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#Newsmaker: Miles Murphy, Wunderman Thompson's new CEO

I recently met with Miles Murphy to discuss his new role as CEO at Wunderman Thompson and was hugely impressed by his eagerness to familarise himself with the local media and marketing landscape, priortising relationship building, albeit online.
Miles Murphy, CEO at Wunderman Thompson

He joined the agency in April from Publicis Groupe Africa, where he was asked to stay on as COO following its acquisition of the agency he founded in 2005, now known as Digitas Liquorice.

Miles Murphy on heading up Wunderman Thompson South Africa

On 2 April 2020, Miles Murphy officially started in his role as CEO at Wunderman Thompson South Africa, one of the county's largest marketing services agencies...

Issued by Wunderman Thompson 11 Jun 2020


BizcommunityCongrats on your role! How do you feel about it?


Thanks! I feel honoured, inspired and energised!

I am enthused by the scale of ambition here at Wunderman Thompson. We are a part-creative agency, part-consultancy and part-tech company. We’ve pulled together some of the best-of-breed specialist legacy agencies in SA: JWT, Aqua, Cerebra, Mirum, Applogix, Acceleration and The Hardy Boys. Together, we have one of the most formidable marketing service businesses in the industry, covering advertising, design, digital marketing, social media, technology, ecommerce, data and consulting.

My 600+ colleagues at Wunderman Thompson SA are passionate, problem-solvers, diverse and are exceptionally talented. They represent all the expertise that we offer our clients. The debate is open, honest and lively, but once we agree on a plan, we are a united front. They are one of the joys of this new role, and I feel humbled to be working with them.

BizcommunityHow and when did this come about? And comment on the timing given the lockdown/global crisis.


Last year, the global leadership of Wunderman Thompson started talking with me about taking on the South African CEO role. They wanted someone who had seniority, breadth and depth of experience, and entrepreneurial drive. They were looking for someone to help deliver on the agency promise – to inspire growth for ambitious brands, through end-to-end customer experience of creativity, digital, data and technology.

My first official day was just a few days after lockdown started, so like all of us, I’ve had to pivot. I tore up my plan for my first 100 days and have had to be far more agile in my approach.

From a business perspective, our clients, staff and partners continue to work so well under unprecedented pressures. My focus is to protect the safety, wellbeing and livelihoods of my colleagues, assure clients that we are here to help them through these challenging times and continue to produce world-class work.

BizcommunityComment on the impact of Covid-19 on the agency and the industry.


My team has been so great in getting ahead of the curve on this. We started moving to remote working several weeks before lockdown, so by the time it began, our teams were already set up, working remotely and firing on all cylinders.

Remote working is challenging for a creative business with lots of extroverts. Still, I’m amazed at how well it’s working. We’re actively working to minimise staff burnout, ensuring that all of us have enough time and space to do our work and teach kids, juggle home-office space and deal with the stress of working from home.

Clearly, the pandemic and lockdown-induced recession are causing a significant hardship for the whole industry, and in a recent report by Wunderman Thompson, ‘How brands win in a recession,’ we plotted out a three-phase framework for navigating the current business storm: react (in the short-term), respond (in the mid-term), and rebuild (in the long-term). One of the key takeouts was that if brands cut all marketing spend in year one of a recession, it can take up to five years to catch up with those that maintain spend through the downturn. So where possible keeping your brand front-of-mind, excelling in customer service, delivering on your brand promise and getting it right in digital channels and e-commerce is key to success.
If brands cut all marketing spend in year one of a recession, it can take up to five years to catch up with those that maintain spend through the downturn.
BizcommunityWhat does your role entail?


My main role is to first ensure that we have a clear and compelling vision that helps our clients grow, and secondly, to support my team to grow and deliver on our vision.

My vision is to position Wunderman Thompson SA as the leading tech-enabled integrated agency with creativity and innovation at its core.

BizcommunityWhat excites you most about the agency and your role in particular?


The people and the work. It’s what gets me up at 5am to get through my morning workout before a full day of Zoom meetings.

It is such an honour to work with such exceptional experts: from brand strategists to software developers; from social media marketers to creative innovators; and from customer experience consultants to digital media professionals. Their passion for innovation and growth for our clients is energising.

BizcommunityComment on the current state of the industry, how the industry has responded to the crisis and Wunderman Thompson in particular, and how you plan to navigate the agency through this.


Acceleration is the keyword that comes to mind.

The lockdown has sped-up all the trends that our industry was already facing, and that puts Wunderman Thompson firmly in a leadership role. The pandemic has fast-tracked our client’s adoption of technology-enabled communication channels and e-commerce, so we are seeing significant growth in these disciplines.

