New Commercial Arts

New Commercial Arts On Brutal Honesty And Future Aspirations

The agency's executives talk about how the business has evolved since its launch four years ago

By Stephen Lepitak

In May 2020 it seemed as though the world was set to become a very different place. And while most businesses were figuring out how they would survive a global pandemic, New Commercial Arts (NCA) was launching to unite communications and customer experience (CX) to support the growth of businesses.

It all began with eight people - including chief executive James Murphy, chief strategy officer David Golding, chief creative officer Ian Heartfield, art director Nici Hofer and chief CX officer Rob Curran - and now employs around 90 people spread across offices in London and Glasgow.

However, Curran admits that when the business started, nobody was fully certain whether bringing the two focuses of advertising and CX together would actually work.

It wasn't guaranteed that you could bring customer experience and communications together and make it successful,’ he says.

Well, if its current client roster is anything to go by then the vision has certainly been paying off. NCA now works with some of the most familiar brands to the British public including Sainsbury’s, Habitat, Nando’s, Nationwide, Vodafone, Uber and MoneySuperMarket, to name a few.

And along the way it has produced major initiatives that have fundamentally changed some of these businesses.

To talk us through what they have learned from the evolution of NCA and where they hope to take it next, we spoke to James Murphy, Nici Hofer, Rob Curran and managing director Hannah White. They also discuss some of the insights that the company’s recent work with Nationwide has given them on developing customer-centric communications on a major scale and why setting up during the pandemic instilled a way of working that the business aims to maintain, while many competitors push for staff to return to the office.

What does NCA stand for as a creative business?

Hannah: We do two things brilliantly and those two things are communications and CX. And I think you hear CX bandied around a lot as a bit of a buzzword but people don't want to see an ad on TV or a poster and then go into a store or onto a website and get a completely different experience. When you're thinking of ideas that can truly transform both communications and the experience, you get much stronger ideas and ideas that can transform businesses - like Nationwide. If you look at where that business was a year ago, or 18 months ago, to now, so much has changed - and that's not just a change in the communications…it's across the board. It's the letter that you get, it's the app experience. I think that's what NCA can deliver. And that is differentiated in the market.

James: I think there's there's always been a case that there's sufficient technological change in the industry every decade, that there's a case for a new model about every 10 years. This is the third startup I've been involved in and each one has had a slightly different model and each was in a slightly different decade, which is certainly a journey that ages me.

We've had experience, certainly in our working with some of the bigger clients at adam&eveDDB, where you were going, ‘Okay, this point where the promise of communication means the practice of CX is becoming a serious issue.’ That's because the promise you make in comms is put to the test in real-time now when people are dual screening and are often on a website or an app in an instant. The idea of fusing comms and CX really tightly together felt like its time has come - we do think it's super relevant. We do think it's differentiated, partly because it's been our structure from day one - we haven't gone out and hired a couple of people to get an industry headline and tack them on the side. It's actually in the plumbing of the business.

Niki: That translates to the creative work. We see it as having a focus on the customer experience first and then you go into the comms - it’s a different way of thinking about the entire brand which makes it really interesting from a creative point of view.

Rob: It's a simple question to answer because we just do these two things and we believe in them being brought together. It's worth saying that when we started, we didn't know whether it would work - a lot of people have tried to bring disciplines together and make them work harmoniously; it wasn't guaranteed that you could bring CX and communications together and make it successful.

Can you give us an example of a project that best exemplifies your CX work.

Rob: It took us a while to make CX and comms click and to do what we set out to do. Nationwide is a totemic client for us - we started with Nationwide by doing a diagnosis from a customer perspective and being brutally honest with them about what the problems were with Nationwide - starting from that perspective and then the communications and the redesign. Everything that we've done since in redesigning its touch points has come from that initial brutal diagnosis. And it's what the market wants. We are giving customers what they need and when you do that the business thrives.

James: You can see how that then crystallises in the central platform idea that drives CX and the comms: ‘A good way to bank’. It's a good way to bank because of the more customer-centric and mutual member-focused way that a building society works. It's a good way to bank in an ethical sense too. So that's a good example where you're effectively creating a single strategy that drives the CX and the comms.

So what have you learned as an agency from that initiative?

James: One big thing you learn is patience because CX often takes longer because you're dealing with the wiring and the plumbing of an organisation. And sometimes those organisations are not just large and complicated, they're actually highly regulated or they sit within very, very sensitive risk environments, like financial services. So, you can't just smash your way in and recommend loads of changes to the CX without thinking: ‘Okay, are there governance issues? Are there legal and risk issues with all of this?’ So, you suddenly realise how fast and adrenaline-fuelled comms relationships are. You come, crack the strategy, crack the idea, and get into execution and the work must be good, and it must work, but you're not dealing with quite the same level of interdependencies that you are in CX.

