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Nicola Murphy: My media life

UK content marketing agency The River Group had its 25th anniversary this year, picking up clients such as Holland & Barrett, Superdrug, Co-op and WW along the way. Founder and Group CEO Nicola Murphy tells us about her marketing coups, the upsides of digital media and her mantras for success . . .

My earliest interaction with media was getting a smack for scribbling all over my dad’s copy of the Racing Post. We had a share in a racehorse – it probably only had three legs – and the Racing Post was sacrosanct, so I was in big trouble for that.

At Procter & Gamble, I sold an industrial washing-up liquid called Hederol, and even sexier, a bleach called Vortex. As reps, we all used to open the boots of our cars and swap things – everybody wanted to be friends with the Cadbury’s and Mars reps but nobody wanted to do a swapsie for industrial bleach! However I was lucky enough to be on the executive programme and get spotted and fast-tracked. It’s an excellent grounding in understanding how to best sell your ideas.

My first job in media was what was then called the poor relation of publishing – a small contract publishing company called The Publishing Team. Everybody thought branded content was inferior to consumer. It’s completely changed now: it’s difficult to sell magazines on the newsstand, as good as they are, whereas branded content has come to the floor.

I didn’t intend to set up a media company, I’d just had enough of how I was being treated at the agency I worked in and decided to leave. I took a couple of clients and set up River at the age of 29, and the rest is history. I’m a bit of a reluctant agency owner: I’m a business person as opposed to a magazine lover, although I’ve learnt to love magazines.

One of the most influential people in my career is Keith Gold who was IBM’s Global Marketing Director when River launched. He gave us his £135k magazine budget upfront, said “Don’t waste it” and trusted that we wouldn’t run away to Hawaii and spend it all! 

Marketing doesn’t cost lots of money if you’ve got a good idea. We launched River with 60 Milk Tray boxes. We made some little River launch calling cards, Milk Tray Man-style, inviting the trade press to lunch at the restaurant of their choice. We dressed my business partner’s boyfriend up as the Milk Tray Man, picked the 30 brands we wanted to work for, and drove around in my tiny Toyota MR2 filled with chocolates in the boot and back seat. After two days of driving around, we ended up in Leeds – the furthest north my car would go – and blagged our way into Asda House. Fortunately, the exec team found it amusing, and two weeks later, CEO Archie Norman phoned me. He didn’t want lunch but he did invite me to pitch for Asda Magazine, the biggest retail magazine in the market. I had no team, so on pitch day, I got all my mates to sit in our tiny basement office in Soho and pretend to be sub-editors or designers, with absolutely nothing on their Macs. We won the pitch! 

Digital media is great because you can get results straight away. River has transformed over the last few years and we are now 65:35 digital:print. You can test the courage of your convictions much more quickly than with print. There are huge opportunities in digital media and in monetising it; something traditional magazines have struggled with. However, I also think this time at home is actually going to have medium-term benefits for print, because you do want to sit back with a cup of tea and a magazine after you’ve been on screen all day. Where magazines have got it right, they’ll continue to thrive. Where they haven’t, they will die. 

River has some very long-standing client relationships and I think it’s down to our continual striving to deliver something new – we are constantly transforming our offer for our clients. Holland & Barrett have been with us for 25 years, Superdrug 18, WW 13, Co-op 15 and the Ramblers 10. We appreciate loyalty and we give it back. It’s important internally and externally. That matters to me.

Being able to sell the business and make some money out of it was a very proud moment for me because, as a single mum, I knew my kids would be set up. However, I was very proud to buy it back two years ago, because I knew I could make River successful again – and that’s what has happened. We now have a group of companies – primarily agency side – that serve content to customers. The main agency has 26 brands globally, we specialise in membership clients in our Peterborough-based agency, Fish, and last October saw the birth of our PR agency, Maven. I’m also very proud that we are 70% women. 

The business leader I most admire is Co-op’s Steve Murrells. The way he has run the business has been exemplary. [Post-Covid] he immediately reduced his salary (and didn’t tell anybody) because it was the right thing to do. Their Co-operate website brings communities together, so if somebody’s housebound or self-isolating, another Co-op customer can go and help them. As a Fairtrade local supplier, they were stocked with toilet roll and things nobody else could get – and they do a lot for charity. At the end of this extraordinary time, people will remember the brands that were the good guys and Co-op definitely were. 

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is “keep on going”. That’s what my dad, who died when I was 16, told me when I was in tears because I couldn’t do my maths homework. He would painfully sit there trying to help me. He said, “Just keep going, because you get marks for your workings out. If people can see your thought process, you’ll get goodwill for that.” That is a mantra I’ve used throughout my life: even if you don’t do the right thing or get something wrong, as long as people know you are trying, then for the most part they forgive.

Nicola Murphy will be speaking at the FIPP Congress https://fippcongress.com

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