In 2003, John Barker left the ‘big agency world’ to start a new kind of ad agency: A place where people would look forward to coming to work, where creative ideas come to life outside of the big agency autocracy, and where others who felt the same could find a home.
John is a thinker, copywriter, artist and big idea strategist, which make him invaluable to clients and the champion for bold ideas that emotionally engage consumers. His 20 years of experience have made him a regular speaker at industry conferences, and you’ve likely read John’s articles and contributions in many ad industry and general business publications.
John began his career in 1987 at Ted Bates, and later rose to become a senior executive with Sony Music and Grey Entertainment. As a Creative Director, he helped launch artists such as Pearl Jam, Rage Against The Machine, Fugees, Mariah Carey, and Jeff Buckley, as well as breakthrough TV series such as Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, thirtysomething, NYPD Blue and Twin Peaks, for which he wrote the famous “Who Killed Laura Palmer?” headline. John later moved to Grey Worldwide as an EVP overseeing Hasbro and DoubleClick before establishing the Grey Digital Business Group in 2000.
How did you get into the advertising industry?
At the age of 15, I was attending a very small school—classically old fashioned with the coat and tie and all—and we used to have Weekly Assembly in the chapel. It was the prep school version of a variety show, and that year, for some unknown reason, the Clio Awards came. They showed about 10 commercials from all over the world, one better than the next. I was completely transfixed. It was right then and there that I knew I’d somehow end up in Advertising. And to this day, I’m amazed that you can make a living doing something that you would do for fun anyway.
Which campaigns that you have executed are you most proud of and why?
There are a few that stand out for me. I wrote “Who killed Laura Palmer” to launch Twin Peaks. That turned out to be a pretty big deal. About 4 years ago, we created “History: Made Every Day” for the History Channel, which helped them add over $3 billion in valuation behind new programming. But the campaign that I’m most proud of is “Be the Difference” for PDI Healthcare. It just won 7 or 8 major international awards, but the real power of it is that we’re helping to save lives each and every day. That’s a reward you don’t often get in this business.
How does your firm stay successful in this digital era?
Well, we were built with digital in mind from the start, and we’ve been completely integrated since day one. That was our original reason for being ten years ago, and it’s still our most fundamental advantage. Basically, we founded BARKER to counter the verticalization that was ruining advertising. Everyone was working in silos, and no one was committed to creating big ideas anymore. So when we started our own firm, we re-integrated everything. Traditional. Interactive. Branding. Collateral. Content. And now, Social and Mobile as well. All sitting next to each other and working together. I see all the big companies now trying so desperately to integrate from traditional to digital or vice versa. And it’s an acquisition game that most often doesn’t work out, because it’s just not genuine. It’s logical that a digital firm is always going to think digital first. And an old school agency is going to start with a TV spot, of course. But what if the right idea is none of those things? What if the big idea is experiential or social or promotional or some dude in a chicken suit responding to S&M chat? It has to start with a big idea, and that’s our main advantage—and where we’ve got a ten year running start on the competition.
What is your opinion on publicly traded advertising companies versus privately owned?
The public holding companies have largely shaped the past two decades in this business, both good and bad. Essentially, they are the action, and companies like ours are the counter-action. The conglomerates play a critical role in the ecosystem, especially for multi-national clients. But I personally think it’s difficult for them to serve well the smaller – still large – but smaller brands. They get lost in the chaos, and it is hard for these clients to get the breakout work they need. As a private firm, we don’t make client decisions thinking about our quarterly results. Our clients are the only ones we serve, and we serve them all the same way: Leave everything on the field. That’s very liberating. I personally think every Fortune 500 CMO should re-allocate 20% of their budget behind more entrepreneurial firms like ours. And there are a lot of good ones out there. The way I see it, it’s a hedge against irrelevance.
At the most fundamental level, creativity is just problem solving. I think the most creative people are those who can make complex analytical evaluations in rapid sequence, rank them, and then re-assemble them as a new narrative. The best taglines and campaigns I’ve ever written came to me in seconds. But to write down how or why I got there could take hours. I think it’s that way as well with artists, musicians, inventors, and the list goes on. But creativity has to be accretive to culture. If it’s not solving a problem, I don’t believe it’s creative. That’s the difference between Jackson Pollack and the guy who says, “You call that art? My kid could do that!” Well, no. Because Jackson Pollock was solving a metaphysical problem about liberating art from representational norms and formalism, and your kid is just splattering paint on a canvas.
What are the biggest industry trends and how do you capitalize on them?
We’re advising nearly all of our clients to make the leap into Infotainment. Right now is the advertising apocalypse, and the days of a captive audience are over. Ultimately, it won’t matter how networks try to bake ads into On Demand or take the Skip button off pre-roll – the consumer will win. We’ve been saying for years that the best advertising doesn’t follow culture; it creates it. When you look at GEICO and Old Spice and Dollar Shave Club, this is advertising people want to watch. They do it willingly, not because there is some unwritten agreement about content being free as long as we submit to be tortured by the latest Toyota-thon. To win in the new game, you need to be worth watching. That’s the magic of Infotainment. It’s both informative and engaging, and it blurs the lines between commerce and content. It also stands to reason that people who are engaged in something by their own volition are far more receptive than an audience that’s tied down and screaming. And yet somehow, many clients see creating something highly interesting as being risky. It’s quite backwards when you think about it. The real risk is being boring in an environment where no one is required to give a crap about you or your products. And the power of consumers to filter you out will improve far more rapidly than anyone’s attempts to corral them.
Who is your greatest influence in becoming a successful CEO?
Every person who works here. There’s extraordinary responsibility in starting a company and building it up. People put their faith in you, not just for their livelihoods, but for their careers and their well-being – for opportunities. And the fact that they entrust that to me as our CEO is very inspiring and motivating. It certainly keeps a fire under me.
What is your life motto?
I haven’t written it yet.
What literature is currently on your desk or Internet browser?
“Boomerangs in the Living Room.” It’s a volume of poetry by Rex Wilder, who is a long-time friend and was the first creative director to ever hire me. He and Richard Wilbur have basically re-invented the haiku, and it’s completely addictive. Poetry was my first love, and to this day, I believe it is the only form of vocational education for a copywriter.
What's next for your firm?
The success we’ve had over the past few years positions us really well us for bigger clients now and more aggressive budgets. We’ve already proven that we can hit home runs again and again, and with the awards we‘ve won this year, we’re at a tipping point. It’s basically inevitable now that larger clients are going to want to take a look at what we can do. It might be a large legacy brand that needs new life or a national start-up that needs to break through, similar to what Mitsubishi was for Deutsch or Mini was for Crispin Porter. As I look at the history of those shops, I think we are at a similar point in terms of where they were when they started to break out. It took a lot of planning to get to this point, and as they say, luck is the residue of design.