King James - A Winning Partnership

The enduring partnership between King James advertising icons, Chief Creative Officer, Alistair King and Chief Executive, James Barty, is almost legendary on the advertising scene in South Africa. As a client Moore Stephens is proud to call its own, we set out to find out more about this dynamic duo.  
 
Over the past 18 years, James Barty and Alistair King have shaped the King James Group into a company that now has 320 staff in over seven specialist companies, with offices in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
 
But both partners concede that if it were not for their two very different but complementary styles, they may not have reached the heights they have. Cool and fiery; diplomatic and dynamic – these contrasting traits have carried them through the years. 
 
It all started with a conversation about 19 years ago, when both King and Barty were working at global network, Ogilvy & Mather. Barty had been working on the strategic marketing and client service side of the business, while King was devising creative campaigns on brands such as Volkswagen, Car Magazine and Willards.
 
But King was restless. Despite a promising corporate career, the entrepreneurial flame was rising. He approached Barty with a proposal to set up their own agency. Barty took two days to reflect on the offer, then agreed, and King resigned from his job a few weeks later, while he was on honeymoon.
 
They set their sights on carving out an independent future, with their company name, King James, an apt and memorable mix of their names.
 
The two are grateful to Gilbey’s for their first break. Their first television ad was for Cape Velvet Cream. This gave them the confidence they needed. They also decided from the start that they wouldn’t compromise their creative vision.
 
“A lot of agencies have been destroyed by power struggles, with a business-minded CEO shouting out the ‘creatives’, and the ‘creatives’ shouting out the ‘suits’,” says King.  
 
They both believe their partnership has worked because they haven’t put business objectives ahead of their ambitions as a creative agency. Creativity has always trumped money as the driving force.
 
The Group has won a slew of awards over the years, including small, medium and large agency of the year. King James was one of 17 agencies globally to be included in the 2014 edition of the ‘World’s Leading Independent Advertising Agencies”.  In 2015 it won Adfocus Large Agency of the Year. It was also the Number 1 ranked agency at the Loerie awards. Earlier this year, both King and Barty were individually selected by their peers as the country’s top managerial and creative leaders.
 
Recently, King James and King James II clinched the coveted Pick n Pay advertising account. The Group has an eclectic mix of respected clients on its books, including Johnnie Walker, Bell’s, New Balance, Sanlam, Santam and Kulula, to name a few.
 
“Every brand we’ve touched, we’ve tried to bring something that is hopefully new to the category,” says King.
 
Both Barty and King rate their 11-year Allan Gray campaign as among their personal favourites, as it merged intelligence and rationality with high emotional impact.
 
Another winner was the Santam campaign, featuring British actor, Ben Kingsley.
 
Bell’s is a sentimental choice, as it’s been a loyal client for 18 years, and Santam’s response to Nando’s was a favourite quirky rebut.
 
More recently, the Sanlam One Rand Family, which won a Gold Loerie this year, Santam’s One of a Kind country campaign and the Baby vs Dale Steyn online film, for New Balance, which won a gold award in the African Cristal Awards, have been innovative and popular.
 
Reputation is key. Often clients approach King James as they have seen and admired their style. Sometimes they’re nudged in a direction they weren’t anticipating.
 
“Part of the healthy tension is that unless you are rubbing up against something, you are not going to create something unique. If it feels slightly uncomfortable, and edgy, then it’s good.  With all of our best work, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about it,” says Barty.  
 
As the years have rolled by, the essence of the King James partnership has remained the same.  
 
“We’re in sync where it matters, and our values are the same. We believe in the fairness of things. We may approach things from different angles, but we bring our own individuals skills and perspective to the table,” says Barty.
 
“The more conservative people look at my chaos and fiery ideas, and sometimes ask James, ‘Can you temper Alistair a bit?’” laughs King.   
 
But it’s not just innovation that makes for success. True grit is also involved. Alistair says advertising as an industry is hard-core.
 
“This is not a ‘Kumbaya’ club. Not everyone is built for this.”
 
Barty and King have attracted top talent in the sector. Five of South Africa’s top 25 peer reviewed creatives work for King James.  The agency has also had to stay ahead of the curve, building relationships and keeping a sharp eye on international and local trends.  
 
“It is a business that is shifting massively,” says King.
 
The company has adapted to change.
 
“As people started to use the Internet more, we set up a division to handle that, and then with the rapid increase of social media, we started a social media company,” says King. As mobile tech has become influential, we added digital to the King James Group.”  
The Group also houses public relations consultancy, ‘Atmosphere’.
 
The various divisions dovetail their work. King and Barty adopt the stance that an idea should be exploded through the group to whichever mediums make it more powerful. The collaborative approach has had a significant effect.
 
So how do they see the future?
 
King says they would like a bigger presence in Africa by venturing into East and West African hubs. On the home front, they’d like to particularly develop the Johannesburg-based business.
 
“Joburg is still a relatively new game for us. We launched it only three years go,” says King.
 
While they’re still firmly at the helm, succession is an important part of King James.
 
“Ultimately, we wouldn’t want to sell to a network or be swallowed up. That would remove what is special about us,” says Barty.
 
For now, the duo is content to continue together in what they see as a “pure partnership.”
 
“We’re absolute equals in the business. There’s no power struggle. The minute one person believes they’re greater than the other, then there’s a problem,” says King.
 
“I think we’ve got the balance right. We set out right at the beginning to have an equal partnership, and we’ve stayed true to it,” adds Barty.