King James CEO James Barty and Accenture Interactive MD Haydn Townsend talk to LBB’s Laura Swinton about the recently-announced acquisition
Accenture Interactive has caused shockwaves in South Africa by announcing that it is set to acquire major local indie agency group, King James. As both parties wait for the ink to dry and the acquisition to be approved by local regulators, there’s palpable excitement on each side.
The agency was founded by CEO James Barty and CCO Alistair King 24 years ago - and the founders have been staunchly proud of their independent spirit in that time. So, what was it about what Accenture Interactive are doing that persuaded them to sell?
“We've beaten the independent drum for close to 24 years and we've always said there were very strong reasons why we wouldn't sell to the network agencies. For us, fundamentally, we've always had this belief that we could do better on our own, I suppose we felt we could compete on our own,” says James, who admits that when he noticed the type of agencies Accenture Interactive was acquiring and the intention to bring creative expertise deeper into clients’ businesses and customer journeys, he found it intriguing. “We did observe the model unfolding internationally, with Droga5, the Monkeys, Karmarama and Rothco. From a distance, we observed the emergence of this consultancy-stroke-tech interface and that excited us.”
James jokes that he thinks when Haydn originally called up with his opening gambit, he’d expected James and Alistair to say no on the spot. In fact, he says, the call came at just the right time. The agency had been developing its own tech and CX practices and they felt that Accenture Interactive could be just the ‘rocket fuel’ to take the agency further.
“We’ve always been a slightly restless spirit, and we’ve always wanted to improve, that’s just been in our DNA. So, we see this as the next evolution in our journey towards that ultimate customer experience proposition,” says James. “We are really excited about what it means for our brand, our people and the kind of work we’re getting to do into the future.”
From the Accenture Interactive point of view, managing director Haydn Townsend says the business was looking to unlock the talent of South Africa and take advantage of the opportunities for exponential growth in the market. “We have an exponential, disproportionate amount of growth and capability and talent ahead of us. South Africa punches way above its weight,” says Haydn. “I use the GDP analogy. We’ve got the GDP of the state of Utah and yet we ranked seventh in the world on a straight points shoot out creatively. So you’ve got this incredible creative talent; not only can we unlock it on the South African business, but we can take it and unlock it globally. We’re not a holding company, we work as one global team.”
Haydn also reveals that the team did have an internal conversation about whether they launched a new agency under the Droga5 banner. But as a former agency man himself - before joining Accenture Interactive, Haydn was CEO of Wunderman Thompson South Africa and is the current president of the IAB in South Africa - Haydn had long been an admirer of King James and felt its local reputation was vital.
“The decision was, do we buy or build?” explains Haydn. “And we had quite a robust strategic period around that. The initial question when I joined was ‘are you bringing Droga to South Africa?’ and that absolutely was a consideration, needless to say we thought about it, we looked at the brands. But as powerful as Droga is globally, and as much as people in our industry respect Droga, the market at large probably didn’t have that same level of understanding and affinity. Once we’d made the decision to buy not build, it was getting the base right. I started that conversation with the global teams and they were like ‘find me the best in South Africa’ and I personally have been a huge fan of both Al and James.
“I thought they would be the perfect partner because they’re not just an ad agency - you can see where they’re starting to build out the proposition, moving into services and platforms, moving into these areas but still keeping the core.”
The acquisition of King James is a next step for Accenture Interactive’s journey in South Africa. Six years ago, they launched design practice Fjord. The notion that the company needed to embed design thinking into its tech, strategy, consulting and transformation offerings is well established in the market. But now they’re looking to add the communications and content and production that ‘wraps around’ those offerings - while also bringing more creative thinking deeper into the consulting.
“The closer we get to the consumer, the more we deal with human beings, the more emotions come into play and the more important insights and the soft touch becomes,” says Haydn.
James also sees a benefit in terms of retaining talent. He believes that hungry creatives will be able to work on global challenges without giving up their sunny lifestyle, thanks to Accenture Interactive’s one P&L model. “For our people development, we see opportunities. South African creatives are in demand globally, it’s a fact. You only have to check out the landscape and there are lots of senior, highly successful creative minds working their magic on all continents. For us, to be able to retain and grow talent here… I mean one thing we don’t like doing as South Africans is giving up our lifestyle. We love this place. So the ability to stay here and to effect change on bigger projects, more meaningful global projects was very enticing for us as well.”
That ‘unlocking’ goes two ways - James notes that the local creatives in the market have a lot to offer other countries. When it comes to inclusion, diversity and purpose, these are areas that South Africa a particular and deep experience of.
“I think with the narrative of the world, we’ve lived through it and still are, issues of diversity, gender, race… these have been things we’ve grappled with as a country. Inequality, the purpose-driven narrative has been in our world for some time,” says James. “Many of us who have grown up in the industry here know that there have been issues we’ve had to tackle. I think we sometimes scare people because we’re so almost confronting. We don’t step around things. Sometimes South Africans are accused of being a little insensitive but actually I think it’s because we tackle things as we see them. I think we’ve got that experience to bring to the rest of the Accenture Interactive world.”
Looking further into the future and the wider African continent, Haydn says there are no immediate plans to open up new offices in markets like Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, though they are set up to follow and support clients with needs in those markets.
As both sides wait for the acquisition to be finalised, they’re already talking up the opportunities to bring creatives deeper into client’s businesses as well as introducing South African clients to a reframed and re-bundled approach to creativity and comms, where relevant solutions and results are emphasised, not timesheets and the one-sized-fits-all model of the traditional agency model.
“I think creativity is a lost language in some sense and I think it’s being rediscovered. I think businesses are going to run out of runway trying to outgun each other using blunt instruments. The workaround that creativity presents, for me, is way more exciting as a transformative opportunity for business,” says James.