VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

In Conversation | Thought Leaders and Iconoclasts

Confessions of an Ad Man: Why Jamie Barrett Wants to Build the Next Great Agency



Most consumers might not know it but those in the trade do: the small, upstart advertising firms are increasingly getting better accounts and bringing their creative to some of the most visible and memorable campaigns on television, in print and on digital.


Firms like Y&R, McCann Ogilvy & Mather, BBDO, Wieder+Kennedy, JWT, and Leo Burnett (all regularly in the top 20) are practically household names and count major Fortune 500 firms as their clients. Sure they’re responsible for the majority of Superbowl ads – but that’s changing.


More nimble and arguably more creative “boutique” firms are stepping in to develop work that challenges the kind of creative delivered by the industry veterans.


Jamie Barrett is co-founder of barrettSF, a firm that in the two-plus years of its existence has already won major projects with Rubio’s, Nike, and Major League Baseball, among others.


Just Do It: At Wieder+Kennedy, Jamie Barrett’s work with Nike helped pave the way to an award-winning career in advertising.

Jamie cut his teeth with the big dogs: 10 years at Goodby Silverstein & Partners where he contributed to the firm’s work with such brands as Comcast, Quaker, Doritos, and the NBA, and seven years as writer and creative director at Wieden + Kennedy, where he most notably developed creative for Nike, including the Michael Jordan campaigns.


Altogether, the experience gave Jamie the ambition and chops to jump ship and build his own kind of creative agency – one he is still seeking to define. He talks with b. on brand about the changing world of advertising and how soon, we might just be telling stories in two seconds instead of the usual 10 or 15 second spot.


B. ON BRAND: Has barrettSF put a stake in the ground and created an identity for itself as a firm?


JAMIE BARRETT: We haven’t yet. At least that’s our mindset. The moment you think you’ve put a stake in the ground and “created an identity” for yourself is the moment you lose momentum. The truth is, agency reputations can turn in an instant – one piece of transcendent work and you’re part of the conversation. Conversely, if you’re off the creative radar for six months, you slide into irrelevance.


We’ve put several stake-like objects in the ground in our two year-plus history, but none of them represent the stake. To be great in this business you can never stop coming up with new stakes and you can never stop sticking them in the ground.



 One of the firm’s first clients was San Diego chain restaurant Rubio’s. barrettSF’s approach was to repositioned the brand with a poetic and almost “sustainable” kind of message than what might be traditionally associated with a Tex Mex grill.

B: Increasingly we’re seeing the smaller agencies getting the juicier projects. Are major agencies the communications dinosaurs?

JB: It ain’t easy to be huge and great at the same time. It comes back to my earlier point – it doesn’t take a lot of people to make great work, just a few really good people. It seems to me the ideal agency size is somewhere in the 50 to 200 range. Under 50 people, you aren’t a viable agency for major advertisers. You can take on a project, but you simply don’t have the infrastructure to handle their account. Over 200 people, you become a bit Brontosaurus-like. You lumber. You have a hard time reacting and changing directions.


That said, barrettSF aspires to be big. Not mega, but big. Why? Because we want to make an impact in the world, and the larger you are the greater your opportunities. Hopefully, if and when we’re big, we’ll be more like a Velociraptor. They’re pretty nimble.


{ “I’m a big believer in the model of one client-agency partnership. You wouldn’t write a novel with ten different writers, why would you create a brand with ten different ad agencies?” }


B: But do you think the challenges are greater today than before, say, 20 or even 30 years ago?


JB: Good question for an old fart like me. I actually was in the business more than 20 years ago, 29 years ago to be exact.


In my mind, the business has gotten dramatically more challenging. My life as a copywriter used to consist of writing print headlines, radio commercials, and TV commercials with a $10,000 budget. You were brought into a conference room, the media plan was presented to you, and then you got a very prescriptive assignment and you fulfilled it.


In 2014 barrettSF cast Tom Brady as a telemarketer for app client Daily MVP. At the time the app was little known but this ad went viral.

It’s so radically and unrecognizably different in 2015. We are all – if we’re any good – renaissance ad people now. A good creative person is a technologist, media strategist, event planner, amateur Google researcher, and master presenter all wrapped into one. And if we have a little time left over, we’re supposed to come up with good ideas.

B: Social media has been blamed for making it difficult for brands to have a singular voice in speaking to consumers. Do you think that’s true?


JB: It shouldn’t be true, but it can be.


The reality is, one or two people generally create the “voice” of a brand. The words and images that form that voice don’t come from multiple companies or multiple departments, they come from a creative team. A creative team that is guided and informed by many smart people along the way, but still, a creative team.To replicate the “voice” of that team is tough. Particularly when you’re communicating across a wide variety of mediums, and in the case of social, needing to create work in real time.


In my experience, the fewer creative people involved, the more singular the brand’s voice. But that doesn’t seem to be the prevailing view out there in the client world. More and more brands are using multiple creative resources, often working with eight or ten advertising agencies at a time. Google has pulled it off pretty well because they have a strong internal sense of self. But they are an exception.


I’m a big believer in the model of one client-agency partnership. You wouldn’t write a novel with ten different writers, why would you create a brand with ten different ad agencies?


B: How is mobile advertising changing the way we tell a story?


JB: The stock answer is that stories, by necessity, are getting shorter. We used to tell sixty and thirty-second stories. We then learned to tell fifteen and ten-second stories. Then Vine came along and taught us to tell six second stories. And now the latest app, Whatsyourpoint?, is forcing us to complete our stories in just two seconds — Okay, I made that last app up. But you know it’s coming.


My point is, I don’t think longer-form stories will ever lose their appeal. I still see Hollywood making movies. I still see people addicted to sixty-minute TV shows. And I still see YouTube videos with 240 million views that are several minutes long. If something is good, we will watch. Whether it’s short or long, projected on a mountainside, or miniaturized on our phone.


Jamie Barrett is founder and creative director at barrettSF. Follow them on twitter @barrett_sf and Facebook.

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