2008 Digital Company of the Year: The Barbarian Group

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From left: The Barbarian Group's partners: Bruce Winterton, Keith Butters, Benjamin Palmer and Rick Webb; not pictured: Robert Hodgin
From left: The Barbarian Group's partners: Bruce Winterton, Keith Butters, Benjamin Palmer and Rick Webb; not pictured: Robert Hodgin
Photo Credit: Chris Buck

Are they agencies, production companies, developers or just wizard studios? We're not sure, but this year we picked the top three digital companies from a wide range of players. The Barbarian Group is our digital company of the year, with Firstborn and the U.K.'s Lean Mean Fighting Machine completing the circle of excellence.

Boston-headquartered The Barbarian Group positioned itself as an interactive leader in 2008 not only through creative, idea-driven projects like the CNN.com T-shirt application and the Getty Moodstream site, but with a larger focus on brand strategy, software development and user experience. Led by CEO/co-founder Benjamin Palmer, the seven-year-old firm redefined interactivity by turning visitors into photo editors with Adobe's Photoshop Express site, weaving a user-driven web tale in Dove's "Waking up Hannah" destination and developing useful software like Plainview, a full screen web browser that is especially suited to making beautiful presentations. The Barbarians also made significant hires including Noah Brier, formerly of Naked Communications (and the creator of Brand Tags), and Apple alum Justin Baum, who lead the shop's newly created strategy and user experience departments, respectively. Having become a multi-purpose operation that doesn't define "interactive" as just a microsite or game, the Barbarians have proven that creative work can coexist with utility and in so doing, earned the number one slot on our top digital companies list. Palmer, along with Barbarian partners Rick Webb and Bruce Winterton, reflect on a successful year and what it means to be an interactive entity.

How did 2008 differ for The Barbarian Group versus last year?

Palmer: We started earlier on an awful lot of the work that we did in 2008, partly because we've been trying to see how people hire us and think about us. We added some strategic people here, like Noah Brier in particular, which is really great.

But over the last couple of years, we realized we were sometimes working off of somebody else's briefs which maybe put us in a box that wasn't necessarily the right box to be in just in terms of solving a client's problem. With a lot of the stuff that we did, like CNN or some of the software stuff or Moodstream, it was a priority for us to start earlier in the process and see what it would be like. It's a change because seven years ago, we were a Flash production company. Somebody would come to us and be like here's our TV commercial or here's our print ad and make us a website that has cool animation and looks like this. So, part of our big arc and evolution as a company is trying [to produce] things that we think other people haven't seen and things we haven't tried. That's one of the big things we've been trying, which is what if the piece of paper was blanker than before?

Webb: Operationally, I've viewed the last three years as an arc. In 2006, it was Ben and I having the serious reckoning of what kind of company we wanted to become, where the industry was going and what our place in it was going to be. In 2007, it was all grunt work and finding briefs. We had no client service or account services in 2007 and we had no user experience department or strategy. The plan was set in '06, '07 was all about executing and this year it was really about seeing the results and doing the work. This was the year it came together.

As you mentioned, it seems you guys evolved from just producing creative work to becoming a multi-dimensional firm.

Palmer: We believe in making ourselves useful. Sometimes, that means that we believe that the work is useful to our clients and partners. We are not full of shit, I guess. It's been an oddly distinguishing characteristic in a lot of meetings and pitches where we're like, "No, no, no, we're telling you this because we're not full of shit and we're actually going to do this. We're not going to overcharge you, we're going to be cool about it and we actually have your best interests and your audience and consumers in mind." They're like, "Wow, really?"

There seems to be some debate within the interactive space about who's an agency and who's a production company. Are the lines truly blurred between both types of companies?

Palmer: We don't really care. Sometimes we have relationships with people where we're a production company and we have relationships with people where we're doing things that ordinarily an agency would do. We're acting like a software development firm, a venture firm and a branding firm. It's a problem when we're pitching ourselves to people or trying to have a really short conversation about what we do. In our day-to-day business, it doesn't actually matter to us. We'll work with anyone as long as it's interesting and we think we're going to do a good job.

We want to be on top of things all the time today, tomorrow and five years from now. So, telling you right now that we're definitely this kind of company only makes sense for six months. What we've done well in our seven years is we've evolved what we're capable of doing at about the same pace as the internet has evolved in what you can do on it.

The Work

Palmer, Winterton and Webb look back at a few select projects that earned The Barbarian Group Creativity's 2008 Digital Company of the Year honors.

