POV: Interview with Sophie Kelly, President of the Barbarian Group

Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Sophie-Kelly-HeadshotTell us about The Barbarian Group and what differentiates it from other agencies.

The foundation of The Barbarian Group has always been about “making” and understanding what moves Internet culture. The company was founded more than 11 years ago to create something that had never existed in this space before, and while the industry has changed, the idea remains the same. We invest in strong strategic thinkers and the newest technologies and dedicate time for experimentation across all disciplines. Some of our greatest work and digital products started as internal experiments.

How do you work to develop and retain executive talent in the advertising industry? What are executives looking for in order to make a long-term commitment?

We should feel good about the fact that the advertising industry fosters an extremely competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining top talent. I believe the talent we have is why people want to work with certain agencies. Talent is a differentiator and the key to what we do, so it’s about emotionally understanding what great talent is looking for.

The best people seem to be less attracted to the establishment and more drawn to something they can help build, the potential to affect change and the ability to build something completely original. Fortunately, that is exactly the culture and structure we have built to optimize our work, our client relationships, our agency process and our staff.

In order to invest the time and energy involved in creating something truly new, great talent needs to feel that there is a clear vision they can align with. Equally as important, they must be confident they will be given the space to do their job and affect change that helps shape the company.

Balancing a structure that allows for entrepreneurial spirit with one that ensures the right amount of operational knowledge to make educated, well-rounded decisions is a leadership challenge!

How has digital changed the way consumers interact with marketing messages? What do consumers now expect from a brand?

The power of great ideas that are relevant and add value to people’s lives is still the No. 1 reason people will choose to interact with a marketing message. Do I care about that? Am I interested? Does it help me? Fundamentally, marketing is still about powerful, well-crafted stimuli that elicit a response.

Digital has multiplied the power of really good creative and opened up the ability for brands to deliver messages in more relevant ways across multiple environments, channels and devices. Digital has brought real innovation to the business of communications and enabled people to take immediate action, share content with others, do further research, comment on it or just watch it again.

This opportunity has equally brought about a greater need for discipline. Digital has introduced consumers to brand dialogue, meaning that brands can be punished or rewarded quicker than ever. So, understanding the brand idea and its journey and evolution in the digital system is an even more critical strategic role that agencies and brands need to spend more time on.

Given this new access and ability to react, consumers now expect:

  • Something that’s valuable or interesting.
  • Messages that are contextually relevant.
  • Functionality that allows them to share, participate or take action.
  • Real-time response to their feedback (read: frustration!).

It’s a high bar we have set!

Basically, we’re still in the business of earning attention. Now, consumers have this pull to refresh the stream of media in front of them, so a marketing message needs to compete with other compelling content in order to gain true engagement.

Many brands are looking to become more like publishers. How can an agency partner help a brand to succeed in this area?

It’s a big challenge for many brands that are accustomed to doing four TV spots a year or a flurry of banner campaigns. As brand marketing has extended across the Web, Facebook, Twitter and a variety of other owned channels, there’s a fairly immediate and vast need to create content at scale.

We’re currently working with our partners to map out the light-touch, medium- and large-scale executions and pair them with the appropriate established or emerging mediums. Agency partners need to bring infrastructure that allows for efficient content creation, effective distribution and brand governance, while still leaving room for innovative creative opportunities to be born.

What are the biggest challenges for agencies when producing cross-channel, cross-screen experiences?

Our challenge in creating multi-channel experiences is often during the up-front planning phase of the project — how to conceive, plan and create content that is holistic, original and owned by the brand. Each piece of content and functionality must be tailored to each medium and not just ported out.

Design considerations are also crucial to keeping user experience at the forefront of the process to ensure interaction across multiple devices is seamless — a “one-size-fits-all” approach to advertising won’t cut it anymore.

But, the biggest challenge for the industry is getting consistent measurement and metrics among the different channels so we can plan and optimize the content and experience effectively.

