Barbarians Enlist Naked Strategist

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Boston-based interactive agency The Barbarian Group has hired former Naked Communications strategist Noah Brier to start a strategy department at the company. For the past year and a half Brier's been a strategist at media shop Naked, but you probably know him from his extracurricular achievements--co-founding Likemind coffee mornings and recently trying to figure out what people really feel about products and companies with the Brand Tags project. Brand Tags invites users to apply a one-word tag to corporate logos, creating a cross between a focus group and a blog comment thread. We caught up with Brier as his tenure with the Barbarians begins.

What will you be doing at the Barbarian Group?
My title is head of planning and strategy. Basically they've been doing this for a while, they've had strategy in some regards but it's been Ben [Palmer, CEO] and Rick [Webb, COO], and they're just kind of formalizing it. [Read Webb's introduction on the Barbarians' blog] They're realizing clients have been asking for it, and they've been doing it as they could, but those guys have a lot of other stuff they do as well. Basically I'm coming in to make it a priority here, make it so we have a proper offering and probably build the team and do that whole thing. Last year they started a user experience department; that's been going gangbusters and there are a couple people in the department, but that's the same thing; they were doing it before, it's not like they didn't have UX, but having people focused on it changes the dynamic.

How is that going to differ from what you were doing in your previous job?
Obviously here we focus on digital stuff; Naked is much more broad--looking at the entirety of communications, and really looking across all sorts of different channels. Here it's getting closer to the final product. The big difference between Naked and Barbarian is production capabilities. That'll be a fairly significant difference. At Naked, when we were seeing things done they were being done by other people, agencies like Barbarian, though we never worked with them. Here I'll be working directly with creative teams, with UX teams, account teams—everybody—to make all these things happen.

Is there a head shift you're going to have to get around? You've always understood the Internet—were you That Guy at Naked?
Yeah, I was That Guy at Naked when the opportunity arose. I had things I focused on which were bigger than just digital but when there were opportunities to kind of help on projects in that area I certainly did. I don't think it's a significant shift; this is my passion, I really like the Internet a lot, I like technology. Clearly it'll be different, it's a very different way of working here, it's a different kind of company. Again, there's a big difference between having that kind of final production capability and not, but part of the reason I'm here is I just like what they do and while I felt like I could do what I was doing at Naked and I enjoyed my time there, this is really what I love to do and what I love to think about.

People, especially on the creative side, tend to think of strategists as an intellectualizing force, the sense-makers of what often are emotional, irrational things. How will that sentiment mesh with the Barbarian ethos of 'We're gonna make it awesome'?
I don't have any plan to change things immediately; I think that, again, a lot of what I'll be doing here is stuff that's been going on. In theory, my job is to help those awesome ideas come up more easily. I can find a bit of direction and strategic guidance around who we're talking to or what we're talking about, understanding what the business objectives are or some kind of audience input —certainly these things were there, but everything, when done properly, fits together pretty nicely. My feeling on what a strategist does is that they give people the ammo they need; I don't think [strategy] should interfere with or stop ideas from happening, it should help focus them and explain why they're awesome. Certainly it can be kind of understanding and maybe intellectualizing why this makes sense but with the goal of making it even better. If I can provide some strategic foundation to something that will help make the idea bigger by understanding who the audience is, what the context is, what the business goals are, then in theory it can allow it to move further out and live even bigger.

Strategy seems like an inherent thing in digital companies, it seems like from the beginning of people making cool things on the Internet they had in mind who they were making it for and who's looking at it. Do you think there's that instinctual urge there still?
To some extent. Part of it is inherent in the medium. Advertising at its most basic is buying eyeballs. You didn't need to really think about a strategy, there were places where you were going to put your ad and those were places where you would get the most eyeballs. The Web, and digital in general, while buying eyeballs is part of it, for the most part it's about creating things that people actually want to play with. When you create something that isn't based around the idea you're going to buy an audience then you need to figure out how you're going to get an audience there and justify the expense of what you're doing.

Faris [Yakob, Naked strategist] and I were having this conversation a while back and we were talking about back in the day, with advertising, you could be there and you could yell as loud as you wanted and it never really mattered because people had to watch it. You have to turn the page, you have to watch the commercial, whatever it was. But now, as it moves into this place where you actually have to kind of attract people, you have to act like a person. If you're at a party and you're the kind of asshole who just yells at people, which is kind of a nice metaphor for what advertising was 30 or 40 years ago, then nobody's going to talk to you. You have to be funny and listen to them and do all these things. On top of it, you can't seem like you're doing it just for your own ends. It's kind of like when you're dealing with digital, its acting a little more like a person and thinking about how people are perceiving you and how you're going to talk to them and respond back to them, and not just the stupid conversational stuff.

Basically, bottom line, I think it's inherent in the medium; you have to be slightly more strategic. And it's also inherent in the medium that anything can happen. Power laws and things like that exist here in ways they've never existed anywhere else. There's the opportunity to see an exponential return on your investment. It's a different kind of opportunity than traditional media.

How's Brand Tags coming along?
We're at 1.1 million tags. I released a U.K. version and a Hispanic version, and I'm going to do, hopefully, Brazil, this week, and I've got an India one in the works. I launched this Battle Mode, it's pretty dope. It's kind of experimental, and when I came out with it people were like, Oh, it'll never work. How am I supposed to choose between Coke and Microsoft? But when you look at the top brands it's like Adidas and Google and all the top brands you'd expect to see, so that kind of makes me feel like it does work. And I've been still thinking about stuff there.
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