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99U Conference 2017

Rick Webb: You Can’t Plan for Everything, So Stop Trying


About this talk

As co-founder of creative agency The Barbarian Group, Rick Webb helped define the then-burgeoning field of digital marketing. When Barbarian experienced rapid growth, Webb had to get comfortable with delegating creative control, and when the agency was sold to holding company Cheil Worldwide, he and his partners had to relinquish control of their operations and even contend with a corporate scandal. In his 99U talk, Webb takes a detailed look at the birth and life of a creative organization, and the messy realities of the coveted “exit”.

About Rick Webb

Rick Webb is a writer, angel investor, and consultant to such startups and marketing companies such as Tumblr, Soundcloud, and Percolate. He currently serves as COO at Timehop.

In 2001, Webb co-founded The Barbarian Group, an award-winning digital ad agency. He served as its COO for the first ten years of the company’s existence. Webb left in 2011 to pursue angel investing in technology and advertising. He is an angel investor in Foursquare, Percolate, Sherpaa, Nestio and Timehop. He is an advisor to several other tech startups and marketing services companies, including Hard Candy Shell and Small Girls PR.

Webb is author of Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing, released by Palgrave Macmillan in 2015, and Man Nup: A Groom’s Guide to Heroic Wedding Planning in 2016. He is an avid writer on technology, advertising, economics, and government. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in International Economics in 1992. He serves a board member of the VCU a, one of the most renowned advertising graduate schools, and was named as Creativity Magazine‘s ’50 Most Creative People in Marketing’ (2008). He was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Links

Agency: Starting a Creative Firm in the Age of Digital Marketing

@rickwebb

Full Transcript

[APPLAUSE]

Hi everybody, I’m Rick. How’s it going? I want to tell you some stories today and they start in Alaska. When I was a little child growing up in Alaska (that’s my mom and dad) I had two idols. They were two Englishmen about whom I didn’t know very much but had a really profound influence up there in the Arctic of my life. Their names are Vaughan Oliver and Peter Saville. Anybody heard of one of these guys? No yeah, awesome. Well they would design record covers and I learned about these two gentlemen from the back covers of these records.

We had no internet. We barely had any magazines. We’d send out for records by the mail and then we’d get them in the mail and we’d read the liner notes as if we were like deciphering the Talmud. It was very exciting. And these two guys, they designed like every record cover that I loved, right? And so, I got really excited about it. And it seemed incredible to me in Alaska (that’s my downtown in winter in Alaska) that you could make a living designing album covers. That just seemed like the most amazing job in the world, right?

My parents unfortunately thought graphic design was kind of a dumb idea for a career and you weren’t going to make any money on it. I don’t really blame them, I mean, they grew up in Alaska. [LAUGHTER] So I made my way to Boston and I went to school for economics. That seemed like something my parents and I could agree on; it seemed like something that I could get a job in. After college, I decided to try and get jobs in graphic design instead of economics. I sort of just cheated on them basically. And I went to this company called MacTemps that was here in Harvard Square on Church Street. So, I went in there and I took a test. The name of this company seemed really prophetic to me. I really loved the Macintosh. I still do to this day. And I had like every application that you could get for it, including all of the Adobe apps. I didn’t get them legally but we won’t talk about that. [LAUGHTER] I figured if there’s a temp service that you could use the Mac in then I was all in on that. So, I went in and I took a test, and I aced the test except for one question around points and picas. I had never heard of either one. That was kind of embarrassing. But the guy giving me the test was like, “It doesn’t really matter. They’re on the way out. Everybody’s doing this thing called desktop publishing now. And we’re all about QuarkXPress and PageMaker and I had PageMaker down, but Quark was really hard to pirate so I had [LAUGHTER] I had to go to a friend’s house the weekend before the test and I learned it in one day but I aced the test. I felt very good about that.

And then anyway, I found myself in the depths of the world known as ‘management consulting’ right? And I was doing PowerPoint presentations for these companies known as the “Big Four”. And it was all very glamorous. I wore a suit to work. [LAUGHTER] That’s me after I got home from work. I made these things called Single Frames. They were like a big deal at my company. There’s like these really complicated infographics where you like, everything was in one place. I don’t have any of my own so I dug this one off the Web. It turns out people are still making these things today. [LAUGHTER] I bet some of you are making these things today.