What have been some of your favorite projects produced by The Barbarian Group? Tell us about the thought and strategy behind these campaigns?

We’ve produced some great campaigns to support the launch of Pepsi’s mid-calorie soda: Pepsi NEXT. “The Extra Hour” was a campaign that teamed the beverage company with a popular productivity startup, TaskRabbit. The idea was that Pepsi sends a “TaskRabbit” to tackle fans’ chores, which gives them an extra hour in their day to enjoy a Pepsi NEXT. The project was incredibly successful and earned a 2013 Webby award.


We’re incredibly proud of our open-source software, Cinder, which recently won the inaugural Innovation Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions 2013 Festival. Originating from our work on Apple’s iTunes Visualizer, Cinder is a creative coding toolkit that’s used to create next-level digital experiences, including large-scale interactive installations, intricate data visualizations and mobile applications.


Despite Cinder being open source, we still maintain a heavy investment with the software. We employ Cinder’s co-author and lead architect, Andrew Bell, as a full-time resource dedicated to overseeing the software’s ongoing development.

Finally, the NYC Department of Transportation needed a way to remind citizens of the potentially deadly consequences of speeding. We modified the city’s existing LED signs, which have the ability to detect the speed at which vehicles are traveling. Instead of a sign featuring a pedestrian, speeding motorists were confronted with a flashing skeleton and the direction to “SLOW DOWN”. The idea was simple, yet incredibly powerful, and it earned organic media attention across broadcast television, print, radio and online.


As a member of IAB’s advisory board, you have most likely been in involved in the industry’s battle against piracy and copyright infringement. How can advertisers be proactive in fighting against legitimate advertising being shown on sites that violate IP laws?

The majority of what we make isn't display advertising, but rather content and ideas that live in controlled and planned environments. We work closely with a smaller group of brand and idea-appropriate sites to create branded content, and we also leverage the power of influencer outreach and social media.

The IAB’s industry guidelines have certainly played an instrumental role in combating online piracy. However, it’s ultimately the responsibility of individual marketers and agencies to play watchdog by investing adequate resources into proactively monitoring media buys and ensuring that paid placements conform to industry standards.

What trends in advertising do you find most interesting/exciting?

I’m excited about the new channel opportunities available for brands: new platforms, branded content and multi-screen experiences. Additionally, with the opportunities available to us in retail experiences, what we can now create with digital technology to reinvent where digital experiences meet physical experiences is awesome.

I’m also interested in the developments in available data to help us understand what's going on — culturally and psychologically — when people respond really positively to advertising content. Researchers, both within marketing and elsewhere, are getting better and better at understanding the underpinnings of great work.

Finally, I’m thrilled that the Internet is a brutally tough content meritocracy. Awesome rises to the top, and everything else has an uphill struggle. This is exciting because it puts more pressure on agencies and marketers to come up with stuff that's genuinely awesome.

One reason you love what you do: There is not really one. I love the fact that no problem is ever the same! We get the opportunity to work across multiple brands, categories and mediums. I love working with highly creative people. The fact that curiosity, challenging the status quo, innovation and creating new and exciting experiences is at the heart of what we do every day. On our best day, what we produce is entertaining and informative for people. That’s pretty fun.

Favorite ad: I love The Guardian’s “Three Little Pigs” commercial and Rainforest Alliance’s “Follow the Frog” spot in addition to disruptive platforms, such as Uber, and the experimentation of companies including Jawbone with their UP product. I’m also inspired by Percolate, which is really trying to solve a pain point for global brands: how to create and publish content at an unprecedented social scale.

Must-read book: “How Brands Grow” by fellow feisty Aussie Professor Byron Sharp is a great book about rigorously data-supported evidence that turns over many assumptions about growth, loyalty and market dynamics. I also enjoy “Setting the Table” by Danny Meyer and “A Razor's Edge” by Somerset Maugham.

Connect with Sophie on Twitter @SophieAnnKelly or on LinkedIn.

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