Rob: It's funny, having spent my career doing CX and in that slower world, I'd also say one thing I learned is that when you have an incredible client and the courage of your convictions, you can move very quickly. When we did the rebrand, we thought it would take triple the amount of time it ended up taking because we pushed it and we had an incredible client on the other side who pushed it. And we were able to get things implemented at extraordinary speed in the context of the usual speed that CX moves.

James: We launched 37 branches on the day of the comms launch. That included the modernised and revamped identity and new cards going out to thousands of customers and the people who made it possible were the clients. We were cheerleading it, but we didn't have to do that complex implementation.

Hannah: The other thing I’ve learned from working with Rob and the CX team is the power of brutal honesty. Of course, you're going to question a brief on communications, but often it seems with a CX brief the sentiment is more: ‘Hey, we think we're pretty good at this, we want to go to great.’ But when you're coming at it purely from a customer lens you need a reality check, and businesses aren't hearing this because you're not getting a net promoter score survey. So often we have to ask them to pause as we need to fix some things that are broken and go back a step. Account handlers can feel that's a bit of a tricky conversation, but it has always been welcomed by clients because you're telling people who want to drive change the things that they're just not hearing. Siloed people within the organisation are not spotting these things.

How do you prepare clients to hear the brutal honesty then?

Rob: Generally our approach is an agreement that the health of the business is dependent on how well or poorly it pleases its customers. The customers are the reason we exist. They pay for everyone's salaries. And it all relies on the interaction between the business and the customer. If you accept that, then everything else becomes an easy conversation because if you’re finding problems that are annoying paying customers then you've got to fix it. It's common sense. Then there's very rarely a debate, because it's just plain to see and we make it that way. We're on the side of the brand because the brand flourishes and thrives when it's doing well for its customers.

Nici: I also think it’s the way we do the fact-finding because you [Rob] go in and really experience the store and then talk to clients about what happened and it’s not an opinion. It’s based on all of the facts that we collected, creating a big picture and then looking at the broken windows to find where to course correct. It’s about the collection of evidence.

James: Because organisations are large and complicated, you’re surfacing a long list of things that don’t work as well as they should. And while that’s hard work, it’s not the hardest work. The hardest work is then triaging those and deciding what the priorities are because you can’t then do 3,000 things better within six months. We have to decide on the most important problems to fix first.

NCA launched during one of the most difficult periods in modern human history. How has the agency evolved over the last four years despite all the challenges the world has faced?

Nici: One of the things was the reality of pitching during COVID. When you're on a Teams call, it doesn't matter if your agency is 200 people or eight people because there will never be that many on the screen during the calls. So, I think that worked in our favour in year one.

Hannah: On an ongoing basis, because we didn’t have an office from the offset and when we were managing the transition into a space, we didn’t have a set way of doing things. We had remote working baked into our DNA, particularly having an office in Glasgow as well. It’s great to now have our own space [in London] where we can meet in person for the creative process and development discussions, but it’s not like we had a set way of doing things before that.

James: We had the agency in Glasgow a year before we had one in London. We didn’t have our first proper space here for the first two years.

Rob: We’ve had a deep partnership with Glasgow School of Art for a long time. And in doing so, NCA has strengthened that partnership every year. So that's been an incredibly important part of the agency and of getting through a lot of the difficulties. It's been incredible to have two studios complementing each other during that time.

So what are you aiming to maintain as we hear more about ‘return to office’ policies?

Hannah: We've been deliberate in our intention to keep this place flexible. We haven't set requirements on the number of days in the office that so many businesses have had to maybe due to their size, maybe due to those legacy ways of working. What I hope, and certainly what NCA offers me, is that we trust our people to work hard for us to be ambitious and to want to push the work. If that works around their life, then we’re going to get better work, and that then works for us. So, it is a place where you might come into the office for a couple of hours, once you've dropped the kids at school, or you've got that gym class if it's important to you. So, do that and then pick up your work - that's very much always the way we've worked, and I think that sets us apart from the trend of the industry. Absolutely.

Nici: This space feels like a creative hub as opposed to being strictly driven by rules with certain days for the creatives to be in, for example. It's meant to be a creative hub - you come in for inspiration, for a great creative exchange, then it's super nice. Our clients drop in to work here – it feels like a hub.

Does that flexibility help when it comes to hiring the best talent?

James: Definitely. What this should be to our junior talent, to our great talent, is a place where you can do the best work of your career, where you can really grow during your time here; we are smaller teams, but you have a lot of headroom. It's the flexibility and that we work around you, but also paired with this being a place where you can make the best work of your career and really grow and that’s the type of talent that we want to attract.

Rob: I would add to that that we've got a healthy disregard for any kind of seniority or hierarchy. So we believe in young talent. And I have no qualms in putting young talent in front of a CEO or a CMO or chief customer officer and letting them tell the board what they need to hear and what they think of the brand because that is coming directly from them. They're incredibly talented, we don't need to put a sheen over them with well-practiced seniors. We just let them do the talking.

