Barbarian's Bleeding Continues as Two More Execs Exit

Jill Applebaum and Robert Christ Latest to Leave Cheil-Owned Shop

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Barbarian Group's office.
Barbarian Group's office. Credit: Michael Moran
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Barbarian Creative Director Jill Applebaum and Chief Techology Officer Robert Christ are the latest to leave the Cheil-owned digital shop as it copes with a talent exodus and financial difficulties, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ms. Applebaum, who left JWT to join New York-based Barbarian a year ago, is now a creative lead within Facebook's Creative Shop Studio, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ms. Applebaum and Mr. Christ's exits are the latest in a string of senior executive departures. It started with CEO Sophie Kelly stepping down last December after two years at the helm. She was replaced by Cheil Chief Digital Officer Peter Kim. Since then Chief Creative Officer Edu Pou, head of talent and HR Michele Prota, head of account management Sherri Chambers and co-founders Keith Butters and Benjamin Palmer, among others, have left Barbarian.

Jill Applebaum
Jill Applebaum

Ms. Applebaum's departure also comes as the shop loses PepsiCo Brisk business to WPP's VML, which was named creative AOR for the brand in the U.S. The recent talent drain at the Cheil Worldwide shop, which included layoffs on top of the executive departures, was causing concern at PepsiCo, Ad Age previously reported. Mr. Pou, who left in May, was credited with having won the Brisk business during his tenure. Ms. Applebaum also worked on the Pepsi account.

Barbarian and its founders have been known for their creative prowess and a culture that matched, but the shop wasn't profitable last year, according to people close to the agency. But the shop was focused on top-line and longer-term growth, with the launch of an in-house content studio and new hires, according to people familiar with the matter.

Mr. Kim, after taking on the Barbarian CEO role, mandated that executives -- some of whom have since left -- make significant cuts that would ultimately mean layoffs, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

"We wouldn't have been able to service the business," said a former Barbarian employee with knowledge of the situation.

"There's been financial challenges which started from the point of [Cheil's] acquisition in 2009," said another person close to the shop.

Mr. Kim said recent changes were necessary to move the business forward. "The Barbarian Group is renowned for its creative delivery of systems and stories," he said. "However, relying solely on what made us famous won't necessarily help in the face of changing consumer behaviors, evolving client needs, and an increasingly competitive agency landscape. The hard decisions we've made this year to reinvent and refactor enable us to partner more closely with clients, work with new specialized talent, and run a financially viable shop."

Mr. Kim wouldn't comment on whether or not he'd be replacing the senior executives who have since left beyond saying, "We respect the work that's been done in the past, like Subservient Chicken or the creation of Cinder, but now we know we need a new strategy for a new environment."

Other people close to the agency said it's too early to tell if Mr. Kim can help the agency grow. They also said leadership changes and departures have much more of an impact on staff and culture at a small shop, like Barbarian, than at a large shop where it's more common and less noticeable.

Sophie Kelly, former CEO, declined to comment for this story.

Barbarian contributed to one of Cheil's first global, joint agency pitches for the Etihad business, which is now being serviced out of the U.K., according to people familiar with the matter. However, it's unclear whether or not Barbarian has won any new large accounts this year.

Cheil executives did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Cheil in December 2009 bought a 47% share of digital agency Barbarian Group and in April 2010 increased its ownership to 75.56%. In first-quarter 2014 Cheil increased its stake in Barbarian Group to 100%. In 2015, Barbarian Group had revenue of $22.8 million, according to the Ad Age Datacenter. Samsung Electronics, with a 12.6% stake, and affiliate Samsung C&T Corp., with a 12.64% stake, as of September 2015, together owned 25.24% of Cheil Worldwide, according to Cheil regulatory filings and the Ad Age DataCenter.

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