Layoffs hit Barton F. Graf as major clients shift to projects

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Credit: Compilation by AdAge

Just two weeks after news broke that it was losing a partner and executive creative officer, Barton F. Graf is laying off a significant number of staffers as some of its largest clients trim spending or shift to project work.

According to numbers supplied to Ad Age by the agency late last year, at the time the shop employed 53 staffers. It's said that about 15 people were laid off, which would mean the cuts affected at least 25% of staff.

In a text message to Ad Age yesterday, the shop's CEO Caroline Winterton declined to specify how many people have been laid off but did confirm there were cuts.

"Yesterday we parted with some of the best talent in the business," she wrote. "As our industry continues to shift from AOR assignments to projects we are restructuring our team to return to our growth model that allows us to be agile while still delivering our brand of expertly crafted irreverence. To say we are sad to part with the people that left is an understatement." She added that the agency was "galvanizing behind each and every person that is no longer here to try and find them new opportunities."

The clients said to be shifting spending include gaming company Supercell, for which Barton F. Graf has done outstanding creative work including Super Bowl spots, and Welch's, which the shop won as an agency-of-record client last year. According to people with knowledge of the situation, although the agency expanded its duties with Supercell to become global agency of record a few years ago for all of its brands, the mobile gaming company has opted to move to project work. A press contact for Supercell did not return a email for comment.

Welch's, for which Barton F. Graf did a fresh take aimed at Gen X men, also cut spending from the prior year, people familiar said. Welch's was not immediately available for comment.

Snyder's-Lance, a top three client in 2017 and the maker of Snyder's of Hanover pretzels, was acquired by Campbell Soup last year and the agency no longer works on the account.

Clients moving to project work is a particular pain point for smaller shops like Barton F. Graf, since they provide a less consistent revenue stream than a more stable year-round client.

The news comes as Barton F. Graf was starting to stabilize after executive upheaval last year. In April of 2018, founding partner and CEO Barney Robinson and chief strategy officer Laura Janness departed and earlier this year executive creative director Jeff Benjamin resigned. A former staff member said the mood of the agency had been a "bit rocky" since some of the partners had left, but the new team "was pulling together well" and the agency had been pitching a lot of new business.

In 2019, the shop brought on new business from Brinks Home Security, for which it debuted new work in August, as well as projects for Swedish Fish and Supercell's Brawl Stars. Barton also worked on projects in 2018 for Sour Patch Kids, owned by Mondelez, which last week confirmed it was conducting a creative agency review globally.

The new management team includes former Grey partner Caroline Winterton, who came on board as new CEO in May 2018. Former McCann New York group planning director Savanah Brihn stepped in to fill the chief strategy officer post while Sara Kastner — who had been at the agency since 2014 — moved up to the newly created post of chief operating officer.

Agency founder Gerry Graf opened the agency in 2010, after serving as chief creative officer of Saatchi & Saatchi, and before that, as chief creative as TBWA/Chiat/Day New York. He built his reputation on some of the industry's most memorable comedic work, and that ethos continued at his own shop.

The agency's calling card has largely been its offbeat comedy, evident in campaigns over the years for brands such as Little Caesars, Kayak, Bai and Ragu, among others. That was also apparent in its outrageous stunts that poked fun at the industry itself — such as when it announced new hires via a town crier — or when it debuted its own "Operating System" in the wake of other shops' high-profile debuts of A.I. platforms.

Over time, the shop's portfolio added new dimension — with more mainstream laughs on work for Supercell — including a high-profile Super Bowl spot starring Liam Neeson and arts-driven pushes for Bulleit bourbon.

Contributing: Jessica Wohl, E.J. Schultz

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