Barbarian Group CEO Out After Less Than 9 Months

By Patrick Coffee 

Today Cheil Worldwide moved to replace Peter Kim as chief executive officer of The Barbarian Group after just over 8 months.

Multiple sources with direct knowledge of the matter tell us that the announcement was made in an all-staff meeting this morning. The agency’s new chief executive will be Aaron Lau, former president and CEO of Cheil’s operations in China.

A party confirmed that Lau will serve as interim CEO while Cheil seeks to “rebuild” Barbarian Group after the departure of most of its senior leadership.

An ongoing executive-level shakeup at the New York agency began late last year, when former CEO Sophie Kelly was terminated and replaced with Kim. He had been the larger Cheil organization’s chief digital officer in Seoul, South Korea after holding positions at Razorfish, R/GA and Forrester Research, among others. One former Barbarian employee who worked closely with Kim describes him as “a theorist, not a leader.”

At the time of the initial announcement, a statement from Cheil called the transition “seamless for all parties involved” and stated, “we look forward to a successful 2016.” The above source, however, cites a lack of new business wins and a perceived dissatisfaction with agency leadership from top clients, including one Brad Jakeman of PepsiCo.

In March, Barbarian Group chairman Ben Palmer was pushed out of the organization he co-founded after 14 years. Several additional agency leaders including chief creative officer Edu Pou, owner Keith Butters and others followed Palmer less than two months later after a round of contract negotiations with the organization’s new leadership.

Lau has extensive experience leading agencies and consultancies in Southeast Asia. Cheil acquired his shop Bravo China in 2012 and folded it into the Cheil China Group, at which point he became president and CEO of Cheil Greater China; that move came one month after the holding company purchased North Carolina’s McKinney for an estimated $50 million. Lau previously served as CEO and chairman of DDB’s operations in China, and last August he was promoted to president of international at Cheil Worldwide.

Barbarian Group does not currently retain an internal or external PR team. We have reached out to Cheil Worldwide and its U.S. spokesperson for comment and will update this post if and when we receive a response.

Image via Clive Wilkinson Architects