Executive Insights

'No 5-year plan.' Why one of SA's most longstanding ad execs distrusts long-term strategies

Business Insider SA
Alistair King, founding creative partner of King J
Alistair King, founding creative partner of King James Group.
  • When a client recently asked ad exec Alistair King what his agency's five-plan was, he replied that they never really had a plan.
  • Instead the King James Group was founded 22 years ago without any long-term strategy. It also never had annual budget targets.
  • King believes the group's success was more a result of its ability to adapt than its ability to predict.
  • For more stories, go to Business Insider's home page.

Having a long-term strategy, or at least a vision for your business, may be the cornerstones of traditional management thinking, but the co-founder of one of SA’s biggest independent advertising agencies, Alistair King, will have none of it.

This week, a client asked him what his business’ five-year plan was, and King’s response, which he tweeted afterwards, may have sent a shiver through the MBA crowd:

King, with James Barty, founded King James 22 years ago, and over the years built up an impressive clientele including Santam, Sanlam, Pick n Pay, Allan Gray, ABInBev, TymeBank and more. It developed its own digital, social media, public relations and events businesses, becoming a creative behemoth and winning a slew of awards along the way – including Best Agency at the Bookmark Awards 2019 and, for the past 3 years, being named Most Admired SA Agency by the ad industry survey conducted by Marklives.

All of this was achieved without any real cast-in-stone plan, long-term strategy or vision, or even annual budget targets, says King.

“We never put ourselves under the stress of having to achieve predetermined growth targets. Business is tricky and unpredictable: lots of things happen outside of your control”.

Accordingly, King doesn’t believe in the “audacity” of long-term planning.

“I’ve always loved the Jim Clarke quote ‘Never trust anyone who claims to see the future’. There are too many people peddling the next best thing.”

Instead of a rigid plan of how a business should develop, he believes in focusing only on delivering the very best work you can right now, which always creates its own momentum and success.

“We rolled with the circumstances, rather than ploughed through them.”

King says he once saw a billboard headline for a whisky brand (that later became a client): "Don't be afraid to take a big step... you can't cross a chasm in two small jumps" and thought: “What absolutely rubbish.”

Instead of “big steps” and a eureka-moment vision of where the business should go, he believes it was incremental progress that was key to King James’ longevity and success.

“We’d try something small and it would open a door, and we’d go through that door and find two new doors that in turn took us into disciplines we would never have foreseen."

Over the years, King James expanded in various areas – PR, social media and eventually digital marketing - as the demand for these services arose, ultimately ending up with seven businesses which work in tandem. “One day we looked up and saw that we had all the right ingredients for the new era of integrated, channel neutral marketing. We certainly could not have anticipated that. Our success is more a result of our ability to adapt than our ability to predict.

"We tend to focus on what makes us good in the present.

“You can’t talk about being the agency of the future if you can’t be the great agency of now”  

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