Can A New CEO Turn The Barbarian Group Around?

By Erik Oster 

Cheil Worldwide hired Cathy Butler as CEO for digital agency The Barbarian Group, with hopes that new leadership can help put the agency back on track after a rough couple of years that saw the departure of major clients such as Pepsi.

Last August, Barbarian Group co-founder Rick Webb told Digiday, “The fact that it’s still around at all is a testament to its heritage, since right now it is literally being run into the ground.”

In December of 2015, CEO Sophie Kelly left the agency to be replaced by Peter Kim, who was then succeeded by interim CEO Aaron Lau less than nine months later. Multiple sources at the time told us that Cheil Worldwide made the decision to replace Kim, but he disputed that claim in a blog post where he said, “The truth is out there, but only half of it will ever make Agency Spy.”

Last March, co-founder and chairman Benjamin Palmer left the agency after 14 years, and chief strategy officer Ian Daly was part of a wave of executive departures two months later.

Lau told Digiday last August that finding a permanent CEO was a priority, adding, “I’m not here to change history. I’m here to shape the future.”

With the arrival of Butler as CEO, Lau moves into a role as North American CEO and president of international operations.

Butler arrives at The Barbarian Group from DigitasLBi, where she has served as executive vice president, group director, North American digital products since September of 2013, following stints as director of client services and executive client partner, director of client services for MRY U.S. (formerly LBi U.S.). She also spent over two and a half years as product manager, e-commerce for Barnes & Nobles and in production roles with Deutsch, The New York Times and Conde Nast.

“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. “It’s a great opportunity to bring this thinking to marketers today and demonstrate how we build brands at the speed of culture.”

“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.”