dangerous levels of talent, which is really gratifying to work with.

What is your group dynamic like?

Curran: Chemistry was never a given. It was a great relief to me when I realised we all had a similar sense of humour and the same boundaries around what is right for a client and what’s punchy.

Heartfield: We also spent quite a bit of time together before NCA. We were laughing about the same things. On the other hand external perceptions are never going to change, but we’ve made peace with it.

Golding: For me, what you need are values and ambitions that are the same. What destroys a relationship is when two of you sitting in the office at midnight working away and two have fucked off. Everyone has to pool their equal determination. It’s hugely important. The other thing is that we all understand the importance of the school play, because that can cause huge problems as well. You can never say ‘screw sports day and work on this presentation’. When you get the values and ambitions right and you’re spending 13 straight weekends in the office - you're either in it or you're not but if you’ve got kids sports day, you go to sports day. When you're in the trenches, you're in the trenches together; when people step out of the trenches, that's where the problem comes in. We’re heavily in the muck of bullets together.

How you would describe the culture of NCA now three years in?

Curran: There's a story that I love about the Manchester United player Jadon Sancho. He came from the German League and after his first game in the Premier League he was in the dressing room staring into space. One of his teammates asked him what was wrong, to which Sancho said: “It’s so fast.” He was terrified. For me that is one of the defining features - the speed. There's usually a speed versus accuracy trade off, but I don't see that here. We are really fast.

Heartfield: It's really hard work and involves extremely high standards. We aim to operate as the best agency in the world but it is only advertising. When people need to get away for family things that takes priority.

Details mattering is also a huge part of the culture. I remember early a big pitch we were working on and it was after midnight and a few of us were on a Teams call arguing the toss over a sub line on what would have been a 25X4 trade ad, so far down the priorities of the pitch. At any other agency that sub line would have just been lorem ipsum in the pitch presentation, but we’re really thinking about it. That’s the difference.

Curran: Yes, everything needs to look brilliant, right down to the Excel spreadsheets. Every last slide. It's a great thing about our culture. Even the seemingly meaningless decks - they need to look beautiful. If you walk around everything on everyone's screens has a very high level of design.

Nici Hofer: That's something we always shared from the beginning - that desire to make art direction and design such a huge part of what we do. There is actually a beautiful crossover in the talent we work with, because we have people who work on all sides. In terms of agency culture, I also think everybody here is hungry and wants to be here. You really feel that even though the industry has changed so drastically. Everybody here is invested.

Golding: We also have complete trust. This is one of those agencies in which changes that we hold meetings about will be implemented straight away. The teams make stuff happen and deliver. Our clients are quite surprised by the sense that they never have to chase us. In the entire time the agency has been going I can’t remember one time where a client has rung up to chase something. It’s unusual.

Where are you hiring your talent from then?

Hannah White: If we're truly delivering this model we've got to have account management sitting across both communications and CX and be able to flex into both. That talent is incredibly hard to find. We have hired some senior people in account management with more of an experience background. But it’s actually quite intuitive, so once you’re in here, we can train and get you up to speed on CX really quickly.

Murphy: 40 per cent of what we do - our industry doesn’t know how to talk about it. What's very interesting about a lot of the customer experience talent that have signed up is just how they evolve and how open they are to evolution. I think the ad industry is a really disappointingly conservative industry. People come in, do a job and by the time they're 28 they decide to stay in that discipline. Why would you do that in an industry that changes every decade? This is my third start-up. The industry changes fairly profoundly on a 10 year cycle.

What's fascinating with the CX team is that they are spreading their influence from strict customer experience into brand design through into creative art direction. They're multi dexterous because they're young, creative minds that are hungry to exercise that talent in all sorts of different ways. People in our industry are so limited by what they think they can't do. It's incredible. Creative people begin to feel comfortable, but they should be going everywhere.

What has surprised you most about the journey that you've been on so far?

White: I can't emphasise enough how the model we have here has completely changed the way I work. I look back to pitches I've done before where I’ve gone ‘here’s some CX’ and shown them an email mock-up. The way that we work here is so fundamentally different.

Also it’s the fact that we're all in the room together and have that ability to huddle and move incredibly quickly, with the founders properly involved in the business on a real day-to-day client level. That is what I’d hope for, but I think I've been really surprised by how truly that is the way we work all the time.

Heartfield: I've been blown away by how quick we can just get to the thing and move on, the speed that we can get to the right answer.

But can you retain that ‘huddle’, hands-on approach, and that speed, if you continue to grow at this sort of pace?

