Following a string of client changes and staff departures, New York-based independent agency Barton F. Graf will close its doors at the end of the year.
Agency founder Gerry Graf says that a “perfect storm” of events led to the decision, including major client spending shifts. “About a year-and-a-half ago, most of our relationships with clients were [agency-of-record assignments] and now, most have gone to project,” he says.
The agency currently has 19 employees. It will remain open through the end of the year to complete those projects.
The closure after nearly 10 years of Barton F. Graf, one of advertising's most creative players known for consistently turning out entertaining campaigns, is a cautionary tale for smaller independent shops as clients increasingly move toward project assignments.
One of Barton's biggest hurdles came early this year, when a top client, mobile gaming company Supercell, moved to project work. A few years ago Supercell had made Barton agency-of-record for all of its brands. The shop had done standout work for the company, including one of 2015’s most talked about Super Bowl spot for “Clash of Clans,” starring Liam Neeson.
The agency had also won AOR duties for Welch’s last year, leading to a funny campaign targeting Gen X men, but that client too, reportedly cut spending. Currently, Barton is still working with Little Caesars as its AOR and is finishing up projects with other clients, including Supercell, Diageo and Fox.
The client shifts led to staff upheaval at the agency. The agency had significant layoffs in March and last week, CEO Caroline Winterton left to become Digitas’ managing director of its New York region.
Winterton had joined the agency in April 2018 following the departures of founding partner CEO Barney Robinson and Chief Strategy Officer Laura Janness. Earlier this year, Executive Creative Director Jeff Benjamin resigned.
Graf says the agency had tried to adjust accordingly, but it wasn’t enough. “We were in new-business pitches that didn’t come through, we looked at the general morale of the place with people leaving, and then I looked back at my investment of profits,” he says. “It just came to a point where it didn’t seem like we could recover.” Graf says that he had reinvested last year's agency profits into the business in an attempt to keep the shop afloat.
Graf opened the agency in 2010, naming it after his father, Barton F. Graf, and went independent after serving in top posts in the big agency world. He previously served as chief creative officer of Saatchi and Saatchi and prior to that, was chief creative at TBWA/Chiat/Day New York. There, he steered the shop during a creative renaissance that produced award-winning work for Skittles that injected creative and comedic energy into the otherwise sleepy candy category.
Graf built his reputation on offbeat laughs for film, which continued in the work of his own company, including for clients such as Little Caesars, Kayak, Bai, Snyder’s of Hanover and Ragu, among others. While humor had been the shop’s calling card, the agency over the years strived to broaden its output. “I was conscious that staying a one-trick pony wasn’t sustainable,” he says. "I told the agency if we won a Grand Prix in film in Cannes, it would do absolutely nothing for us."
Such thinking led to hires including former JWT Chief Creative Officer Benjamin, known for his award-winning digital and integrated ideas at CP&B, and Group Creative Director Nate Naylor, who brought a design eye to the work and oversaw arts-driven campaigns for Diageo’s Bulleit. The agency’s campaigns for Supercell were entertaining yet broad, with ideas extending to digital and experiential. Barton was also behind the Coverage Coalition, the Cannes Lion-winning initiative that leveraged industry-wide talent in order to inform Americans of their healthcare options in the face of newly-shortened enrollment window for affordable insurance under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
For a look at some of the shop's best work, go here.
“One thing I’m proud of is that every person who came here left in a much better place,” Graf says, noting how the shop’s writers, art directors and designers have gone on to leadership roles at other notable shops. “We were like the Staten Island Yankees.”
Graf says he’s also proud that his agency helped to bring awareness to clients who eventually either went public or got purchased for over a billion dollars. In 2016, for example, China's Tencent bought a majority stake in Supercell from Softbank Group in a deal valued at roughly $8.6 billion dollars, according to Reuters.
Graf now says he plans to start fresh. Barton “was put together based on the old AOR model,” he says. “I’ve had a pretty good nine-year MBA course on how to run a business and what skills and talents are needed today. I'm looking forward to whatever new concoction comes next."