Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hail to the Chief

Q: Introduce us to yourself and your company.
Hi, I'm Rick. I'm one of the founders of the Barbarian Group, and its COO. I oversee production, along with a bunch of other things, and have been producing for maybe 8 or 9 years. The Barbarian Group is a web marketing company located in three cities, which adds to the production complexities. We produce a variety of websites, games, banners, strategy, viral marketing campaigns, ideas and applications.

Q: Interactive Producers come from all walks of life, they are a hybrid of talents, tell us about your background and how you got interested in digital production?

I grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, and went to Boston University first for Computer Engineering but eventually settled on International Economics. Out of college went into freelance graphic design and print production (I'm old), as well as the music industry.From there ended up at Ernst & Young Management Consulting around the time the web came along. Went through a new media startup, a B2B agency (Philip Johnson & Associates), a digital agency (Digitas) and a traditional one (Arnold) before starting TBG in 2001. That variety gave me good insights into the different ways the internet impacted marketing and businesses, different approaches to project management, and a deep, deep appreciation for defining processes.

Q: How do you stay on top of emerging technologies and keep your team informed and motivated?
I, along with most everyone at the shop, consume hundreds of blogs, RSS feeds, conferences and internal discussion lists. It's a full time job just staying informed. Our lab helps, to some extant, as do our internal collaboration tools. We're blessed, to some extant, with constant new challenges and opportunities that make it easier to stay motivated - the variety of the projects keep us from getting too stale. That was a core principle of the company's founding - get the best people and give them constantly interesting and changing work to keep them motivated. A lot of people think it's cheating - since the work's so varied of course it's easy to stay motivated - but it's important point: we constantly try and do types of work we've never done before, as a rule.

Q: What does your ideal client/project look like?
Our ideal client is one who is passionately interested in trying new things and seeing how they work out as part of their marketing mix. They're collaborative, inquisitive, methodical yet risk taking. They're not putting all their eggs in one basket ("we need to make a viral this season and it's got to work"), and they are engaged in the creative process, but not dictatorial of it. As for what we make together? Something that's never been done, preferably, or at least something that's never been done in THAT WAY.

Q: How do you educate your clients and set realistic expectations for a project?

In my mind, there are three pillars to what we think of as "client education." The first is the client's passion and grasp for the world of marketing, and a deep desire to tinker and learn and figure out all the new changes and opportunities that are going on. This is a actually fairly rare characteristic. Many marketing clients and agency art directors are motivated by simpler, yet understandable desires: "doing something cool," or "working with good people." Both of these are awesome, of course, but without that passion for actually discovering whether what you're doing works and has an impact, things can go awry. This, I don't think, can really be influenced too much by our agency or our producers. You stay aware of it, gravitate toward clients that exhibit these traits, and you talk about it, but there's only so much you can do.

The second is the clients' comprehension of the actual technical and strategic tools and principles that we're working by. Teaching them about new opportunities and technologies (Massive, AJAX, Ruby on Rails) and why could matter to them. Explaining to them the latest theories and trends (Web 2.0, the social web, meme theory) and how this shapes our thinking. Explaining new sites and social phenomena (Facebook, Twitter). There are several things you can do here - newsletters to your clients, sending along links to articles, showcasing effective work - by us or others - in these areas. Our blog goes a long way toward this as well - encouraging our clients to take part in the conversations.

The final area of potential client education is about us: how we work, our processes and our learnings. Why we insist on having this signed at this time and why we won't give you that source code just yet and how that's really in your interest as much as ours, and it's not because we're not being responsive. Explaining your contracts and timing and processes and really walking through the options for a client. "It's not that you CAN'T have another round of revisions, it's that you have selected a contract and project that doesn't allow it. We can change that, of course, with an such and such an impact on the project, this is your call. We're cool either way." It is in this last area, I think, that producers are the most vital. In a poor working environment, this is all stuck on client service, but in the most effective working relationships the client, the client service exec and the producer are a team - where the producer is the Macguyver of the situation, offering as many potential solutions as possible and their ramifications. We host quarterly "production-client service pow wows" to work out any new types of situations we've discovered, and constantly strategize on the best solutions and approaches to these sorts of client problems, and we're constantly working on the initial setup: what we tell our clients up front. The website contributes to this as well - we have tons of "tips for first time client" articles, though most clients don't go read them on their own.

Q: What was the best project you have ever worked on?
Nothing beats the fame and excitement of the Subservient Chicken, of course, and certain projects have their perks - such as a recently-launched site for supermodels - but I think the most rewarding project I've ever worked on has been our going-on three year relationship with Kashi on I love watching a community grow, I love knowing that we're improving the state of people's lives. I love everything we've learned about applying agile methodologies to the traditional advertising world, and I love the constant passion and commitment of our clients.

