The Barbarian Group Co-Founder Tells Digiday the Agency Is ‘Literally Being Run Into the Ground’

By Erik Oster 

Today Shareen Pathak of Digiday ran a rather unflattering portrait of The Barbarian Group, taking a look inside its recent “meltdown.”

The Group has seen something of a leadership exodus in recent months, changing CEOs for the second time in less than a year last week. Back in December, Sophie Kelly left the agency to be replaced by Peter Kim, who has since been succeeded by interim CEO Aaron Lau. In March, co-founder and chairman Benjamin Palmer left the agency after 14 years, with chief strategy officer Ian Daly part of a wave of executive departures two months later. Owner/CXO Keith Butters, CCO Edu Pou, head of talent/HR Michelle Prota and head of account management Sherri Chambers also left the agency in May

“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,” Barbarian co-founder Rick Webb told Digiday. 

The publication pointed Barbarian’s relationship with Korean holding company Cheil Worldwide, “a company with a culture at odds with its own.” For example, one veteran of The Barbarian Group told us that Cheil didn’t want to pay full price for its in-house talent, especially on the technical side of things.

This party also pointed to clients not knowing quite what to make of the organization, saying, “We were in limbo between production shop and full-service agency. And while the middle was interesting, a lot of clients didn’t know how to engage.” At a certain point, Barbarian spent significant amounts of money pitching new business alongside more traditional shops — and this investment largely failed to pay off.

Agency veterans also claim that certain members of the leadership team “checked out” well ahead of Cheil firing Kelly.

“When they fired [Kelly], an account person, who personally owned the relationships with every major client, out of the blue without telling the clients in advance, the fate was sealed,” Webb told Digiday. “They’ve been play-acting since December, and they never had a chance.”

Lau, currently serving as interim CEO says finding permanent CEO for the agency is his next order of business. “I’m not here to change history,” he told the publication, “I’m here to shape the future.”

It would seem that certain media outlets also got a little overexcited about The SuperDesk, which would turn out to be a symbol of Barbarian’s ambitions despite the fact that—according to our sources, at least—most employees liked it.