There was no violent upheaval, no bloodshed or pillaging when The Barbarian Group arrived on the scene in November 2001. The small group of online mavericks and creative rebels who banded together in the Roxbury, MA loft of co-founder and president Benjamin Palmer to launch a first-of-its-kind interactive shop were a well-mannered and sophisticated bunch, barbarians in name only. And yet, the changes they wrought on the still-evolving landscape of interactive advertising over the next four years were no less than revolutionary. These days, most everyone who works in the increasingly internet-dominated advertising industry has heard of web efforts like Nike "Go," Virgin Mobile's "Enlightenment Kit" and Method's Cyber Grand Prix-winning "Come Clean" website, while the mere uttering of the words "Subservient Chicken" elicits knowing nods. But many still can't put a finger on what exactly The Barbarian Group is.
Maybe it's because the very nature of the company defies easy description. In an era when the boundaries between traditional and interactive media are rapidly disintegrating, The Barbarian Group embodies the fluidity of the new status quo. "We're definitely not an interactive agency, and we're mostly not an interactive production company," laughs Palmer. "It's tough to explain to people at some of the bigger agencies especially, but we're basically focused on creative campaigns and creative concepts. Our whole company is built around doing the best job on a single internet campaign."
The Barbarians, now headquartered in Boston, can design a website that plays off an existing TV campaign, like they did with Mother/New York on the "Milwaukee's Best Light" site. They can create a single application within a broader project, like they did with Comcast's "Comcastic" site for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Or they can take the germ of an idea and craft an interactive experience from the ground up, like they did with Crispin Porter + Bogusky on "Subservient Chicken" for Burger King. "Whenever we work with a new agency, one of their first questions is always, 'How do you guys work?'" says co-founder and chief operating officer Rick Webb. "And our comeback question is, 'How do you want to work?' There are agencies that give us pixel-perfect comps, there are agencies that bat ideas back and forth with us like Crispin, and there are agencies that say, 'Make something cool for us.'"
That model has allowed The Barbarian Group to maintain a consistently high level of creative diversity, which is what attracted the founders to each other in the first place. "After cranking out banners for some telecom company for five months straight, I can't imagine anyone wanting to continue doing that," laughs co-founder and executive creative director Keith Butters, who along with co-founder and executive creative director Robert Hodgin was previously a flash programmer at Arnold. With the formation of The Barbarian Group, everyone involved wanted to ensure that boredom would never again be an issue. "Any of us can be working on a different client, brand or category from one project to the next," says Palmer. "We make a point of continually mixing it up, and it keeps everyone super-stimulated and super-excited."
At the end of the day, it's all about creating an environment that fosters creativity. "That's all we care about," says Webb. As for the company's insistence on partnering with agencies, rather than dealing with clients directly? For a group obsessed with creativity, it makes all the sense in the world, given that agencies tend to have a more solid grasp of their language of choice: the language of interactive. "We're basically terrible at working with people that don't get the internet at all," laughs Palmer. "We love working with agencies, because even if the client doesn't get what we do, the agency does." Which means there are no imminent plans to convert The Barbarian Group into a full-fledged agency itself. "We have no interest in bypassing the agency structure," insists Palmer. "On some occasions, we'll work directly with clients, but it's usually clients that already have skill in the interactive realm. But we don't have any account staff to manage day-to-day relationships that don't have to do with accomplishing creative goals, and we want to keep it that way." Indeed, the creative culture that permeates The Barbarian Group is unique in its emphasis on total creative input, a philosophy the founders consider vital to the company's success. The barriers that traditionally separate "the creatives" from "everyone else" have been torn down, creating an atmosphere of collaboration in which everyone on staff contributes to the creation of the big idea. "It's 100% about involving and empowering everybody," says Palmer. "Our structure is not a management structure. We don't care where the best idea comes from."
In fact, Webb points to the Milwaukee's Best Light job as the genesis of the company's current approach to creative concepting. "We put 10 of us in a room-random people, from our studio manager to some designers-and just hashed it out," he recalls. "And it worked out great. Everybody would just call out ideas for the various games, and it was so brilliant and funny." Adds Butters, "It really shuts down the notion that if the word 'creative' appears on your business card, you get to go into a magic room and come up with ideas. Everybody comes up with ideas."
Then again, it's easy to trust the feedback offered by the typical Barbarian Group staffer, given the company's insistence on hiring employees who bring both technical expertise and creative flair to the table. "That was always our premise, that the creative and the technical aspects would be integrated," says Webb. "The animators, the designers, the people who do flash-coding or backend, are also all very clever conceptual people. And we all came from that. I was an economy major, Ben was a physics major, Keith was a film student. You can't have a bunch of creative people that don't get the technical at all, and a bunch of technical people that don't care about design. If you don't separate the two, you end up with a better product."
Yet despite the infectious enthusiasm of the staff and the undisputed quality of the work, The Barbarian Group remains somewhat below the radar. Along those lines, the company has grappled with the issue of public perception and proper credit for years. "People have sort of a block," says Palmer. "They think that the agency has all the ideas, and that we can't be anything but a production company because we don't fit into the standard mold of how things are done." Adds Webb, "They don't have the vocabulary for us at all. Everybody knows what a production company or a director does in broadcast. But there's no vocabulary for that on the interactive side. And we weren't the first. [N.Y. based interactive agency] WDDG did all of the acclaimed Altoids stuff, and nobody knows it."
Slowly but surely, as the profile of interactive continues to rise, that ignorance has been dissipating-along with The Barbarian Group's anonymity. The company is in the process of enhancing its range of services, adding media-buying and expanded content production capabilities to its already formidable arsenal. A brand new San Francisco office now joins the home office in Boston and the year-old New York office run by Butters. "We have 20 people in Boston right now, and we think that's about as many as we can have in one room and still maintain our dynamic," says Palmer. "But with the offices in New York and San Francisco, we feel like we can get bigger if we expand in those directions. Aubrey [Anderson, the fifth partner and chief technology officer] talks about having these similar but unique cultures in each office. That's a big experiment, and if it works, we might add another one or two after that."
Sound suspiciously like something a full-on agency might do? Perhaps...but with a decidedly Barbarian twist. "We're obviously pretty well aware of what's going on in traditional advertising as well," says Webb. "We keep hearing about everybody quaking in their boots about the end of the broadcast spot. Well, we're all for it! It would be ridiculous for us to not use our grasp of what's going on in the advertising world."
Even if the advertising world hasn't quite gotten around to grasping them.