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James Barty and Alistair King. Picture: Supplied
James Barty and Alistair King. Picture: Supplied

James Barty and Alistair King, co-founders of the King James Group, are the well-deserved joint recipients of this year’s AdFocus Lifetime Achievement Award.

From humble beginnings 25 years ago King James has become one of the most highly respected agency groups in SA, winning both the AdFocus Medium Agency of the Year Award and the Large Agency of the Year Award at various times as well as being a frequent recipient of the Most Admired Agency accolade. It’s also been highly awarded creatively, renowned for producing emotive big-brand films.

The leadership of Barty and King as CEO and chief creative officer respectively has long been admired by the industry, their peers respecting them for their high levels of integrity. Both have made a significant contribution in their field, frequently providing lectures at advertising schools and universities as well as judging industry awards.

Barty was a recipient of the AdFocus Agency Leader of the Year Award in 2011. His peers, in an annual poll conducted by, nominated him for the most admired agency boss award for five of the past seven years: in 2015, 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.  In 2018 and 2019 he was chair of the ACA, an industry body that he has served on for well over a decade. He has sat on the Loeries Award board for the past three years.

King attributes much of the success of the agency to Barty’s role: “Creativity simply doesn’t thrive in a creative agency if the managing partner doesn’t allow it to. James has done more than just allow it. He’s encouraged and nurtured it, and used those broad stocky shoulders of his to pave a path for it with our clients. It’s seldom convenient to put ideas ahead of client and account stability, but that’s exactly what he has done time and time again.”

King’s role has been no less significant. He was responsible for growing King James’s formidable creative reputation. In 1995 he was awarded the Tommy Young Award by the International Marketing Association. It is given to the most promising individual under the age of 30 in the South African advertising industry. It was soon after this that both King and Barty were appointed to the board of what was then Ogilvy & Mather. In 2008 King was named the AdFocus South African Agency Leader of the Year. He has also been the frequent recipient of the Most Admired Creative Leader in South Africa award.

After having been at the forefront of the local creative industry for well over two decades, King was inducted into the Creative Circle Hall of Fame in 2018 and then, in 2019, into the Loeries Hall of Fame. The latter recognition, he says, was the ultimate accolade. 

It all started at a cocktail party in 1997 when King, then a creative director at Ogilvy, announced his intention of starting his own agency and invited Barty, a client service director at Ogilvy at the time, to join him. Their start-up client was Gilbey’s, awarded to the agency based on the reputation of the two founding partners.

From small beginnings, King James built ahead of the curve, incrementally adding a design division, public relations and a web company that morphed into digital, social and content creation, in the process attracting a suite of sought-after blue-chip clients, including Pick n Pay, Sanlam, Tyme Bank, Allan Gray, Santam, PepsiCo and Distell. The firm’s growth, says Barty, was considered and measured.

Over the years the agency developed a very specific and defined culture that differentiated it in the industry. To this day, King James people call themselves the “purple bloods”. It’s a culture that has managed to retain a number of its senior people – for as many as 24 years, in one case.

Conceding that it’s hard to be an agency committed to the creative product, King says it takes backbone for a managing partner to support that philosophy. It is something Barty has done unwaveringly.

Their leadership styles dovetail perfectly, says Barty. “Alistair is more flammable. He’s usually the bad cop. I’m less confrontational, more collaborative and typically the consensus seeker, though I’m quite particular about some things. We call ourselves benevolent dictators.”

What has made the partnership so successful is that neither partner has ever asked staff to do something they’re not prepared to do themselves. “We’ve always both been shoulder-to-the-wheel people, and because we’re in the trenches along with our staff that has allowed respect to be built,” says Barty.

They have also shared a certain restlessness. In Barty’s case that has manifested in a constant interrogation of the agency’s business model. “This is an industry that can be overly self-congratulatory. I’ve always believed we need to be more and to do better.”

In King’s case, the restlessness manifested in constantly pushing the creative boundaries.

The pair have not always been as aligned as they are today. “We’ve had our differences in the past but we’ve learned to be more discreet about our battles,” admits Barty. “A healthy dose of mutual respect has allowed the partnership to thrive.”

In 2021, King James announced that it had sold to Accenture, making the agency part of the global Accenture Song network. The decision to sell was not an easy one and required a great deal of soul searching, admits King.

“We’ve been independent for 25 years – that’s a hard habit to break. But the reality is that James and I are in the latter part of our careers. At some point you have to think about what will happen to the business when we want to leave and what will be best for our people. There’s also the issue that as a founder-managed business, how do our people grow if we’re still there?”