I also think the lockdown has made a lot of us re-evaluate the role of the office in our industry. Many of us have realised that we can be just as effective at working remotely and improve our work-life balance. So, we’ll need more flexible working spaces that allow those who need and want to work in an office to do so, but support and encourage remote working too.
As a creative business, we will always need inspirational spaces to meet, create and engage with each other and our clients. But I expect our offices will become more like brand homes that staff, clients and partners dip into when they want to connect in a more emotional way than what can happen on Zoom.
In parallel, we will need to work twice as hard as leaders to keep our colleagues and clients feeling connected and supported when they are not in the office, and our global colleagues are learning that they don’t need all their creative or technology teams in their own countries. This opens up a huge opportunity for us to promote our South African creative and tech skills to work in a distributed model for network clients worldwide.

BizcommunityWhat do you love most about your career and your industry or sector?


The work and the people. Seeing my team grow and produce great work for our clients is what it’s all about.

BizcommunityAny career highlights you're particularly proud of?


If I look back over my career, I think one of the key themes is that I tend to thrive when I can help people and brands navigate through disruptive change.

Currently, the marketing services industry and brands are facing significant forces of change: the rise of e-commerce; the demand from consumers for brands with purpose; the power of data; and the fragmentation of media. Building an agency that can help brands win during all this change is what we are about at Wunderman Thompson.

When I moved to South Africa in 2005, I founded Liquorice, a digital agency whose purpose was to help brands win in the early years of the digital revolution. By the time I sold the business to Publicis in 2014 it was a leader in that space, and before that, when I started my career as a management consultant at PWC in the UK, I helped brands win as whole industries were privatised and Eastern Europe opened up to the world.

I then took my commercial consulting skills to the advertising world in leadership roles in the Lowe Group and Grey in the UK, helping them adapt to a world challenged by the consulting firms fighting for access to the C-suite.

Each time, I built on my past skills but learned new ones. I guess the trick is to never get complacent.

BizcommunityTell us a bit about your experience, founding Liquorice (now Digitas Liquorice) and a bit about your time at Publicis Groupe Africa and how this has equipped you for your new position.


I think I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak in me. When I was nine-years-old growing up in California, I started selling coffee and doughnuts to commuters going to the petrol station early in the morning. Throughout school and university, I always had a couple of different hustles on at any one time.

So, when I moved to SA 15 years ago and founded my own agency, I think I instinctively drew on that inner hustle in me. But I also learned to love the vibrancy of South Africa and its people. It’s that energy, warmth and ‘gees’ of SA that made my entrepreneurial dream possible.
Running the African network for Publicis helped me hone my skills of managing and motivating a big complex business while remaining grounded. And it also enhanced my love for this great continent of ours.

BizcommunityEwen Sturgeon said you have experience leveraging breakthrough creativity, data and emerging technology to inspire growth for clients and partners, and bringing together pioneering businesses to create something new and unique. Please elaborate.


Ewen was running Digitas Internationally when Publicis acquired my agency in 2014, and he was my boss for four years after that. He’s a really inspirational leader and gave me the support and freedom to double the size of the business during that time.

We both have a shared vision for Wunderman Thompson, which pulls together all the key skills that brands need from a partner so they can grow, and I think my hybrid background of management consultant, client, tech entrepreneur and creative leader helps me understand and lead all the component skillsets that the successful agency of the future needs to win.

BizcommunityTell us about your ‘100-day plan’.


People who have worked with me tend to comment on how organised and driven I am. So, I guess it’s not surprising that in a couple of months leading up to me taking on my new role at Wunderman Thompson I’d created a 100-day plan to make sure I could hit the ground running and quickly make a positive impact. However, as the days of March progressed and Covid-19 and lockdown became a reality, it became clear to me that I would have to adapt. So, when I started my new role just a couple days after the lockdown, I adopted a more agile plan.

One of the biggest challenges was getting to know all my staff, clients and partners remotely. Developing trusting relationships on Zoom is a challenge. But I have to say that everyone has been super welcoming and in an odd way, I feel like I’ve got to know more people better and more quickly than I would have expected to before lockdown.

My leadership team and I quickly co-created a strategy for the agency that focused on five key areas: people and transformation; agency brand; creativity and product; client growth and operational excellence. We then track progress weekly and constantly course-correct to ensure we respond to the constantly changing market.

BizcommunityWhat are you most enjoying so far?


Watching young talent thrive. So many people have helped me along in my career that I want to do the same. For example, I’ve set up a weekly creative bravery session for young talent to share their ideas with my Exco and me. These sessions are truly inspirational.

BizcommunityWhat’s currently at the top of your to-do list (at work)?


Sorry, I sound like a bit of a broken record – but looking after people and producing great work.

BizcommunityWhat are you reading/watching/listening to?


Reading: Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of clothing company Patagonia, shows how you can create an ethical business model by being a brand with purpose.

Watching: Sex Education. I wish I could have been as brave and charming as Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) when I was in school!

BizcommunityTell us something about yourself not generally known?


I can touch the tip my nose with the tip of my tongue.

Follow Wunderman Thompson on Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and Vimeo, and Murphy on LinkedIn and Twitter.

About Jessica Tennant

Jess is Senior Editor: Marketing & Media at Bizcommunity.com. She is also a contributing writer. moc.ytinummoczib@acissej
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