Barbarian Invasion

In early 2002, Wieden + Kennedy’s Katie Shields found herself driving a rental car through inner-city Boston, searching for the signless street in Roxbury where The Barbarian Group resided. “I started getting a little nervous, thinking, ‘What am I getting myself into?’ ” recalls the executive senior producer.

When she arrived, she found Barbarian co-founder and president Benjamin Palmer and his colleagues straightening up Palmer’s loft—the startup’s headquarters—as if preparing to impress a date. In a way, they were. The next day, suitably taken with the i-shop, Shields would introduce them to a senior marketing executive from Nike, Wieden’s largest and what would become Barbarian’s first client.

“They had this scary white, big, fat cat that I was terrified of,” recalls Shields of that initial meeting. “It was kept in the bathroom—but we had to use the bathroom.”

Shields landed up in Roxbury after stumbling across, an interactive, experimental Web site designed by Barbarian co-founder and creative director Robert Hodgin, 31. As she recalls it, she’d sent him an e-mail telling him, “I have no idea how I found your site. I don’t know anything about you. But I love the work I see, and I’d love to see more.”

She thought Hodgin’s “sensibility and aesthetics” would be well suited to a project Wieden was proposing for Nike All Conditions Gear, the client’s outdoor division. Barbarian went on to create a site that tied into Wieden’s “Go” campaign, prompting users to explain how they would survive various outdoor predicaments using a peculiar assortment of supplies, such as a match, an inner tube and a piece of gum. “They’re really smart kids,” Shields says. “You know they’re going to get it done.”

Wieden and Nike’s vote of confidence gave the fledgling shop almost instant credibility and recognition. Soon after, Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco tapped Barbarian to develop a site for the Saturn Ion, a lucrative assignment that was a ticket out of Palmer’s living room and into an eclectic space on fashionable Newbury Street.

Since then, Barbarian has landed more work from Goodby (for Hewlett-Packard and Discover Card), along with assignments from Arnold (Volkswagen) and Crispin Porter + Bogusky (Burger King’s Subservient Chicken). The company projects $2 million in billings this year, half of which will likely come from agencies.

It’s quite the fairy-tale beginning for an interactive shop that launched in December 2001, a year and a half into the dot-com bust and just two months after 9/11.

But where there was adversity, the shop’s four young founders saw opportunity: to fill the void left by layoffs at traditional agencies, particularly in their interactive departments. “The agencies were moving toward a broadcast model for interactive production and creative, where you do your high-level, integrated brand creative in the agency, but the interactive creative and implementation is done out-of-house with specialists like ourselves,” explains Palmer, 30, who freelanced as an art director for Arnold, i-shop Thunderhouse and Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos before launching Barbarian.

Still, while the Barbarians saw a niche, they had fairly modest expectations. “I thought we were going to have to hunker down and do sites for banks or local companies—and maybe after a couple years we would get a job like we got when we were at agencies,” says co-founder, director of operations Rick Webb, 32, who previously worked as a designer, information architect and Flash programmer at Arnold.

The shop’s level of involvement in its projects varies significantly by assignment, ranging from technical execution only to high-level strategy and conceptualization. Often, its role is determined by the agency’s art director. “You don’t learn to work with an agency—you learn to work with different art directors,” explains Webb, whose uniform usually consists of a rock-band T-shirt and jeans. “Some art directors care about things to the exact pixel, and we become an executional house. Some of them have a sketch on a napkin and let us go crazy.”

One memorable dictate from an art director: “I want the site to look kind of elastic and go boing.” Another said she wanted “jimmy jammies” on the site. Jimmy jammies? “That was for us to determine,” says Hodgin, a preppy type who’s a self-described pessimist. “She wanted a transparent, subtle effect, but she wasn’t entirely certain of what that was. It was a vague way of saying, ‘We want you to do something cool that we haven’t thought of yet to make the site a little more engaging.’ “

Shields, who also called on Barbarian’s services for Wieden’s America Online pitch last year, explains that the shop “helps us visualize—we’ll have a treatment and how we see it extending, and we look to them to figure out where to take it.”

Adds Jeff Benjamin, who first worked with Barbarian on Saturn Ion when he was an art director at Goodby: “We look for a place like Barbarian to fill in that director role. They’re cool with that. They collaborate really well.” Now a creative director at CP+B, Benjamin hired Barbarian to help bring the Miami shop’s Subservient Chicken to life on the Web as a part of an offbeat campaign for Burger King’s TenderCrisp chicken sandwich. On the site, which simulates amateur Webcam setups, a person in an elaborate chicken suit acts out commands entered by Web surfers.

“I was astounded that we were actually building” such a site, says co-founder and creative director Keith Butters, 30, who programmed the site so the chicken appears to react in real time to directions ranging from “Jump” to “Go to the bathroom.” Previously an art director at i-shop Identity One and a Flash designer at Arnold, Butters says the technical side was fairly straightforward. “I had to go back to my high school math knowledge,” he jokes.

Palmer, who joined Benjamin on the one-day shoot in Los Angeles, was blown away by the chicken’s Stan Winston-designed costume. “It’s 10 times more bizarre in person than it is on the site,” says Palmer, sitting in an office adorned with a lumpy yellow antique sofa and an ancient Commodore 64 monitor. “Where the hell do they think they should be making a chicken beak out of hand-carved wood?”

This month, Barbarian—a name chosen over Pixel, Vector and Jones because it sounds “a little punk rock,” says Palmer—launched an effort for Saturn in which users drive the car around a videogame-like banner and collect various objects, including a Chinese takeout menu and a dwarf-size clown holding a lollipop. “We try to put as much of our personalities in the projects that the client will allow,” says Hodgin, prompting chuckles from the four founders.

All four are veterans of Arnold, where they either freelanced or worked full-time—Hodgin was the Flash force behind the Grand Clio-winning VW Turbonium site—and the agency has proved a fruitful source of work for Barbarian. The i-shop recently created sites for Arnold client Volkswagen’s Passat and R32 models. For the Jetta, there’s a before-and-after online game in which users find the differences between the ’03 and ’04 models.

Barbarian also created VW’s Certified Pre-Owned site, which lets users input price, mileage and features criteria. Butters cites that project as one where the art director allowed him wide leeway to determine what the user experience would be like. “I was able to put a lot of myself into the animation style, the transitions between pages and the usability of the search tool,” he says.

In its third year, the agency has grown to 18 staffers. Five were added in the last few months, including Arnold alum Jennifer Iwanicki as director of production and Euro RSCG Circle’s Alex Chen as a Flash programmer. For now, the agency will stay at that size.

“We don’t know if we’re going to grow again,” says Webb, who also owns a music label, Archenemy Record Co. “We got to a point we wanted to be at, and we’re going to spend some time making it all work more smoothly.”

Inevitably, there’s a little downside to growth. Nowadays, for instance, a company field trip to Beaverton is unlikely. “On our first business trip to Nike, every member of the company went—all seven of us,” says Webb. Palmer chimes in: “We saw Motörhead the night before our first big meeting with our first big client.”

But Barbarian is still rocking. In their off- hours, staffers are likely to be spotted at clubs around Boston, supporting their colleagues who play in local bands.

“They’re a unique group of people who feed off each other,” says Shields. “They’re a bunch of misfits who work really well together.”