Then there’s the fact that after a quarter of a century of doing the hard graft of what King calls “paddling your own boat” it was perhaps time to think about handing over the oars, particularly as the size of the King James Group is not insignificant.

At the time of acquisition, the group consisted of seven specialist divisions, with a fully integrated communications and technology offering, including brand strategy, digital services, through-the-line communications, public relations, content publishing, digital media and analytics, live events and activations and retail and shopper marketing, all of which now fall under the banner of Accenture Song.

Piloting a business this size, irrespective of how successful it is, is challenging and at times emotionally draining, admits King. “I’ve been staring at deadlines for 35 years now. You get to a point in your career when you start to wonder about what kind of work you want to be doing with what’s left of your working life.”

The new frontier of advertising

The duo have fended off numerous offers to invest in the agency or buy it outright over the years. They say it never made sense to sell King James to another agency. “We weren’t looking to be acquired and we didn’t feel that we needed anybody to take us to the next level. We had discussions when we were approached, but nobody met our demands,” says King.

Ironically, they had long had their eye on Accenture.

“Advertising agencies need to make themselves more relevant, and the new frontier is in the world of technology and business solutions,” says King. “Accenture’s acquisition of Droga5 and other great agencies gave us a strong clue that they represented a new frontier of marketing and communications.”

The first approach from Accenture came via a WhatsApp message to King from Accenture Song’s MD for SA, Haydn Townsend. It then took over a year of negotiations for the sale to be concluded.

They’re convinced that the Accenture deal was the right one for King James. “Being part of Accenture is a new challenge for us but I think it’s going to be loads of fun,” says King. “Though I’ve never really aspired to global connections, it’s actually quite satisfying when it’s with some very interesting people. To date we have helped Droga5 win a pitch and we’re doing work for India, Dubai and now Europe. That’s been unexpectedly rewarding.”

Pointing out that people admire different things about Accenture and King James, King says marrying the two businesses is a winning formula. He’s been particularly impressed at the weight and depth of Accenture. “The scale at which they do things is damn impressive,” he says.

A new world of technology and business solutions has been added to the King James offering since the acquisition, allowing the agency to build a new capability and offer an entirely new kind of product that even clients are not yet totally geared for.

King explains: “In SA we tend to scale ideas for the local environment. Now that we are part of Accenture we have been tasked with exporting our creativity to the world.”

He believes one of the biggest challenges facing the local ad industry is the creative brain drain. “Global agencies like our work ethic, and they’re plundering our talent. Being part of Accenture means we are able to give our people a reason to stay in South Africa while having the opportunity to work on global accounts.”

Despite murmurings of the death of the agency model, Barty believes there will continue to be a role for creative businesses. “Creativity and innovation are twin sisters. It’s how you organise and scale yourself in the delivery of that creativity that is the big differentiator. Agencies tend to try to hold onto the whole ecosystem, including ideation and production. That’s likely to change, particularly as artificial intelligence and other technologies start to play a role in shaping the way communications are created.”

Partnering with Accenture, Barty says, is allowing for creative discussions at an elevated level and is about staying ahead of the curve and innovating for the future.

King admits to disliking the people management aspect of his role, saying he’s not particularly good at it. “But I love the work. When you’re doing incredible work, everybody is happier.” 

Despite being justifiably proud of the body of work that the agency has produced in the past 25 years – and the awards received – King has always been determined that the agency should not create work for the sake of awards. “A lot of award programmes are about the industry fluffing its own feathers, which is not a great look if you are an agency that wants to be taken seriously in the C-suite. Awards can be something of a cheap thrill. If you obsess too much about them it tends to corrupt an agency.”

As Barty and King look forward to what will undoubtedly be an exciting new future, this year’s AdFocus judges commented that as this part of their career journey comes to a close, it’s a fitting time to bestow the Lifetime Achievement award on them. They commented: “The journey of James and Alistair has been a story of inseparable partners and friends: to reward one without the other just didn’t feel right. Together they created one of SA’s most iconic agencies, one that has been the recipient of countless awards for outstanding work. Their contribution to the industry has been huge. The cherry on top has been the sale of King James to Accenture.”

The big take-out:

The big take-out: “Together, James Barty and Alistair King created one of SA’s most iconic agencies, one that has been the recipient of countless awards for outstanding work. Their contribution to the industry has been huge.” – 2022 AdFocus Jury

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