The other thing I had to do was like the partners at the company would come and just drop off business cards. You guys don’t have to do this thing. And I would like load up Adobe Streamline and I’d scan the logo in and I’d meticulously recreate the logo and streamline and freehand so I could like put it into these proposals. That was fun. I spent a lot of hours doing that. But, it was good work. It paid really well. I was like 22 years old and, aside from wearing a suit every day, I loved it!

But three things happened there that kind of changed my life, right? So, the first one was that the Big Four consulting company that I was working for got fired by one of their clients. The client was named Apple Computer. The IT department at my Big Four consulting company had decided that they were all going to switch to a single platform, including us designers and they were going to use the PC. No more Macs, so Apple fired them. You know, to be fair this was Apple’s darkest hour in their life and nobody really thought they were going to stick around anymore. But right at the same time, the company sent me to Macworld and Steve Jobs returned and I got to go see this day when he announced the iMac. So, it was pretty cool. I would spend all this time on their Lotus Notes forums it looked like that at the time, with the company arguing with the IT department about PCs. [LAUGHTER] I lived my life in that thing for like two years. [LAUGHTER]

But I knew my days were numbered there so, you know, that was not a good sign. The second thing though that happened there was a good sign. The Big Four services company I worked for had this office in Kendall Square. We were in Copley Square in Boston. But it became a center of technology for the company, right? Therefore they were charged for making this new thing called a ‘website’. And so, I was like, “Oh I gotta get over there!” So I started like learning all these other programs that I hadn’t learned yet, like Adobe PageMill, and Go Live Studio Pro, and this thing called FutureSplash that turned into Flash. My side in Boston was mainly doing like marketing and logistics through back office technology consulting for casinos and healthcare organizations, which wasn’t quite as exciting. But I figured if learned these programs, I could get over to Kendall Square, which you know had this new indie movie theater in it, and it was really exciting. It was really up-and-coming.

So, I dove into these apps and I started learning this thing called the Internet. And I made my first website there on company time in 1996. It was called Stodgy.com. I still have the URL. It’s still my email address. And it was this sort of nerdy site about, you know, the films of Peter Greenaway, or the furniture making of the people of the William Morris school. Stuff like that. Not a big hit on the internet. [LAUGHTER] Then or now it turns out. And then the third thing that happened: I met this guy. This is my boss later on, but his name was John Shiu, right? He worked in the IT department there at the Big Four management consulting company. And we were both really obsessed with these companies – this new kind of company called the “digital agency, right? There was one in New York called Razorfish and we just thought that they were the coolest people in the world. And we really wanted to like work at one of those companies. And John knew I was into this whole internet thing even though I did not succeed in getting the Kendall Square. So, he got all this software for me that we didn’t have full site licenses of. I was legal for this by the way. And he had my back on all this stuff, and that was really great.

The other thing John had was a recording studio, right? And this recording studio also made CDs for its clients. And they had been spending all of this money at prepress companies making film for the presses and he decided to hire me to do all that in house so he could save some money, right? So, I spent a bunch of his money. I bought this thing called the AccuSet Imagesetter. The enduring mystery about this thing is that it came with about ten thousand dollar dongle about that big, that you had to use that machine, because somewhere you going to use that machine without buying that machine. It didn’t ever really make any sense. But, I hired my best friend Jill, and we started making album covers for these clients. We designed something like 200 album covers in three years. We just cranked them out. This is the only one that I could find to this day. It’s one that Jill did. They weren’t really glamorous bands. They weren’t really glamorous album covers right? It was a lot of like Reggae bands [LAUGHTER] Cabo Verdeano bands, or something, a lot of you, know trust fund baby hip-hop guys whose parents are paying for it. [LAUGHTER] But, you know, we did so many of them over and over again, we really got our design chops, you know, solid. And we were designing album covers for a living! Come on, it was like 1997, and I had done what I had set out to do. I felt pretty good about that.

I had also at that time started a record label with some friends of mine. Because we had a recording studio for cheap, and we had CD manufacturing for cheap. So we figured we should probably do this because we were all in bands. And we got to design album covers that we really liked as well. So that was really awesome. But alas, things did not work out in the recording industry. And the studio closed shop. Specifically, the CD manufacturing. The recording studio went on for a little while longer. But I was out of a job. So, I went back to MacTemps, which was now called Aquent. They have this shiny new office. And I got back into, you know, being a freelancer right?

