None of us at Barton F. Graf knew that the agency was going to shut down. Well, Gerry Graf probably knew, but the rest of us didn’t know until a few weeks before the rest of the world did.
We knew that things weren’t great and that we’d had layoffs and that we needed to win some new business. But did any of us think that we'd be closing in 2019? No. And I have a theory why. Because if we had known, somehow, subconsciously, we’d have started making "safe" work. Work that we thought the client would want to buy, rather than work we knew they should buy. We’d have started second-guessing our ideas and our scripts and our strategy. And if we'd done that, there’d have been nothing "Barton" about the work. So why were we even doing it?
Back in May, with the agency’s future on the line, in the final round of a new business pitch that could possibly have saved the agency, one of our hail-mary scripts featured Benicio Del Toro lying naked with 3,462 pins on his back; in another, he was dressed as a cactus, making “beep” sounds with his mouth.
Were the scripts safe? No. Were they funny? We think so. Did they say everything the client wanted to say in the first 10 seconds and then again on the end card? Hell yes. It was the sort of work that Barton F. Graf was built on and that has made so many of our clients famous. We lost the pitch.
Over this past week, there have been a lot of theories about why Barton is closing: the death of the indie agency, the traditional AOR model vs. project-based work, holding companies, internal client agencies, etc, etc. These theories sound intelligent and there’s probably some truth to all of them. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m conflicted with a simpler question: If we'd had the chance, what could we have done differently? Sure, there may have been a few missteps, but were any of those big enough to bring down an agency?