How River CEO built a marketing agency with an 80% female workforce

Nicki Murphy

This is how Nicki Murphy, River CEO, bucked the industry trend to build an agency with a female workforce at its core.

Nicki Murphy

It was 1994, the Chinese Year of the Dog, the year Kurt Cobain died, The Lion King and Forrest Gump were released in cinemas, and John Major was Prime Minister. But it was the launch of a little start-up contract publisher that made it significant for me. It was the year I launched River Publishing – with just two employees and one computer. Oh, and no clients! Year of the Dog or not, it wasn’t an auspicious start.

Before 1994, I had been working in sales and marketing at P&G, on its fast-track graduate programme. The role, which came with a company car, big salary and loads of perks, was about to become a memory, though – all given up to start my new life from scratch as a business owner.

With my partner Jane at my side, I got stuck in to the first big job, which was finding clients. The hard work would pay off and we soon bagged our first one – global tech giant IBM, quickly followed by Mercury Asset Management. All of a sudden, we were off.

Jane was a financial journalist, while I could plan marketing strategies and publish magazines. Pretty soon we made waves in the market by winning a succession of clients, the biggest of which was supermarket Asda.

An agency run by two women was pretty unheard of in those days, and we attracted some interest as a result, which we used to our advantage. We weren’t afraid to be daring with our marketing activities, either. In fact, we launched the company with a stunt designed to grab attention.

We dressed up an actor as the Milk Tray Man, all in black with rope slung over his shoulder, and sent him to deliver our business cards, together with a box of chocolates, to CEOs all over the UK. One of these was Archie Norman, CEO of Asda at the time, who loved the approach. Overnight, he became our newest and biggest client.

Fast-forward 25 years and River has been transformed. We still publish magazines for some amazing brands, as well as magazines on the newsstand in the UK and overseas, but much of our work is now in video and social media.

As a team of 104, and with an 80% female workforce, it’s no surprise that most of the brands we work for target women. Among the 22 brands are long-standing clients to whom we continue to deliver amazing creative work and results – Superdrug (17 years), Holland & Barrett (24 years), Co-op (14 years) and WW, formally Weight Watchers (12 years).

These days we are channel-agnostic content creators. Our skill base, though, remains the same as in 1994 – smart, talented journalists and designers who understand what consumers want to engage with. We’re also now accompanied by digital natives, videographers and social media strategists. In a nutshell, we create ROI through the creation of brand stories that engage consumers and prompt them to do something – usually buy a product.

I’m proud of my agency. Its success is all down to my amazing, talented colleagues – some of whom have been here almost from the beginning – and to River’s clients, who have given us great brands to work with over the years.

Thanks, one and all.

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