New Commercial Arts' James Murphy: 'We want to be unashamed about what we do'

Co-founder of New Commercial Arts discusses the 'utilitarian' name, what the agency can offer and the prospect of pitching against Adam & Eve/DDB.

New Commercial Arts: launches with 10 founders
New Commercial Arts: launches with 10 founders

At 7.30 on Monday morning, James Murphy’s phone rang. It was day one for New Commercial Arts, the start-up agency Murphy has co-founded with long-time colleague – and former fellow Adam & Eve partner – David Golding, alongside eight other people from across the creative and commercial industries.

That early-morning call came from a prospective client. By 9am, Murphy had a non-disclosure agreement from the marketer in his inbox and the raw scent of new business under his nose. The new agency was off the blocks.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the most anticipated agency launches in the past decade should attract such immediate client interest. But none of the founders can have imagined that they would be opening for business in the midst of the worst economic and social crisis in living memory. What a time to be a new company with no revenue and 10 mouths to feed.

Campaign spoke to Murphy about launching in the chasm of a pandemic, why he’s confident that New Commercial Arts will offer something new in an oversupplied and homogenous marketplace and how he feels about pitching against his old baby.  

First things first: how do you think you would be feeling right now if you and David didn’t already have many millions of pounds each in the bank?

Honestly, I think we would feel fairly similar. Last time round [when they launched Adam & Eve in 2005, becoming Adam & Eve/DDB in 2012], we used some of our savings; we didn’t pay ourselves for a very long time. However bad it got – and it did get very bad – we never borrowed a pound from anyone or took outside investment. To be honest with you, of course we could create a much more cosseted environment for this if we wanted to, but we’re not.

And you have no clients yet?

Yes, none. We’ve had a few approaches over the last few weeks with people saying: "When are you open and are you able to pitch?" And what’s really interesting is that there is business out there, there is new business activity, and I hope that as a new entrant people will be interested to see what we can bring to some of those pitches. 

Talk us through the name New Commercial Arts.

Well, there’s been a trend for amusingly abrupt names for new agencies, but they all feel a little bit last decade. And so we thought we should just be much more utilitarian about it.

We want to be unashamed about what we do. It seems that our industry has been slightly ashamed of what it does in recent years and it's been flailing around trying to articulate its role. Our name very deliberately has the word commercial because that is what our industry does. We’ll help build brands and make successful businesses, and that’s what commercial arts is there to do.

I think it’s a unique offer. I don’t think anyone else in the market brings together the strategic and creative power with the customer experience power.

How will New Commercial Arts really be different to other agencies with more breadth of talent and resource?

We want to make brands more desirable and easier to buy and that could be anything from creating a very compelling long-term positioning for a brand and creating wonderful emotional communication, through to looking at the ecommerce checkout and seeing that if you reduce it from six steps to three steps you get a much higher conversion to sale. What we want this agency to be was partly shaped by our experiences towards the end of our time at Adam & Eve, when this much more end-to-end customer journey perspective became apparent. 

That’s why we brought Rob [Curran, former chief experience officer at Wunderman Thompson] on board, because we felt the strategic thinking we were doing as a traditional agency could be realised on a much broader and effective canvas through having customer experience expertise.

But there’s no doubt that the last couple of months have put so much focus on the way brands walk and not just the way they talk; the way that brands behave, the way that they actually bring value to people’s lives, has never been more under scrutiny and more clear to see. And that makes our approach look even more appropriate. 

"Yeah, litigation last time, pandemic this time. It will definitely make us very, very grown-up about how we step forward with this business"

But how dramatically have you had to redraw your business plan given the past two months?

I think it’s going to be a different experience in some pretty fundamental ways that are disappointing because one of the absolute joys of being in a start-up – and this will be my third time – is that you’re a gang that gets to gather in a small space and crack stuff together, and that’s not going to be possible for some time to come.

But, equally, we do have a situation that as we’ve pulled the team together, the world of virtual working has proved to be incredibly effective. We’ve put some chemistry and credentials materials together as a virtual team and it’s been fast and really focused. 

We’ve got office space on Beak Street in Soho, but I suppose we’ll probably only get about five or six of us in there now because of safe spacing, so when we are allowed to use the office it’s going to be a very different experience to what we hoped. We’ll probably have to rotate people in and out of it and it won’t quite be the family hub that we were all looking forward to.

How nervous are your colleagues now who have given up safe jobs to join you? 