But the cool thing is, because I learned all this web stuff, I get to go to other companies instead, right? And it occurred to me, back then, that it was kind of one of those pivotal moments in my design career, because I had been mainly a print designer up until that point, and I could have stayed a print designer forever. And that period especially, all designers had to go through this sort of soul searching, where they had to decide if they were going to embrace these new technologies, or stick to their guns. And I think we’re kind of in one of those now right? We have all of those VR stuff, and we got this mobile stuff. And we have to decide if we’re going to get into it or not. But I went for it. I didn’t look back, which I don’t regret. But it was probably pretty much the end of my design career.

But, because I had all of these skills, I got to go to other companies instead of the Big Four management consulting companies. I got to go to like ad agencies. There’s this one I did a bunch of work for called PJA in Cambridge. I really liked that place. Then I went to Digitas. I was in this lobby here in the Prudential Tower in Boston when they IPOed. It was super glamorous. That turned out great. But eventually, I ended up at a company called Arnold working on the Volkswagen account, which for me was like the greatest thing in the world, because at this time (I don’t know if you remember these ads) but they all had like cool indie rock music in them right? They had like Velocity Girl, and Physic TV, and this one’s got Spiritualized in it. And I was so excited. That was like the cream of the crop there. But because I had bothered to learn all of these internet skills, I ended up chopping up everybody else’s work and I didn’t get to design anything. I was just converting it all into like HTML or Flash. It was good money and it was glamorous, but I wasn’t really designing anymore. And that was kind of a bummer.

And then 2001, this guy here, my friend Ben. (He’s responsible for the desk by the way. I was gone by that point. We’re not going to talk about the desk today). [LAUGHTER] Anyway, he came to me and he pitched an idea. He said HTML and Flash could be design. They could be the creative mediums. That we didn’t just have to design in one thing like Photoshop and then build them over here. We could actually design in them. And he had this big insight that we would start a company that was kind of like what this guy did for TV ads, right? So, this is a famous film director, and he started a production company for film directors to work for ad agencies. They didn’t work at the ad agencies. They worked in their own companies, but they worked for the agencies. They didn’t want to be an agency: they worked for the agencies. But that wasn’t really happening in digital. They were trying to employ us all but we’d get restless and we were creative and we didn’t want to work with the same thing all the time. So, Ben’s big idea was to like start a company that just did work for agencies – digital creative. So he pitched that idea to me and some friends, there we are, we look so young, so nice. And we’d be the first digital studio catering to ad agencies like film companies like Anonymous Content catered to agencies right?

Now there were design studios out there. This is the website at the time of one called WDDG, the World Domination Design Group. I loved those guys. We were like heroes to them. There’s companies like Heavy.com and then there were of course the digital agencies like Razorfish but all of the them kind of wanted to either do their own thing, or work for the end client. None of them were super jazzed about agency work and we were super jazzed about agency work. We wanted to not just be creatives, but be digital creatives. We worked for the big agencies, not direct clients, because the big agencies had the cool brands that we couldn’t get on our own. We started a company called The Barbarian Group. Magic animations [LAUGHTER] at the end of 2001. And I figured this is great! Because now that I own my own company I can design a lot more right? And that was a big part of the motivating factors of it. But that didn’t really work out. So we tried to get a person called a producer to like work with us. You know we heard that they were the kind of people who could like handle things like time sheets, and money. But the funny thing about producers is they’re kind of risk tol- they don’t have a high risk tolerance like they like to play it safe. So they’re not generally super into starting a company with no money. So, one of us, it kind of fell to one of us.

And I had this epiphany right? Like all my partners are actually better at any one thing than I was, I was more of a generalist. Robert here, he was like a much better designer, and Keith was a better coder, and Ben had like more creative wacky ideas then I ever could, and Aubrey was a tech genius. And I was pretty good at all these things, but you know my well roundedness ended up cursing me. And it ended up that I took on the mantle of “Business”. The economics degree didn’t help either. Although it turned out to be useless, but everybody though it was going to be useful. It was kind of weird. So, I started managing the products, estimating costs, writing proposals. It didn’t really help on top of that that I had adsorbed some of the words in those proposals I used to write in the consulting days. And, for the next ten years I’d be occasionally allowed to design but basically I was stuck being like the guy over there in the corner that didn’t really get to be in the fun. [LAUGHTER] But today I get to make up for it because they told me that there’s a laser on that thing. I’m really excited. Nobody’s used a laser yet.