CNN.com T-shirt

In April, the Barbarians made news fashionable on CNN.com by placing t-shirt icons next to the site's more peculiar news items. The icons led to a page where visitors could then quickly customize and purchase an actual shirt emblazoned with the headlines. The T-shirt app was a viral hit that garnered 2 million page views for the site within six weeks.

Winterton: The key for us is we don't have a preset solution to any client's problems. CNN.com is an awesome example of that. In the summer of '07, they redid their video site and had a big ad campaign, but they still weren't satisfied with the traffic that it was driving. They came to us and I think they were expecting a new ad campaign. We just came back and said, "Man, people love your headlines and people would like to express their personal love for a headline they like and would love to have it on a T-shirt." We solved a client problem and their video section traffic has gone up 6-10% since we launched the T-shirt application.

Getty Images Moodstream

With the goal to inspire creativity, Barbarian Group's "Moodstream" site for Getty Images is an audio-visual feast that made a splash at this year's Webby Awards. Here, visitors manipulate sliders to set a mood, resulting in a customized streaming gallery of Getty images and video coupled with hypnotic music.

Webb: It's a perfect example of a transformative presentation of a brand. It was just a brief that said we want to market against all our offerings like still photography, video and sound. We were marketing to creative professionals. After we won the pitch, it was like we get it, let's just build it and go. But I love watching it in the full-screen browser in Plainview; it's the most wonderful thing.

Adobe Photoshop Express site

The Barbarian Group developed the landing page, imagery, tutorials and interface for the Adobe Photoshop Express site, which gives a taste of the photo editing product's capabilities by letting visitors interact with and manipulate their own images.

Webb: It's the first product that Adobe's ever made for a younger demographic. It's totally a gateway drug. They've never spoken to 18- to 24-year-olds before and that includes the marketing. We did a photo contest for Lollapalooza where people could vote on your rock photos and there's also a photo hunt game. We were actually helping them design the product with this demographic in mind. That to me was really interesting. The product itself was part of the marketing.

Palmer: If you're a professional Photoshop user, it's hard to get your head around exactly what [Express] is for. If you take a picture with your camera phone and upload it via mobile to Facebook, you can open up the Photoshop Express browser, stick the photo in and edit it then spit it back out to Facebook. That photo actually never lands on your computer. It's like marketing this thing to people who live in the ether at all times.

Read about the things from 2008 the Barbarians found awesome in Unleashed.


New York and L.A.-based Firstborn practically became the de facto digital partner this year for agencies from London to San Francisco. The company crossed the Atlantic to work with Wieden + Kennedy, London for Nokia's headphone-friendly "Music Almighty" site while returning stateside to help T.A.G. launch the web destination for Microsoft Zune. The latter site, which featured a 3D Zune and a seemingly endless barrage of psychedelic illustrations, won Firstborn both a Pixel Award for animation and a Webby for Best Use of Animation. Throughout 2008, the company consistently crafted polished, visually enticing work including a site for Lowe's home stores that introduced us to the virtual neighborhood of Sunnyville, the Arctic-themed 3D site for National Grid and the timely interactive experience "Bad Credit Hotel" for the U.S. Treasury. The company boasts a client roster that also includes Apple, XM Radio and AT&T and is broadening its scope with the development of marketable proprietary back end applications. Through agency associations and direct-to-client work, the company has emerged as a consistent performer and a leader in a crowded interactive field.

Lean Mean Fighting Machine

While digital or interactive are default terms to define Lean Mean Fighting Machine's creative focus, the U.K. agency defied such categorization in 2008 with projects that married the offline and online worlds. Among its most notable executions was the "world's longest ad" for Emirates, which asked a pitchman named Fernando to continuously hype Brazil for 14 hours and 40 minutes, the duration of the airline's new nonstop route from Dubai to Sao Paulo. The action was captured on the Nonstop Fernando website and helped LMFM become the first U.K. agency to win Interactive Agency of the Year honors at Cannes. Not resting on its laurels, Lean Mean continued its globetrotting efforts with The Photographic Adventures of Nick Turpin site for Samsung. The web initiative followed street photographer Turpin, who captured images with his Samsung Pixon camera phone, which were posted on the campaign site. Lean Mean then let visitors determine where his next destination and subject matter would be by clicking on any item within the photo. Adventure-based marketers might be the more apt descriptor for Lean Mean Fighting Machine, which spent the last year thinking out of the box for interactive.
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