Independent Influence: Barker's independent voice in the ad world’s biggest market

John Barker

Welcome to Independent Influence, a weekly series that spotlights the work, perspectives and inspirations behind independent agencies across the country. This week we feature Barker.

Being boldly independent sometimes means climbing to the top of a building and shouting from the rooftop that you are a force to be reckoned with. While that might not be literally what New York agency Barker has done, it’s pretty close.

Being independent also means never having to apologize, according to John Barker, founder of fiercely independent Barker.

John Barker and his agency Barker aren’t shy about telling people that they are good, and they don’t mind taking on the big, conglomerate agencies either. They even took to the streets of New York with a provocative self-promotion campaign. The agency plastered outdoor ads around New York City. Highlighting its dare-to-be-different mentality, the ads feature tongue-in-cheek copy like ‘70% Women. 100% Balls’, which spotlights its continued dedication to gender diversity, and ‘The Highest Agency in New York’, a playful riff on its Financial District penthouse office and a testament to its sky’s-the-limit creative thinking.

“We're doing it for several reasons,” said Barker. “The first reason is that it's actually a recruiting campaign. By standing out we're looking for our point of view and our culture to bubble up a little bit in the industry whereby people that may not have reached out to us do reach out to us as we grow. The second reason is to elevate our image within the industry. It's a lot easier to win business when people have heard of you. You get invited to more of the parties. Because we're independent I don't have to ask anyone. I don't have to water it down because I'm going to embarrass someone at WPP or get a slap on the wrist. We're able to run quite provocative ads.”

Added executive vice president, creative director Sandi Harari: “I think it's the flexibility to structure the agency however we decide to. I feel like we can be more whimsical with the decisions we make…we have writing contests once a month so the whole agency gets in on creating our own advertising which I think is an attraction for the people who work here.”

That sense of inclusion and independence means Barker has its own way of operating, born out of what made Barker leave the big agency universe and set out on his own in 2003.

From Grammys and Emmys to the indie world

Barker started his career with Grey Entertainment, helping develop campaigns for popular shows like Roseanne and NYPD Blue. From there he went to Sony Music, helping market such stars as Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen. He returned to Grey and climbed the ranks up to the executive vice president level. Along the way, he managed to win an Emmy and a Grammy, but he still says he didn’t quite fit in, which is why in 2003 he decided to start his own agency.

“It really came from the fact that I could never figure out what I wanted to do. I started in account management, I moved to become a writer. I then moved into a creative supervisor type role. Then I ended up doing that simultaneously with account management. Then I moved into global brand planning. There was such a fluidity around my own experience, which to me by the way was always one thing – it was advertising. It was very natural for me to move from these positions, whereas the industry is threatened by that,” said Barker, who added that the industry isn’t comfortable with people who don’t fit into boxes.

“People are very resistant to things that challenge their worldview, or people who do. The founding of this agency really came out of a frustration at the siloing of our industry. Holding companies have done a great job for their stock holders but I don't believe that they've done a great job for clients and the industry as a whole because the siloing of disciplines driven by economies of scale and specialization make it very difficult for anyone to own the world of ideas.”

Founding Barker broke the silos down, so account people, digital people and creatives all mingled together, but Barker’s own sense of not quite belonging bleeds over into the agency’s hiring practices. That includes asking a simple question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“If they know the answer we tend to move along,” said Barker. “We're actually looking for the people who don't know, who could do three or four things, who want to find that special place where they can be mentored and nurtured and find what they're great at. This is a place that you can do it.”

Harari added that there is nothing keeping anyone in their boxes at Barker. When they get hired, she states that they don’t need a title.

“’Come in, do what you're good at, we'll figure it out.’ Explaining that it's almost part of our DNA that you can come here and create the job you want and you almost need to be that kind of person to probably work at Barker. Now we're attracting those millennials who really are demanding that. They're having a hard time getting what they need at a lot of agencies but ours, we're like, ‘Fine. Make up your own title.’ As long as it's useful of value to our clients, the agency and works, great," she said, adding that they hold an intern to the standard of as an associate creative director. “I almost have a list of what you need to be a Barkeree. Recruiters call them unicorns.”

The proof is in the work

Being independent for Barker means working differently, and more nimbly, than most agencies. They constantly push the limits of what is expected from a creative and a consulting front, and that certainly makes up the Barker way of working, which clients are now expecting.

The kind of clients coming to Barker aren’t looking to merely tag a 1% or 2% growth onto a mature brand, they're looking for something revolutionary.

“I literally have trained myself to look at a presentation and say, ‘Is there that moment where that's why they hired Barker?’ Even eight years later I have to remind myself to always make sure we're doing that,” stated Harari.

One of the things that Barker does for a majority of its clients is called rapid prototyping. It comes from the belief that you can sell a bad idea on PowerPoint but in execution it can look like crap.

“Once we've done our research and once we've arrived at a strategic agreement, we don't drag it out. At that point we say, ‘You know what? Let's bring some magic to this. Let's bring some rapid prototyping around three or four of these different directions rather than trying to get it approved in quant research or asking people questions that they can't possibly answer honestly because they don't know what it will be. MTV failed in focus groups. Why would I want to watch a record? The rapid prototyping piece also moves us down field so much faster,” said Barker.

An example of award-winning creative Barker produced was for Parx Casino, north of Philadelphia.

Parx came to Barker with a growth challenge because they were a mature brand in that geography. They wanted a New York agency that really understood their region as they saw an opportunity to draw people down from New York.

“Because we're independent we were able to approach the assignment in a very holistic way. It came from a strategic insight that New Yorkers don't think of location in terms of distance. They think of location in terms of time…I don't tell people I live 23.2 miles from the city. I tell people without traffic it takes me an hour and 15 minutes.

“The idea was that every single piece of media was going to be hyper-local customization, giving you the exact travel time from that piece of media to the front door of the casino. We came up with the idea of 'Get lucky in no time. You're only 47 minutes from Parx Casino.' It was different in Manhattan than it was in Morristown than it was in Staten Island. In fact, we had sequential billboards in a lot of areas where you would see the time (getting shorter) as you're traveling down the turnpike,” said Barker.

The campaign received many accolades, including two 2013 American Gaming Association (AGA) Gaming Voice Awards.

Independent and growing

John Barker understands the need for agencies of all sizes and working styles, but Barker wants to stay true to its indie roots, even as it grows.

“Being independent means that we can take on the challenges that genuinely interest us and we're not beholden to a larger organization to hit quarterly numbers or be micromanaged,” said Barker. “The difference is profound. We still obviously have to abide by the rules of business. We have to pay our bills, we have to make some kind of margin, but we're free to take on passion projects, we're free to take on things that we know are going to keep our employees deeply engaged.”

Those employees are a big reason for Barker’s continued success, even with a small cast of 25, and with its strong push towards diversity and equality, everyone has a vested interest in making the team work and the company thrive.

“Our turnover numbers are a fraction of the industry norm. When somebody leaves here it's a big deal. It doesn't happen,” stated Barker.

Barker dares to be different in the biggest ad market in the US, and it’s not afraid to say so, whether it’s in award-winning creative for a client or in their own self-promotional ads.

“It's a promise to clients that they're not going to get really boring shit,” concluded Barker.

Independent Influence is supported by Choozle, an independent digital advertising platform.

Agencies and companies that wish to be considered for the Independent Influence series are encourage to fill out this form.

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