So, on the one hand this is like very sad, but on the other hand I realized that, like so, the internet’s kind of a different beast. And the creativity on the internet is kind of a different thing and you didn’t have to be a designer to be creative on the internet. Great work can come from designers but it also came from writers, from coders, from stoned kids who do puppet shows. And if I’m being honest, in the hubbub and excitement, I didn’t really realize I wasn’t much of a designer anymore. I mean I noticed it, but things were moving so fast and we had all of these awesome clients. Nike was our first client. We got Apple in the first year as well. That was pretty exciting. By the second year we won like Saturn as a client. And we were still doing all of this awesome work for Apple. And before long I was running the Apple account, and I was doing like a lot of the digital work for Apple before TBWA got their act together. And we were just jetting around the world. We were going to the Apple campus. We were going to like Nike campus. And I was having such a good time I didn’t really think about it, right? And we were still doing all this cool work for bands that we loved. This was for Freezepop. We did some work for Marilyn Manson. We did some work for the Gorillas. It was pretty awesome. And, you know, we grew like a weed. And by our third year we had the first digital shop that Communication Arts had featured since the dot-com bust. Like just like everybody else, once the bust happened they just stopped paying attention to the internet. But look at that! It was pretty exciting. I really loved that transition. [LAUGHTER]

So, the work was awesome and I was working night and day. I was really working myself to the bone. And I didn’t really think much about me not being a designer right? Since the company that I was working for was doing all of this awesome design. But, then, as we grew some stuff started to happen. Please tell me that somebody remembers this. The kids I work with today, don’t remember it at all. So, our clients kept asking us to do more and more work for them right? Which was great, but what was more stressful was that a lot of the work that they wanted us to do wasn’t really what we started out. It wasn’t design anymore. They wanted to hire us to do all this other stuff. Stuff like viral marketing; stuff like copy writing; stuff like digital strategy, like games. We started making a ton of games, e-commerce. I still think this might be the best thing we ever made. It’s a reveal for the Hot Topic site where you take the old site and pick a guitar and smash it and you get the new website. I mean come on! [LAUGHTER] I love that thing!

The other thing that happened was that we started doing work direct with clients, which was like totally against exactly what we started the company for right? But the first one was Nike and the second was Apple and we were like, “well who’s going to turn those down?” But then before long it was like cereal companies and banks and airlines, and suddenly we needed these people called account executives, which we didn’t have. One of our clients had to explain to me that it was really hard to hire us because we didn’t know who to call. So we started hiring these different types of people in the company. And then we just slowly got bigger and bigger and bigger. And that’s kind of when everybody started arguing about it.

So what were we? Were we a design shop? Like a lot of companies that get started, the partners don’t really think too much about it in the beginning right? They’re just like “I want to get something going. I want to start a company.” The years go by, and suddenly you all kind of realize you wanted slightly different things. Some of us wanted to big some of us wanted to be small and it turns out you can’t be big and small simultaneously. Prepare yourself for the worst joke of the day – except for unless you’re a TARDIS, right? [LAUGHTER] So, we just kept arguing about this for like two years. And you know we were like, “We’re still doing like great work. But those of us who wanted to be small couldn’t help noticing that there were more and more people in the office. And then we got a second office, and then we got a third office. And after all the arguing, after all the years, we sorted it all out. But we weren’t the same five partners anymore. Some people had left. Some people had come. It wasn’t always harmonious. It was a different place. But we got through it.

I confess that in this period, even though my lifelong dream ended to be a designer ended, I didn’t really mind that much right? I was in the “let’s get big” camp. I figured the bigger we were, the more different things we could do, the more problems we could solve. And I started finding my clients’ business needs and challenges kind of interesting. So, I was kind of with it right? It struck me that design wasn’t always the only or best solution. That’s probably a little bit of heresy here, but sometimes other tactics were needed. As the company grew and grew, we kept offering more and more services. Some were design related, like user experience related, or game design (that one’s pretty great by the way) Web design, like the Justin Timberlake site here. But some were not really design related. We did a lot of brand strategy and planning for companies like Lenovo right? And we would do like a lot of just pure backend development: content management systems, inventory systems, things like that. We were like getting into software design. This is still in iTunes by the way. It’s pretty exciting. We were doing all this crazy stuff, and some of it was like super not fun maybe like social media at the time, but you know. All in all, I liked that we were expanding our options and we were doing more stuff. There was 150 of us, by this point. We were in three cities. We were doing work for Shakira, GE. We were making merry-go-rounds. I mean come on, who gets to make a merry-go-round right? The UN, Google, Apple, Red Bull, Virgin Airlines, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which was very exciting because they gave me a tour and I got to see this, which is a hand drawn version of one of Peter Saville’s album covers from Power, Corruption & Lies, so that seemed like a sign that I was on the right track at least in some way in my life, right? I still like getting to do things with Peter Saville work. That was pretty cool.

