Chicken, Beer and Mr T

The Barbarian Group’s Subservient Chicken site awoke the ad industry to the potential of online. Patrick Burgoyne hears from two of its creators

It was the chicken that changed the world. Or rather, the man in the chicken suit. When Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s Subservient Chicken campaign began sweeping the ad world’s awards shows, the online medium finally began to be taken seriously.

In the ensuing panic, TV, print, even the ad agency itself, have all been declared dead. Which leaves the company who actually created Subservient Chicken sitting very prettily indeed.

Boston-based The Barbarian Group have become the new heroes of the advertising industry. Creative Review caught up with CEO Benjamin Palmer and COO Rick Webb, two of the five co-founders, as they ran through the history of the company in front of a gathering of European creative directors at the recent Creative Social in New York (see CR June). Barbarian, they explain, started in Palmer’s apartment in Roxbury, near Boston in December 2001. “Rick and I have known each other for 15 years, just from like bars and stuff,” says Palmer. “He used to live with my ex-girlfriend,” chips in Webb, helpfully. “I worked at Arnold with some of the other partners, we were getting really bummed working on the same thing day in and day out.”

“I just had a studio in my house freelancing, doing record covers and flyers and stuff. We just realised that we wanted to do big work for brands and realised it wouldn’t happen in agencies because no-one gave a shit about it,” said Palmer. “So we started Barbarian in my house with no money. We maintained a good relationship with Arnold, so we had some VW work that was pretty steady [including the VW W8 minisite], then we got some work for Nike for a year [Nike ACG Go] and a $300,000 project for Saturn [the ION minisite] which allowed us to get an office.”

This was July 2002. The following year, Barbarian produced a run of VW work for Arnold, including sites for the Passat, Jetta and GTI. Some of their first awards came in for release1.net, a site for a Boston-based socially aware design firm. Then on 7 April 2004, Subservient Chicken was launched. It got 25 million hits in the first 48 hours and both the chicken and Barbarian were famous.

They now have around 30 people in three cities ­– Boston, New York and San Francisco. “We’re not going for world domination or anything, people just moved there,” explains Webb. Barbarian, the pair explain, is not an ad agency but “a creative and production company which works with ad agencies to do the interactive portion of brand campaigns”. A note on their site explains further: “We’re not the interactive version of an ad agency. But we are also not exactly the interactive version of a production company. We’re kind of like hiring a director and a production company and a VFX company, with some great creative/art direction thrown in. This model allows you to stay small and nimble, and for us to keep our employees engaged… because we can offer them nonstop challenges and variety, we can attract the best people to work on your projects.”

Working remotely, they never meet a lot of their clients. “Someone was saying that long-term relationships were the key to good advertising, but we are entirely reliant on short term relationships,” says Palmer. “We do work with certain art directors a lot, but not the same brands consistently. We try to make sure that, each time, a project is as different as possible.”

The Barbarian team consists of six producers with the rest either “tech guys” or programmers. “We hire people who are really good with concepts but who can also execute,” explains Palmer. “It’s really hard for us to find people because they have to know all aspects of a programme but be good designers too,” Webb continues. “We have no account services – just Ben and I and we’re really bad at it.” Co-founders Keith Butters and Robert Hodgin act as executive creative directors: Palmer and Webb are responsible for the overall direction of the Group.

Everyone, however, has creative input. When a brief comes in “we’ll send it out to the whole company and everybody digs in,” says Webb. “Sometimes we put teams together just based on the excitement they have for a project.”

With their modest size, Barbarian find themselves in an unusual position as far as the US ad scene goes. “There are a lot of one man bands out there and quite a few big places like R/GA,” explains Webb. “We’re in a weird middle ground where one day we’ll be bidding against some dude straight out of college and the next against somewhere with hundreds of people.”

Despite their success with CP+B, with whom they also worked on sites for the Mini, Palmer believes that their relationship with San Francisco-based Goodby Silverstein “is the smoothest and most consistently good creative relationship we have”. The two collaborated on Goodby’s Comcast work last year which was featured in the CR Annual. “They’re the best creative agency in the country as far as interactive is concerned,” says Palmer.

Goodby creative director Will McGinness evidently enjoys working with them: “A lot of the Barbarians are artists and musicians who have interesting side projects,” he says. “The artistic thinking that they bring to the table is invaluable during the production process. They’re also a lot of fun to have drinks with.” How do they differ from other online production agencies? “With the success they’ve achieved, they’re in a unique position to turn down work and seem to mainly choose ideas that they find fresh and inspiring,” McGinness notes. “Like our other best production partners, The Barbarian Group will never say that something isn’t technically feasible. They will always come back with technical/creative solutions regardless of how difficult the idea may seem.”

As well as Goodby, says Palmer, “We’ve been doing lots of stuff with Mother, who have a flat structure like ours, and we used to do a lot of work with Arnold. We do a little bit of work direct with clients, maybe 15 to 20 per cent, but we just want to be project orientated, without having that level of service.”

Barbarian’s work tends towards humour ­– much of it quite daring for notoriously uptight major clients. How do they get it through? “There’s definitely an atmosphere in this country of letting lawyers run everything,” agrees Webb. “If someone says ‘no’ to us, we just try and deal with someone else in the company.” “We try to work with people who have a sense of adventure,” adds Palmer. Clients, he believes, need to shift their mindset when working online. “Putting people in charge and being generous with their time is what’s really important. Traditional agencies have got pretty lazy and talk down to people. They think they’re the ones in control, but no-one wants to watch ads, they want to watch Seinfeld or whatever. We’re in a situation where we have to invite people in,” he continues. “If someone comes to our site, we have to thank them – you have to be so thankful they showed up in the first place and make sure they walk away more entertained or informed than they thought they would be. It’s also the most fun work to make and it helps address the fact that advertising is something that people have an intense distaste for.

“We try to get our heads round what’s going to make the viewer happy. [Thanks to the net] we have a direct line to them so we can see what works,” Palmer continues. “For Subservient Chicken, my thinking was if you’re a drunk or a high college student standing in the street and there’s a McDonald’s on one side and a Burger King on the other, you might think ‘Ah, Subservient Chicken’ and choose Burger King.”
They obviously have a direct route into their peers but, they admit, trying to produce work for other demographics is proving a challenge. “The big problem now is that there are a lot of 40 and 50-year-olds going online,” says Webb. “People ask us to do stuff for them, but we just can’t. Somebody asked us to do a campaign for diamonds – we just couldn’t think of anything.”

The pair also freely admit that aesthetic beauty is not necessarily their first priority: “We’ve done a lot of work that doesn’t actually look that good,” says Palmer, “but that has been integral to its success. Online, people will respond to things that look like they’ve been made by someone rather than having been born perfect, there’s a different mindset when you’re looking at the computer.”

It’s also a mindset which increasingly affects consumer behaviour towards brands, a point which Palmer says they are trying to get across to clients: “Everybody understands that corporations have huge power but the thing about the internet is that you can’t be a dick anymore – you can’t hide anything. People will buy from those who don’t give them a bad feeling. The ad industry can’t hide that anymore.” Amen to that.

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