Rachel Barek is a New Yorker at heart, but she has embraced her adopted home in Washington, DC, and has been promoted to general manager of AKQA's Washington DC office. Barek, formerly the director of client services at the agency, takes on the responsibility of helping AKQA’s clients by driving forward ideas, products and services as well as continuing to develop the company culture and client relationships.
“AKQA DC has several of the most successful and longest-tenured client relationships in our company’s history, and Rachel’s passion and focus on client services has played a large part in that. I’m excited to have Rachel’s vision and leadership help shape our future,” said Erik Rogstad, Managing Director, AKQA.
The new position is as much about Barek’s ties to the city as it is in pushing AKQA’s business forward. Barek didn’t exactly embrace the District at first. She came because her partner is an investment banker in renewable energy and DC was (and is) a perfect fit in that world.
“I'm one big DC contradiction because I'm a native New Yorker. We had the relationship stand-off where I'm like ‘Whatever, I'm big and important and I work in advertising and I need a major city.’ She's like ‘Alright, well if you want to be with me, you have to move to DC.’ I said, ‘there are no digital shops in DC’. I didn't realize AKQA was here and then it was just a matter of finding the right position over time,” said Barek, who has counted stops at Organic, JWT and Digitas as part of her industry history.
Barek has now been at AKQA DC for seven years, which may seem like a while to some, but for a New Yorker, anything less than the Big Apple can seem like a second-tier city.
“I was cranky about it when I first but, really, DC is a much easier way of life. I think the housing stock is bigger and better. There's more green space. I have a son and a dog. I have a wife too, but the son and the dog are really the ones who need to run around quite a bit. It's much easier to get a dinner reservation. It's a small town so you know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody for sure,” said Barek.
“I've learned that I very much like a city the size and scope of DC, even though I was born and raised in New York. When I go back now, New York to me feels all about exclusion. It's the notion of who do you know and how do you get in? DC has a little bit of that in the political scene, but outside of the political scene, it feels very much about inclusion,” she said.
Aside from the quality of life, Barek notes that DC, while it may not get the recognition of New York or LA, still has a quality agency feel. It’s a myth she has to debunk often — and does so gladly.
“[The perception is] that there are no quality shops in DC and that all the work that we do is government work. That’s number one or two in terms of the cocktail party myth that I've had to debunk — and I'm constantly saying things like ‘no, we actually don't have any government clients’,” said Barek. “We've literally passed on 80 million dollar RFPs for government contracts because that's not the type of work that will attract the talent that we want in our office. We tend to do Fortune 500, full-service brand work. The other one for us is we have a huge mobile and gaming practice out of our office. The gaming stuff, it's beyond just doing digital.”
One recent, high-profile AKQA DC project was the cinematic trailer for the game Doom. The “Fight Like Hell” trailer was epic, frenetic and perfectly captured the essence of the Bethesda Softworks title. It was directed by Oblivion and Tron: Legacy director Joseph Kosinski.
But that was just one of many hits coming out of the talented crew across from the Georgetown Waterfront Park in DC.
“Last year our big title was ‘Skyrim,’ which, if you're a gamer you know what that is. We did marketing and campaign management for them. It was a huge release,” she said.
While Barek sees DC as an active marketing and advertising community, she does acknowledge that the talent isn’t as easy to come by as it is in New York. Something she sees through a personal lens.
“I was a quirky addition to the advertising world. At the start, I thought that I was going to be a dean at a college. I was teaching marketing and direct marketing and working at Brooklyn College's foundation and thought the next promotion up for me was vice president of external affairs,” Barek said. “To have that role, you need to be a little bit older. I was sort of tapping out intellectually in what I was doing. I thought, ‘You know, I'm teaching marketing but I've never done it myself. I don't want to be one of those teachers who's never done it in the for-profit world.’ A friend at the time told me about a competitor to AKQA and the guy who hired me took a chance. I was this really quirky alternative hire because I hadn't come up through an advertising track.”
Using her own experiences as a guide, Barek takes a pragmatic approach to hiring in the DC area.
“I like to hire smart, I like to hire thoughtful, and I like to hire hardworking. I think what we do can be taught if you're curious and entrepreneurial. I would much rather hire somebody with the intelligence and teach them the stuff they need to know — rather than hire the pedigree and not have the effort. That's the part that's unteachable. I think that in a nutshell is the DC challenge around talent,” she said. “The raw talent exists here. Even in my senior leadership team, me at seven years, I'm one of the newer ones. There are people on our senior staff that have been here coming up on 17 years. They grew up here. You would have initial assumptions that they don't necessarily know what they don't know, but everybody's up to speed on the industry. I feel like the talent here is at parity with New York. It's just the way that you hunt and look for talent is what changes.”
Barek noted that tenure at AKQA DC is impressive. At seven years, she is among the more “junior” of the senior team in terms of longevity. Some have been at the agency for almost 17 years. Despite the assumption that long-tenured talent may not “necessarily know what they don't know,” Barek notes that everyone on the team is very much an expert in the industry and the spaces in which it roams — and that DNA, in addition to the “long view: is part and parcel of AKQA DC’s prosperity.
“It's the marathon office, not the sprint office. I think I have to train and teach. We have to keep that cadence in a lot of the job that comes about. The challenge comes around curating the right portfolio of work to keep folks happy and here. If we lose folks, which we really don't very much, but if we do, they're making a lifestyle change and moving to a different city,” she said.
That steady nature has given the DC office plenty of great opportunities to continue its growth arc.
“We want our work to speak for itself. And it does. We're one of the most awarded offices in the network. Usually the conversation around the industry inherently focuses on the bigger city markets. The other stat that we have going, which I'm very proud of, especially with my background in client services, is that we have an average client tenure of five years here in DC. Not only are we keeping our staff, we're keeping our clients for a long period of time, which is awesome,” she said with pride.
Barek knows that success will keep coming for AKQA DC, but it will continue to be a challenge she and her team has to face — and one she is up for.
“I think that DC needs a little more promotion around it as a marketplace for this type of talent. While we do have phenomenal homegrown talent, the thing that keeps us from expanding is getting a little bit more of that senior talent here. I would love to be at a place where creatives from the bigger city markets are wanting to move here.”
The 6-month and one-year road for Barek and AKQA DC is clear: a bit more exposure and reaping the benefits of client and talent wins.
But farther down the line?
“We bring technology and design together. In the tech space you've got products like Echo that are voice command and texting, all that hard work behind the scenes — yet, there's no design layer. What does that do to our industry and how do we get ahead of that? I hope in 2 years we're talking about how we cracked this and other things like it.” said Barek.
Certainly, there are things that Barek cannot control on the journey — but what she can control is her love for her adopted city, and it’s one that will keep her roots planted for some time to come.
“AKQA’s DC office has always been about creating meaningful products and services for our clients in an environment that encourages learning and career development. I am honored and excited to lead the DC office, and its talented team.”