For seven years, everything was great. People loved working there, not least because our number one factor in choosing who to hire was that they had to be really nice. This guy here is 20 years old in this photo. Today he’s my boss. I thought I’d throw that in there for him. We were traveling around the world. We went to conferences held by the World Economic Forum, by CES. TED was asking us to do a talk but we wouldn’t do it alone so we said no. We knew many of the major strategic plans of some of the biggest and best brands in the world. The work was still great, what could go wrong?

But then 2008 came around. And in early 2009 everything came crashing down. The markets imploded and brands all freaked out. Millions of people lost their jobs. We started in a recession so we figured everything would be alright. This is the marquee from our holiday party that year. [LAUGHTER] And many of our clients didn’t bail because it was actually cheaper to hire us on an ad hoc basis, than it was to employ people. So that was kind of a bit of a silver lining. But the budgets got tighter, and they started saying “Okay I know you have 30 day terms, but we’re going to do 60 day terms” and 60 day terms turned into 90 day terms. And some of our clients went to 120 day terms in the midst of the largest financial crisis in the world. So people just stopped paying us, which we probably still could have gotten though, but our bank was wrapped up in the housing scandal and the government was coming after them and even though we’ve done nothing wrong, outside our contract, one day they came over and they said “give us our one million dollars back right now!” right when we needed it the most: our line of credit was sort of getting us through this thing right?

We were like a family and we had to lay a bunch of people off. We were slow to do it because we loved everyone, but we finally did it and it sucked. I lost some friends through it, but you know we still made it through. Even before the Recession all these companies had been trying to buy us, but five years in – actually at the five-year mark, the head of one of the largest ad holding companies came to the office. And I had originally said that five years was my timeline right? So, I felt really good that everything went according to plan, but because it went according to plan, I was like “Oh screw this! We can do better!” So, we held out. There were all these stories like this where I get to use my fun animation again. There’s Ben on the front page of Ad Age with them telling, for Martin and John, from Omnicom and WPP to start, you know, buying these companies. And we still had a lot of agencies as clients. I love this picture so much – that’s Martin Sorrell everybody, who’s head of WPP and Ben just thought it was funny that we got, that he was talking to us. They’d routinely try and buy us and we’d talk to these big companies, but we weren’t really that interested.

But after the Recession, you know, things started getting a little darker. This is a drawing from our official company history. I was not in a super great way in the Recession; it took a lot out of me. And we were tired. We’d been doing this for nearly ten years. We were paying ourselves nothing, and had been working ourselves to the bone and my health wasn’t super great. And I’m still working it off to this day, but, you know, we’re working on it. And I had this realization one day that if I had stayed at Arnold the whole time, I probably would have made a million dollars more over that decade, than I had made working for myself. That seemed kind of pointless in a way, you know. I wasn’t really in it for the money all the time or anything, but you know it mattered. You know some of the partners – the ones who wanted to stay small – they had left at this point. So that partners that wanted to stay there, the consensus was slowly turning, that maybe we would be open to selling right?

We knew we had something really great, so the main thing that we set out to do when we were going to sell the company, and it seemed absurd, but we were very firm on it, was that if you were going to buy us nothing could change at all. Like, you aren’t going to move us; you aren’t going to rename us; you aren’t going to open offices in our name; you aren’t going to do any of this stuff; you don’t get a say in hiring; you can’t tell us what clients to take. But amazingly someone was up for it. And we settled with this Korean company called Cheil Worldwide and we did this because we really liked the people we were selling to, right? They were really good, nice people, they seemed really honest, and they were like totally cool with all of these wacky demands that we had. And the other reason why we liked them was they were like lifers, right? Koreans are lifers of business. They’re not going to be like a banker who’s at one company one day and they move to another company. We’d be dealing with the same people for the rest of our lives and we really like that. So, we figured this is going to work great! And you know what it worked great, thank you, the end good night. [LAUGHTER] No, I wish.

So for several years, it actually did work great. We sold in 2009 and for the next couple years it was pretty much the same. The company had weathered the Recession and we were doing this great work. Something had changed inside me though, and I found that the company I was working on was no longer representing all of my interests, right? And this was this really big dilemma I had, right? I had gotten really into internet start-ups in the recession because they were kind of one of the only areas of our economy that was still doing decently well in 2008/9 recession. And I realized that I wanted to work at one of these companies.

