“Do more crazy stuff when you’re young”: Beyond the Brief, featuring John Barker, BARKER
The bold just find ways to carve out a lane for themselves; this is something BARKER founder and chief idea officer John Barker can attest to.
Barker founder and chief idea officer John Barker
The chief executive founded the NY-based agency in 2003 as a result of not finding the kind of culture or vision he was looking for in other agencies. His solution: a full-service agency that can boast a diverse leadership team, a robust roster of clients, and a fiercely independent feel that’s garnered international recognition.
Slim-Fast trusted them to refresh their brand and give it new tricks in a more health-conscious society. Swedish mattress brand Hastens looked to them to make the “world’s most expensive bed” feel like a dream for consumers — and its bottom line. NBC, Conjure Cognac, Estee Lauder, and Aston Martin also put trust in the BARKER way, and both founder and agency deliver at every step.
Barker can credit his extensive experience — over 30 years in the industry — working at Grey and Sony Music. He’s helped to launch over 50 television series and marketed over 400 familiar (and unfamiliar) recording artists, earning him an Emmy and Grammy for marketing excellence across the arts. This, as well as the 100+ international honors and awards Barker’s received adds lots of walk to his talk. And to BARKER (the agency) also, proving that independent agencies can have their own influence on Madison Avenue (or Broad St, where their office is located).
An un-jaded executive who’s made his trademark mix of ROI and WTF into an agency people and clients can rally behind, Barker’s certified as one who lives “beyond the brief”.
The moment you knew you wanted to be in advertising?
I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be in advertising. I went to this really small, ultra-conservative prep school in the Midwest, so there wasn’t a whole lot of exposure to industries like advertising or media. But once a week, the whole school came together in the chapel for assembly, which was usually an outside speaker or some kind of event. And one year, they brought in the Clio Awards film — basically a clip reel of all the funniest ads from around the world. And while everyone else was laughing, I was just thunderstruck. Right then, I realized that you could actually make a living doing really creative stuff. And I was hooked.
What’s the biggest issue the industry faces? How would you solve it?
The biggest issue our industry faces is trust. We’re on a serious collision course right now, and we need to rethink the direction we’re headed in. The trust crisis is happening on two levels at once. First, with the consumer. And second, between agencies and clients.
The internal industry crisis is driven by two caustic factors, both of which can be traced to the stock market: procurement on one hand, and cheating on the other.
Publicly-traded clients, under quarterly profit pressure, have exacted more and more Draconian concessions from agencies, not just damaging profitability but the work as well. And more than a few publicly-traded agencies, under increasing profit pressure from procurement as well as the holding companies, have adopted some very dodgy if not actually illegal policies to make their numbers, whether it’s undisclosed media rebates or bid-rigging with in-house production. The problem is straight up greed on both sides, and there are no shining knights or fair maidens in this story.
The answer is pretty simple. Clients should favor privately-held agencies, and agencies should prefer privately-held clients. Those are the relationships that blossom on partnership and trust and integrity. But when you have institutional investors calling the shots from a million miles away, it’s not going to end well.
What book would you suggest to a stranger?
Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. I grew up reading and writing poetry after college (and before becoming a copywriter). Hansen’s work is the most poetically-charged prose I’ve ever experienced. It’s a masterpiece that shows just how powerful and evocative writing can be. Reading it is like listening to a virtuoso play Rachmaninoff, effortlessly. It’s just a different level of artistry. And it’s quite a good mystery as well.
What life advice do you give others?
Do more crazy stuff when you’re young. Take more chances. Enjoy a short-term leave and travel. Take flying lessons. Visit Greenland or Nepal or go camping in Terra del Fuego. Work for a non-profit you believe in. Teach English in a faraway place.
I see too many college grads trying to put together that perfect career track. It’s a lot of pressure, and it’s very limiting. I don’t really see the point to it. The chances of you starting in a job at 21 and following a linear path up the ladder are pretty slim these days.
Some statistics say you’ll change careers five times. Besides, there will be a time when life pressures may not allow you to do those things. Marriage and children and mortgages aren’t very conducive to last-minute travel and exotic adventures. Why rush things?
Is work too personal or not personal enough at times? Why is that?
I take this business way too personally. I actually think it’s one of my greatest strengths. And it’s not just because my name’s on the door…I was like this way back as a junior copywriter. Taking it personally means you’re deeply engaged, that you genuinely care about the outcome, about the client, and about the brand.
If I were on the client side, I would hate to think the people I’ve entrusted are looking at me and my business as impersonal or as a transaction. Because many in this business do. They’re not up in the middle of the night wondering how they can make more of a difference. But I am, and so are the amazing people who work at Barker.
Of course, sometimes it all ends terribly. The project goes away, the client gets bought out, or it fails in testing. So much can go wrong. But taking it personally also means that the victories are that much sweeter for everyone.
To celebrate its 100th Anniversary, the 4A’s has partnered with us at The Drum to pull back the curtain and look at an industry full of problem solvers, creative types and analytical minds. But what keeps them going once the briefs are written, the campaigns executed, and the pitches won (or lost)? We’re interviewing 100 people at 4A’s member agencies — across all disciplines, levels, regions, and agency types — to get a glimpse into what drives them at work and what fuels them in life.
To pitch someone from a 4A's member agency for Beyond the Brief, please complete this linked form.