5 Ads That Show Why Barton F. Graf Was One of the Decade’s Smartest, Funniest Agencies

As the agency closes its doors after 9 years, we look back at its quirky and insightful work

Liam Neeson in Barton F. Graf
Barton F. Graf's 2015 Super Bowl ad for Clash of Clans showed Liam Neeson could poke some fun at his tough-guy persona. Supercell
Headshot of David Griner

When Gerry Graf founded the agency named for his father, Barton F. Graf, in 2010, “weird” seemed to be on the way out when it came to advertising.

The free-wheeling early days of digital—and correspondingly bizarre Super Bowl ads—that defined the 2000s were giving way to more buttoned-up, ROI-centric marketing. Even creative-innovation juggernaut Crispin Porter + Bogusky wasn’t immune, losing its linchpin client, Burger King, in 2011. The icons of fun, ridiculous advertising seemed to be vanishing from the industry, such as when Cliff Freeman & Partners (of Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” fame) closed its doors in 2009.

But here was Barton F. Graf 9000, a new agency that seemed poised to keep creativity alive in advertising. (The shop later dropped 9000, a reference to the BFG9000 gun in video game Doom.)

Thanks to a mix of Gerry Graf’s veteran ad chops–honed at A-list agencies like BBDO New York, Goodby Silverstein & Partners, TBWA\Chiat\Day New York and Saatchi & Saatchi—and fresh blood that could balance Graf’s wit with digital strategy, the agency produced one of the most creative ranges of work seen in the past decade.

It wasn’t to last beyond the 2010s, however. Today, Barton F. Graf announced it will be closing its doors by the end of 2019 due to client losses and declining marketing spends. The news hit many creatives hard—even those who didn’t work there.

“Barton F. Graf was comedy school for advertising,” says David Kolbusz, CCO of Droga5 London. “The kids who went through it left as smarter, funnier thinkers and writers. The industry was richer for its existence and their closure leaves a void. This is how it felt when Cliff Freeman ended, and that feeling sucks.”

Here’s a look back at some of the work that showed Barton F. Graf’s range, craft and cutting wit:

350 Action: “Climate Name Change” (2013)

Darkly funny and merciless to its target, this campaign for environmental nonprofit 350 Action proposed naming hurricanes after politicians who deny and exacerbate climate change, which climate scientists feel has increased the severity of natural disasters.

Clash of Clans: “Revenge” (2015)

In 2015, even if you didn’t know what mobile game Clash of Clans was, you almost certainly recognized Liam Neeson. His career buoyed by the success of the Taken franchise, he brought his best murmured threats to this Super Bowl ad, which helped push the game to a new level of mainstream awareness. It was one of many developed by Barton F. Graf and gaming company Supercell, which shifted the agency to project-work status earlier this year, making its chances of survival far slimmer.

Emerald Nuts: “Yes Good” (2017)

Amazon reviews are often speckled with odd or even asinine reviews, which most people (not to mention brands) simply skip over. But Barton F. Graf convinced Emerald Nuts to embrace one such product review, “Yes Good,” turning it into a huge ad push and the brand’s permanent tagline.

The Coverage Coalition (2017)

With Affordable Care Act enrollment numbers poised to drop due to President Donald Trump’s severe cuts to the Obama-era program’s marketing budget, Barton F. Graf took a leadership position in the industry and rallied agencies and production shops to help fill the gap in advertising for the insurance program. While the campaign had a litany of attention-grabbing creative, what’s most telling is the amount of data analysis and targeting that went into it, showing that Barton F. Graf had more to offer than just wickedly clever video ideas.

Bulleit: “The Neon Project” (2017)

Barton F. Graf was known among fellow creatives for its dedication to a high level of craft, often developed through strategic partnerships. A perfect example is “The Neon Project” from Bulleit Frontier Works, an ongoing, experiential-driven campaign for the bourbon brand. Barton F. Graf brought together a conceptual artist and neon art guru to create an impressive array of branded art. The agency’s work with the brand also included a 32-foot “tattoo” made from 24 panels of leather, tattooed by local artists in LA.

But one cannot send off Barton F. Graf without thinking of Gerry Graf, its founder and CCO. Infamously acerbic and peculiar, he has long been one of the ad industry’s most iconic and outspoken creative leaders.

Playing off that reputation, Graf decided to close out 2017 with an apology tour of sorts, in which he visited agencies and creatives across New York to ask forgiveness for making fun of them over the course of the year. Questionably sincere, the resulting video was classic Graf: dry-witted, eccentric, irreverent, baffling and hilarious.

@griner david.griner@adweek.com David Griner is creative and innovation editor at Adweek and host of Adweek's podcast, "Yeah, That's Probably an Ad."