James: There is a tension within the idea of being fully flexible around people coming in and not coming in. We'd ideally like NCA to be the best learning environment anywhere in the industry, because we're still a smallish independent and there are lots of people with quite a lot of experience involved in the day-to-day. And so in a sense, it is about trying to get the balance between having that flexibility but equally, the benefits of being together are that osmosis of getting experience. Personally, I was the beneficiary of moving to a startup when I was fairly junior and learning at probably three times the pace I would have done. And I suppose that's part of the contract that we have with people - that when you come here, hopefully, you will learn more quickly than you will learn somewhere else.

And looking back on the difficulties the world has faced over the last four years, has much changed for brands when it comes to their expectations around CX?

Rob: To be honest, I think we've got our fundamental blinkers on when it comes to customer experience in some ways. The industry has been swirling around customer experience for maybe six or seven years with it becoming a real buzz word and people thinking about it in many different ways; consultancies thinking about in some ways, design agencies think about it in other ways, and people talk about it in wildly different ways. You might talk to someone about it, and they just think it's a data game or a technology game.

To some extent, we just ignore all of that because the business is ultimately when you're dealing with customers, it's an emotional battlefield.  You're either winning their hearts, or you're not. You're either impressing them or you're pissing them off. And they'll go one way or the other - they'll be loyal to you or they'll be loyal to one of your competitors if you're not careful.  We just believe that it's an emotional battlefield and you've got to win that battle in the experience. We don’t think about what's going on in the industry. We provide that service for our clients and try and do the best possible - what we would call CX work - without worrying about what everyone else thinks about it.

Hannah: One thing I would say - which isn't a customer point, but it's a client point - I think, when we were starting out, you were seeing that shift from CMO to CTO and chief customer officer. So, the recognition within brands that CX needs to sit under that role and that jointly together felt like a turning point.

How do you hope to see NCA evolve over the next four years?

James: The first four years have convinced us that the way that we work in this model can create profound change and momentum for clients. We would want to be able to do that with bigger and more interestingly diverse clients, because what's interesting is the pace of change. It’s extraordinary how many clients, particularly large ones with large logistics, would probably be considered quite backward. But that's because they have investment cycles that turn over decades. And when they've made major investments, they have to run those for 10-15 years, to priortise the cost and so on.

So there are huge numbers of clients out there that are in the process of approaching their next investment cycles and they're looking at how they improve their engagement with customers.  There's a lot to go for and I think that the question for us is, how do we scale up? And that question is partly about just the raw facts of how we win new business, but it's also about how do you scale up and hold on to your culture and your reasonably unique ways of working. There is a brutal truth about the industry, which is that it doesn't accept you standing still. You have to keep growing. And so you can't just say, ‘We're going to be a boutique and that’s it’ because that simply doesn't create the energy and the experience that your talent needs to keep growing as individuals.

Nici: And that translates into more exciting creative work. When we grow more, then more creative opportunities will appear and obviously, we want to push the creative side harder - always harder and always better.

Rob: As James said, we want to keep growing and solving bigger and more complex problems for clients. Ultimately, you have to have a fundamental impact on clients and the beauty of NCA is that we're trying to do two things better. We're not trying to shift or change our disciplines. We've decided the two things that we want to be world-class at and it's just a case of becoming ever better at those things and clients will benefit from that, their customers benefit from that and the audiences for our communications benefit from that.

Hannah: Sainsbury's is a really good testbed for how we can do that because when we won that just over a year ago, on paper we didn't quite believe we could win that. It was a huge piece of business for us to take on and I learnt two things from it. First: you can't get a more complicated business than that from a CX point of view, the different areas of the business, the scale of the touch, everything about it - delivery versus in-store versus online, etc. But I learnt that we absolutely work with teams closely to drive that CX change through businesses as big as that and as complicated as that one.

And secondly, I learnt that we can maintain our culture while rapidly growing and we need to keep doing that over the next four years. We're fiercely competitive and fiercely into the work and all of those things you would expect us to be with a name like New Commercial Arts, but it is a lovely place to work. And there are lots of different people here who work in very different ways, partly because we're bringing together customer experience and comms and we've allowed a culture where we can maintain people's individuality. So, I think Sainsbury's has been a great test of how we can grow the pace and keep those things that are important.

James: Honestly, they [Sainsbury’s] are the kind of client, Nationwide too, that - in terms of their culture and their values - are incredibly supportive and positive to work with. And I think probably that's the other big question - if you want to grow, who are you going to do it with so that it doesn't break who you are? That doesn't mean you don't want to change, because changing and evolving is an exciting and challenging thing. But it's how you do that whilst holding on to what's important. And so I think you have to be careful about the partners you choose to do that with.


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