The past 18 months have been the most challenging period in the 16-plus year history of The Barbarian Group—and newly appointed CEO Cathy Butler hopes to turn the organization around.
Parent company Cheil Worldwide hired Butler, who formerly ran North American new business and organic growth efforts for DigitasLBi’s digital products offering, to put its first American agency back on the growth track after a series of stumbling blocks. She brings 20 years of experience to the new position, and she was recently named one of Adweek’s top Mobile Innovators for 2017.
“I have a always been a huge admirer of [The Barbarian Group], their point of view around challenging the status quo, and their reputation for being incredibly fearless in terms of the work,” Butler told Adweek in explaining her decision to accept the new role after working in production and client services at Deutsch, The New York Times, Barnes & Noble and more. “It’s a great opportunity to bring this thinking to marketers today and demonstrate how we build brands at the speed of culture.”
Starting in late 2015, the agency has witnessed the departures of major clients like Pepsi and principals including CEO Sophie Kelly, chairman and co-founder Benjamin Palmer, chief creative officer Edu Pou and co-founder, chief experience officer Keith Butters. Butler’s hire marks the agency’s fourth chief executive since December 2015 as she takes over from Aaron Lau.
Lau, who has served as interim chief since last August after managing the holding company’s presence in China, will now become its president of international operations and North American CEO.
“Cheil’s presence in the U.S. is under-represented by global agency standards,” Lau said, jokingly calling the Seoul-based network “the world’s best-funded startup.” An organization that came to life as Samsung’s in-house marketing unit in 1973 first moved into the U.S. in 2009, acquiring a majority share in The Barbarian Group for an estimated $10 million. It later expanded its presence by purchasing all of McKinney for $50 million approximately three years later and buying up the U.K.-based Iris Worldwide in late 2014.
“About one and a half years ago, we went through some soul searching and repositioned Cheil via five specialisms around client challenges,” Lau explained, listing those areas as Communications, Participations encompassing social media, events and experiential work, Retail, Innovation and Design—specifically, spacial design embodied by Cheil’s work at events like CES, Samsung’s Unpacked and the World Mobile Congress.
In order to encourage greater collaboration between its American agencies, Cheil is moving McKinney’s New York team into the Barbarian Group headquarters on West 20th Street in Manhattan. “Certain agencies are better at different things,” Lay said in explaining the move, adding, “McKinney and Barbarian are complementary: McKinney is brand management and Barbarian is tech. Frankly, we’re only getting started.” The three agency brands will remain separate with Iris retaining its own office.
Barbarian started as a homegrown marketing project on Boston’s South Street in 2001 and later became a full-service shop best known as much for its famed “Superdesk” as for its work on such campaigns as Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” and PepsiCo’s Crystal Pepsi relaunch.
Butler inherits an agency that is considerably smaller in terms of both staff and clients than during its heyday. But she told Adweek that she feels optimistic about what is, in some ways, a relaunch.
“The spirit of the agency as I have learned about it over the past couple of months is strong, incredibly entrepreneurial, fearless, creative and collaborative,” she said. “As I look at all the talent here, everyone is really excited for the next evolution.”
“America does not need another agency that doesn’t challenge the status quo,” Lau added. “We’re hoping the positioning we have for each of ours will hopefully help break new ground. This is why we feel so excited about [hiring] Cathy.”