It’s interesting that none of them have sought any reassurance and I really give them credit for that, though I wouldn’t blame them if they had. But it’s pretty clear that you can present yourself and you can pitch who you are as a business and your energy over virtual channels. So I think that we can go into market and start to get some work. The nature of that work will be interesting, because everything that we’ve heard from recent start-ups is that there’s a much higher level of project work versus retained work than perhaps we experienced a decade ago.

And there’s some parts of the current situation that actually provide us with almost like a safety net. Some great people are on the market working freelance now and using brilliant freelancers allows us to feel our way forward in a less certain market.

So is launching into a climate of crisis actually a good motivator? You launched Adam & Eve into the last big recession and almost immediately faced a cripplingly expensive legal battle with your former employer Sir Martin Sorrell. Is Covid-19 the new Sorrell in terms of grit?

Yeah, litigation last time, pandemic this time. It will definitely make us very, very grown-up about how we step forward with this business.

The first 18 months at Adam & Eve was pretty brutal and I think that creates a very clear, almost Spartan, focus on what is necessary and builds value and momentum and what is fluff. Back then, when we finally got an office of our own and needed to furnish it, we ended up buying some furniture from an agency that went out of business and that agency was smaller than we were but it was kitted out like a global powerhouse. I think the reception desk cost £25,000. You realise how little you need in terms of the corporate trappings. What you actually need is a really good gang: good people with eclectic talents and personalities that just create that catalytic effect when they come together.

The good thing is that although the situation today in macroeconomic terms is pretty bleak, the agency businesses are pretty simple. We don’t have huge factories and supply chains and distribution networks. We just need to create the income that will allow hugely talented people to work with us and that is a simple equation.

How should we judge you after your first year? What is success going to look like?

On one level, you could just say simply survival. But I think I would want us to have won some business where clients had clearly understood the proposition of bringing brand creativity and customer experience creativity together super-powerfully. I hope that some people will have really taken the leap with us to go: "Yeah, we think we really can do this together."

But you know in the customer experience arena that’s sometimes literally about the wiring and the plumbing of your client’s business and so that may not become as apparent as quickly as a communications campaign might; some of these programmes might be two or three years in the making. But, equally, if we can create those proper partnerships with clients, that’s a really healthy long-term business model for us as well.

"It’s a brilliantly village industry and doubtless there’ll be some people who want to throw rocks and that will be part of the fun of it"

But how important is it that you should become known for doing great, visible creative campaigns?

I think that will be important, but how quickly that will happen I can’t tell yet. Certainly, when you look at Adam & Eve, I think it took us two years, probably slightly more, to really find our voice creatively.

If the intellectual and creative challenge is there, of course we’ll work with clients on just their communications ambitions. We’re certainly not pedantic about which channels we’ll end up working in and we wouldn’t turn away something that was a pure advertising challenge, just as we wouldn’t turn away something that a was a pure customer experience challenge. But the idea, based on what we believe in, is that those things work best when they work holistically, but we’re not purists in that sense.

But I hope that creativity will be interpreted in a slightly broader way, where the insight in terms of the thinking and how that’s brought to life – whether that’s through a piece of communication or a piece of customer experience or something where it’s holistically linked together – really captured the essence of the brand and made people connect with it emotionally.

It’s inevitable that people will compare the trajectory of New Commercial Arts now with Adam & Eve. Would that be fair?

I wouldn’t blame them for doing that, but I think we didn’t start Adam & Eve with any trajectory in mind and the first two years were very stuttering. It was only really from year three when the thing suddenly took off. We left in 2019 when the agency became the biggest in the UK and after winning Agency of the Decade, and in the beginning we would never have dreamt those things would have happened – it wasn’t the plan and it’s not the plan now.

The decision to do this was about the intellectual, creative, entrepreneurial enjoyment of it, rather than saying: "We want to build an agency that is like this in X years' time." We want to work with people that it’s really fun and rewarding to work with, be they colleagues or clients, and we want to do some really good work where we learn something along the way. It’s as simple as that. And if other success factors happen along the way – well, brilliant.

But also we’re under no illusions. It’s a brilliantly village industry and doubtless there’ll be some people who want to throw rocks and that will be part of the fun of it. But there’ll also be plenty of people going "Let’s see what these people are made of" and it will be exciting to try to live up to some expectations as well. 

And how do you feel about the prospect of potentially pitching against Adam & Eve/DDB? 

Well, we know what we built there. Someone in the industry who was pitching against them recently asked me what to expect and I said: "The Roman army at the height of the Roman Empire… they're well-organised, with a lot of talent in every specialism."

So I might feel physically frightened but morally calm.