Hofer: That’s definitely something that we will fight hard for to retain. There is a system in place that is speedy, and a flat hierarchy where you just get things done. And that gives us so much strength that we will make sure we can retain that.

White: If you look at Sainsbury's, this is clearly a huge organisation, we have multiple clients across multiple different disciplines. But actually, because we work in such an agile way, we plug into those teams and can help unify their ambitions. And not becoming really, really heavy our side, I think is a bit of a superpower for us.

Heartfield: But it takes a real conscious effort on all our parts because it’s easy to get bogged down when that stuff comes at you, when the pressure for that stuff to come in.

Golding: In a network or big agency you spend a lot of time not doing the work and more time reporting and handling man-management. One of the reasons we’re quick is because we're not spending a lot of time writing appraisals. We can just get on with what our clients need from us very quickly and it’s extremely liberating.

Have you had any missteps?

Golding: Not really. I would have liked to come back to the office earlier post lockdown but we made working from home work surprisingly well. There’s also the odd pitch we should have won.

Curran: Nothing that burned. When I look back on the three years the thing that actually surprises me is that you can actually achieve this, because there’s a lot of lip service and it’s not easy at all. Digging in and achieving what we wanted to achieve wasn't a given. Certainly for me, I had the nagging sort of doubt because I've seen it fail before.

What work are you most proud of?

Hofer: Our first Cannes Lions for our Alzheimer’s Society campaign.

Heartfield: We are of course proud of all of our work for all of our clients but Nando’s was a very different bit of work for us from a creative point of view. It was probably one of the best films we’ve made but it was set in a store that our team redesigned. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.

We’re also proud of the Alzheimer’s work in which we removed the names from the England players’ shirts.

Golding: I have a test for the work I'm most proud of, which is the Christmas test. Historically, for a long time at Christmas dinner parties people ask if you’ve produced anything they may have seen. We want the public to see our advertising. I'm proud of our Alzheimer’s work and I’m still very proud of the stuff that people notice and talk about.

Hofer: When the work goes into the real world and you get a response it is a very satisfying moment. It can be big or small stuff like the feedback on casting for Tu which was lovely to hear because suddenly something small feels so important.

Curran: On the other hand, a lot of the things that I'm most proud of you don't really see in the real world. It's more the effects that we're having on companies and how they progress from then on. With customer experience you can just create lots of little experiences for people in the real world to see, but you can also fundamentally change the DNA of an organisation.

Heartfield: I’m so proud that we are not London-centric also as we have an extremely diverse range of talent.

Do you care what your peer group thinks about you?

Hofer: It's a lot of energy spent thinking about what other people think of you and you can't change it anyway. It is what it is. Use your precious energy to move forward and find the next thing to make it as good as you can.

Golding: I do care about what people think because I’m thin skinned. I'd be more worried if they didn't say anything at all. I believe that everyone who criticises us, will do anything in their power not to pitch against us and therefore I find their criticism slightly amusing. Criticism is also extremely motivating. I would like to continue to either annoy or silence the naysayers. There's always going to be lots.

Murphy: I think our peer group is hard to define because it could be people who work in other agencies, people who work in other creative industries, opinion formers in journalism, and clients and brand owners etc. What we're interested in doing is showing that we can make change happen for the people that we work with. We're in an environment that's evolving so rapidly so there's always a lot to learn and always new things to do and new ways to create competitive advantages for our clients.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

Heartfield: I’d like a Grand Prix in the agency’s name.

White: I think there’s more we can do in terms of communicating what we do in customer experience and communicating the story of our brilliant culture.

Curran: We’ve only just started really and I think it’s taken a while for us to prove that this model can be done properly. It’s important to repeatedly have an impact at big scale for big organisations.

Murphy: I think we've had to get used to the fact that on the more conventional creative comms side of things, you can do great work in coms and quickly make a difference to perceptions. But CX is a longer game. It's a more multi channel, slower burner. What I'm really looking forward to is looking back on brands in five or 10 years and seeing that we’ve really delivered transformation and created a meaningful competitive advantage for them.

How do you know when you’re ready to sell the agency?

Golding: I don't know whether we'll know when we're ready to sell. Or if we will sell or if there'll ever be a buyer. We're personally more interested in moving forward. It's a bit like Real Madrid - if you score more goals, everything else will happen. And so long as we keep scoring more goals, something will happen. We don't know what that might be.

Murphy: It's difficult. Any previous experience I've had of that was serendipity. It was someone who seemed to share values coming along at an interesting moment with an interesting problem that they wanted solving. I don't think you should come into this with the idea that there's a trajectory to sell, because there are too many variables. Things are never exactly what you think they're going to be.


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