James Barty (left) and Alistair King, co-founders of King James. Picture: SUPPLIED
James Barty (left) and Alistair King, co-founders of King James. Picture: SUPPLIED

For an advertising and communications group that has garnered global recognition and accumulated countless awards, the founders remain modest and self-deprecating two decades on.

This year, King James advertising agency turns 20. Creative head Alistair King explains what defines the essence of the business: “I have no idea. We’re making it up as we go along. We’re just trying to cram as many talented people into our building as possible and extract as much brilliance and fun as we can.”

King James, despite many offers, remains one of a handful of non-network local independent agencies. Over the years, it has created many memorable ads that tapped into deep human truths, overlaid with a style that displays a careful adherence to the craft of advertising. Rival clients are known to ask their agencies to make them a “King James ad”.

Given that the liquor business is deeply ingrained in the group’s DNA, it’s fitting that the agency had its genesis at a gathering with ice and clinking glasses.

Says King: “We were at a client cocktail party where I first told James [co-founder James Barty] I was leaving Ogilvy to start an agency and invited him to join me. I don’t remember feeling any hesitation or a single moment of regret since.”

Barty felt it was the right time to spread his wings.

King adds: “It was a gamble. We had no start-up capital, only six months’ salaries from our previous jobs’ provident funds. From there on, it was simply a case of keeping our income higher than our expenses, and that has never changed.”

Barty says the fledgling agency had the trust of one client, which at least covered its start-up costs. “That monthly cash flow really helped. But we also had a great business mentor in Geoff Grylls, and an overdraft backed by our homes.”

The most unfair question one can ask of an ad agency is to name its favourite ad. What about the clients that don’t make the list?

It’s a sign of supreme confidence that the answer is instantly forthcoming.

Says King: “An ad for Allan Gray titled ‘Beautiful’. Everything changed with that commercial, which we shot immediately after our 10th birthday. It was our first real creative home run, and it launched a remarkable decade of creative gumption.

“We followed it with Allan Gray’s ‘James Dean’; kulula’s campaign for ‘You Know What’; Santam’s ‘Sir Ben’ campaign; ‘Give that Man a Bell’s’; Santam’s ‘One of a Kind Country’; New Balance’s ‘Baby vs Dale Steyn’; and Sanlam’s ‘One Rand Man’ and ‘Uk’Shona Kwelanga’ – but ‘Beautiful’ was our ‘breaking the four-minute-mile barrier’. It gave us the motivation to be more audacious with our creative output.”

In an increasingly competitive business, management style is key. While the business cannot be a dictatorship, leading creative people is akin to herding cats. So is there a formula?

“I always wanted King James to be an agency that would not just be admired, but also respected for being the real deal,” says King. “I believe in doing more than is necessary. I just don’t see the point in being conventional about anything.”

Barty says: “We have described ourselves as benevolent dictators. But in all seriousness, we are full-on committed every day and still in the trenches with our teams.”

Over the years, many in the industry have questioned why King James has remained independent.

“We have remained independent because the value equation is simply not there to sell to a multinational group,” says Barty. “We value our freedom.”

Those views are echoed by his creative partner: “We live life completely on our own terms, run our agency exactly the way we want, partner with whom we want, and we don’t have to explain our bar bill to anyone.”

Finally, what is the trait these two leaders find most valuable in each other?

King says of Barty: “His respect for the creative process and his faith in our creative product is extraordinary.”

Barty says of King: “A relentless spirit to do things right. He questions, and re-questions, and pushes all around him. It can be painful at times, but we know it makes us all better.” 

This article was paid for by King James. Corporate Report compiled by Jeremy Maggs.

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