Text by Dory Carr-Harris
Benjamin Palmer believes there has been a major cultural shift since he began in the creative industry. “It used to be the only way you would grade yourself on how good an idea was, was in this narrow way of looking at ads that other people had made. Now anything you do has a comment stream or likes and dislikes attached to it. You’re super tuned in to how people are feeling about your work.”
Palmer claims that he basically fell into advertising. “I was doing design code. Since I first saw the mosaic web browser, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
He has always felt that being a designer allowed him to create a variety of different products and projects and exercise his creative muscles without limitation.
“That’s why advertising was super up my alley for what I wanted to do at the time, which was to put out a lot of work and work quickly. Everything was happening so rapidly. I didn’t want to go work at a dot com company that was just making one site or one product.”
Thus the idea for the Barbarian Group was born. The award-winning digital creative agency founded in 2001 by Palmer and his business partner Keith Butters bills itself in its LinkedIn profile as a company that can “conceive and make everything brands need in a digital world.”
Palmer recalls: “Our initial proposition was that we’d go to big traditional agencies and say, ‘Hey, hire us for your important digital thing when you have a high profile project and you need a cool site or digital concept to go along with it.’”
At the outset, Barbarian Group focused on providing the online elements of larger campaigns, which allowed their agency to hone a skill set rather than trying to compete with the larger, generalist companies.
“There weren’t a ton of people who were trying to do what we were trying to do. There may have been in 1999, but in 2001 there had been a crash. All of the small companies were out of business. All of the ones that had weathered the crash were big and doing their own thing. We were in a sweet spot of being small but capable.”
In this way, Palmer’s big picture business strategy has always been to “be original.”
“Sometimes when it feels like everybody is breathing down your neck, I like going and doing something else. With the company, we do that. We’re just like, ‘Wow, fuck it, it’s too crowded over here. Everyone is just fighting for scraps.’ We’ll poke our heads in another direction for a little while and see what that feels like.”
The company is not without foresight however, and in a business where rapid change is commonplace, Palmer believes that patience is an essential virtue.
“You have to be pretty patient over a long period of time, and think about where things are going to be in a few years in terms of where you should be positioned. At a certain point in time, the digital thought is going to be the leading thought, but clients are going to want everything else around that.”
Their patience paid off, as the rise of digital culture has opened up a whole new realm of creative opportunities and also leveled the playing field in terms of industry competition.
“Accessibility and education are huge changes that have happened because of the Web and technology,” comments Palmer. “Seeing other people’s work is easier than ever, as well as making work or learning the craft behind different types of work.”
For Palmer, the Internet has become a crucial tool in the creative process, as he believes that “creativity means new things. It means craftsmanship. I think at Barbarian Group, it’s like we’re solving other people’s problems. We have to hit the target that they’re pointing at, but we have to do that with as much flair as possible.”
Even though creating can be an arduous task, Palmer is adamant that it should be enjoyable as well. “I think good marketing is usually fun to make. You’re like, ‘Wow, I want to do a really good job. I’m excited for the client to see it and I’m excited for the audience to see it.’ That’s when you’re at your most creative. You’re connected in both directions, to the audience and the client. That’s when things are good.”
This sense of connection is one more thing that the online world has helped to facilitate, which has changed the way that products are made, based on the knowledge of an immediate reaction from the outside world. Digital advertising is no longer simply about selling a product or service; it is about creating something that will be at the forefront of people’s minds for a sustained moment.
“When we’re testing an idea, we’re testing it against what the brief is, but we’re also testing it against how we think people are going to respond out in the market. Is it fun enough? Is it sharable enough? Is it going to be part of digital culture or regular culture?”
“It’s got to entertain and inform or prove itself useful somehow, or it’s not really worth doing. We’re always thinking, ‘What’s the idea? Do people need this in their lives?’ We try to be pretty rigorous about that.”
As a result, digital advertising at the company has become more about interactive experiences than providing basic product information in a slightly more interesting package. A prime example of this is the campaign that arguably put Barbarian Group on the map as a ground-breaking agency. Subservient Chicken, created for agency Crispin, Porter + Bogusky, was an interactive site created to promote the launch of Burger King’s new customizable chicken sandwich that featured a person in a life-sized chicken suit standing in what looks to be a suburban basement who responded to commands typed into a bar at the bottom of the screen by the user. The site features no images of the sandwich and no Burger King imagery or logos.
Palmer reminiscences: “I think Subservient Chicken was really cool, and I don’t think anyone was seeing that from a big brand when it launched. Burger King was not cool. Their ads were cheeseburgers with the price of the cheeseburger next to it. There wasn’t much that was out there at that point in time that was pure branding. For Subservient Chicken the product message was, ‘Yeah, you can have the chicken sandwich your way,’ but really it was, ‘Look at us, we’re interesting.’”
The campaign was one of the first to be given the now-coveted “viral” moniker and has since changed how agencies and brands alike conceive of what advertising can mean. It was a simple but original idea that caused a shift in the industry.
Thinking about where ideas like this come from, Palmer comments, “I think most of my good ideas come from the short circuits of two different parts of culture, like a media thought and a technology thought, or a joke and a design thought.”
“When I’m not able to produce good ideas, I’ve also probably been really narrow in my experience, maybe reading the same things over and over or not having traveled or read or watched something new.”
Yet, experience aside, Palmer believes that one of the most important tools to unblocking creativity is confidence.
“Sometimes I begin chatting to somebody as if I have an idea. I just force it out. If I start off talking confidently about something, I usually end confidently.”
“I think you probably have to be a little overconfident that your ideas are better than other people’s ideas. You don’t have to be a dick about it, but you have to think kindly of yourself a little bit. I think people who are not confident that their worldview is a good one probably have a hard time producing work.”
Palmer understands the delicate balance of having enough self-assurance to get ideas from inside of one’s head out onto paper but not be “so self important that you’re an intolerable person to work with.”
His main belief is that in advertising “you have to be likable and convincing. If you have found the part of this business that you really enjoy and you’re doing it, everybody trusts somebody that seems like they’re having a good time and doing a good job.”
Palmer’s one final rule for success? “Honestly, most of it’s just showing up. You have to put yourself out there, get involved in whatever’s going on, and make yourself useful.”