Q: How many projects are you comfortable producing at one given time?
The kink in answering this question at the Barbarian Group is the new biz side of things. We're insanely methodical about vetting every potential new business lead (it's an unsung secret to our success, I think). We don't have separate "new biz producers" (though we've considered it), so every producer pitches in on this on top of their projects. I think the average producer has either 1-2 large or 2-4 small-to-medium active projects, and on top of that anywhere up to 10 new biz leads that are in various states of dormancy (client's on vacation, "we'll get back to you in a week") or negotiation (producer's done their part but now it's in contract negotiations or haggling).

This is probably about 10% more work than I like to have my producers to actually have, so Jen (our director of production) and I spend a lot of time monitoring workloads, checking in, etc. It's a constant battle. A producer could have 4 new biz leads that sat there doing nothing for months and then suddenly, just as their main project is picking up, two of the new biz leads become active again. We act fast to re-balance workloads in that situation.

Q: What does your dream production team look like?
In terms of a "department," I'd love about 10 "rock star" producers that could handle anything, any time, from a banner to a software application to an insanely complicated multiplayer online game to a website the size of facebook. Fearless and passionate, and comfortable with operating by a set of principles rather than rules. Then perhaps 5 or so jr or assistant producers supporting them and learning and growing up.

This, however, is, really, a "dream." I'm not sure it'll ever happen. The amount of knowledge a producer needs to produce every single type of thing we build is vast, and finding ten of them is REALLY hard. They're a rare breed.

On top of that I'd love to get the workload-per-producer down about 10%, as I said. That's a dream I've been pursuing constantly for 7 years, though, and in many ways, we're no closer. Though I do understand the vastly complex business causes of the problem now much better than I used to.

Q: How do you ensure that your client's best interests are met?

"Client's interest" - I love that phrase. It sounds so nice and so simple. ;) I guess the simple answer to this question is that our production and client service teams operate in times of peril against our core principles, using them to help shine the light onto the right and true path. Here, I'll just cut and paste them:

General Principles We Live By
( which should guide us in all conflicts and challenges)

* The Barbarian Group believes in doing the best possible work
* The Barbarian Group believes in creating the best possible experience for the user. The user, the internet - they are our real client
* The Barbarian Group is always honest. We won’t do anything that deceives the user or ignores the user’s needs
* The Barbarian Group believes in keeping our clients happy
* The Barbarian Group believes in keeping our projects on time and on budget

It is worth noting, too, that those are ranked. By looking at almost any problem or client interest question through this prism, the best approach starts to become clear pretty quickly. Of course there are exceptions, but that's the general framework.

Q: What is your vision of what the next phase of our industry is going to look like?
This question, to my mind, comes with an implication: that the next phase will be what we want it to be. Or, rather, that everything will go along pretty well. I *think* if everything plays out quite nicely, in 5 years or so most agencies will look something like what we do now, in various sizes, and pretty much all media will be "digital." Media and creative will be re-merged together (which is really the only way to work on the web anyway), and marketing clients will have all learned the basic tools of the trade. Advertising and social media will be worked out, brand marketing on the web will be viewed as something more than banner ads and search, and companies like Doritos will be as savvy and sophisticated at online marketing as companies like Zappos as a rule. Our job, as producers, will be way more challenging and varied than it is now or was in traditional advertising, but new training, educational and advocacy groups will exist to help us - new versions of the AICP and whatnot that have truly grasped the internet and not just online video production. We'll have figured out how to make brand sites that are as alive and dynamic and successful as those such as Facebook and Twitter, and we'll have sorted out the roles of client service, production and "technologists" and how they augment the knowledge the client-side marketer has. I have a whole long theory just about how agile development can work so well for brand marketing on the web, offering rapid response to changing marketing conditions (think JetBlue or Dell Hell), and how client/account service will learn to act as "project stakeholders," technically versed in agile methodologies, shepherding the vision on behalf of their clients. Oh man, I could go on for hours.

I think the other thing worth mentioning, though, is that this is my rosy view of the future, and it's not at all guaranteed. Giant, multi-billion media and ad holding corporations have a vested interest in fighting this, as it's an intensely labor-intensive service model, rather than a highly-profitable media-buying-markup model, which is how they make the big bucks now. On top of that we have the single largest player in advertising these days - Google - who doesn't seem to care one whit for brand building or creativity. And we have a lot of people in the ad world who just wish they could keep making short films. And there are a LOT of people that want to make one gee-whiz widget or technology that makes it so you can "do marketing" on the web. There's a lot of snake oil salesmen out there.

Q: Please share a snippet of wisdom that you would like to impart on our readers.

More and more, I think we're going to have two options for the future of production:

1) *way* more types of interactive producers at an agency: game producers, banner producers, viral/video producers, website producers, application producers, agile producers, consulting & social media

2) versatile producers with *way* less rules-based processes, and the rise of GAAP-style "principles-based" production. Where the producer is an empowered shepherd to solve a problem, given wide leeway to bring in the right people, including multiple other producers.


  1. interesting post from one of the leaders of our industry. Definitely a great read.

  2. " 5 years or so... Media and creative will be re-merged together..."

    Let's hope so.