And we tried to like sort of do some of these start-ups in house, or work with start-ups and tech companies in house. And I realized that even though the Barbarian group was doing all of this great work, it wasn’t doing anything further for my life anymore, which kind of sounds really greedy when you read it like that. But I tried to shift the company to start doing more stuff with start-ups but it was really hard. Then I had this epiphany one day right? I was like “Oh, wait a minute, I work at an ad agency basically at this point, and my partners really love working here, and I’m the one who wants to change it but they’re happy and I keep thinking they’re the crazy ones, but actually I guess I’m the crazy one.” And I was like “these people like their jobs!” Right? So it didn’t make much sense. And so by this point, the other big thing, was that by this point the only time I ever got to see my clients, was when they were mad at me, right? I had all of these great people working for me. We had all of these great clients, and I was still running a few of them. I was running the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame account and Bloomberg and some other ones. But I had this great team and so I only showed up at the pitches, and when a client wanted to yell at us.

I kind of realized this company was doing alright without me, right? Some of our goals were kind of working. I had these like awesome heads of HR, and finance, and client services. These people are reporting to me, production, all of them were women. They are all great. They all have great jobs now, otherwise I’d tell you to hire them. But you know they all knew more about their jobs than I did because they actually wanted to have that job, right? So, I kind of realized I was becoming sort of redundant. And then in October of 2011, I left the company. And it was very sad, but everything went on great without me and everything was fine. So thank you the end. And you know it was a little hard when I left. [LAUGHTER] That’s Lexi, she works at Google now. I wasn’t the only one there dreaming about the internet, right? I mean I’d been babbling about this to people for years and a lot of people bought into it, and then it was like “Oh I guess you’re going to be an ad agency, I’m going to leave”. So those that bought into it with me were like “Okay we’re out of here” So, that like ended up being this unintended consequences of leaving, is like five or six more people left with me. I didn’t see that coming. So, that was a bummer.

But even with that, the company still did great for a few years. A couple of years ago it won the Inaugural Award at Cannes for Innovation Lions Grand Prix. So that was nice, you know? Like it was a little hairy for a while there, but I got out and by 2013, I would say, the company was doing well. And I was like “Alright, cool”. So I kind of went about with my life and I decided I would write a book about this whole thing. I took some time off. I wrote this book.  I wanted to write a book for people like me, right? Like people that had been working and they had a craft but suddenly they found themselves in a world where the craft was only part of the job. Suddenly they had employees, they had proposals, they had to manage a budget, all this stuff that wasn’t really the thing they had gone to school for or they loved. There’s a ton of business books out there, for people who are – ad books out there about the creativity, but you know me, you guys, we’re creative people, we’re designers, we knew that part, we just didn’t know the rest of the business. So, this is my friend at his agency reading the book. It was pretty cool. In the old days people would start these shops because they worked at one. And like a copywriter, and an art director and an account person would all leave together. And they all knew how to run an agency, but now it’s like solo people or maybe two people that are great designers and suddenly they’re getting more work and they’re like, “Oh I don’t actually know how to run a business”. So, that’s the kind of the book I set out to write.

And you know, people like it. It’s got four and a half stars on Goodreads. [LAUGHTER] I called it Agency because it was a really good pun. It was about taking agency back, but I feel like the name probably made people think, especially a lot of us who are starting these companies, who are, that word’s got a lot of baggage right? Like we want to be studios. We want to be you know, ‘agencies’ implies sort implies a little too business-y.  But the pun was so good so I decided I had to do it anyway.

It was cathartic. It sold pretty well. I still get people emailing me about it all the time, thanking me about their stories. I love that so much. I love these people that just like read the book and they tell me how much it helps their company. Which was really awesome. After that I got my wish and I took a job at an internet start-up and another job at a VC firm. And I just generally kept going on my life plan. I haven’t designed anything in probably ten years. It helped that I married this wonderful woman. She’s up there in the balcony somewhere and she’s a great designer. And I wrote a second book about our wedding: a guide for men planning weddings. [LAUGHTER] She did the book cover for it. It’s a pretty great book though, right? She did a great job.

And the Barbarian Group kept plugging along, but there is a coda and this is a little weird. I’ve never talked about this, so I’m getting a little verklempt. But, in 2014, rumors started flying around in Korea about the large conglomerate that had bought us, right? In 2015, those rumors burst onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal and other publications and there was this big scandal. The CEO king of the holding company that bought us had died, and his family was trying to keep control of the company. The company comprised of myriad divisions with an insanely complex stock structure. Some shady trades were maybe made. And some people started going to jail, right? And the small, teeny division that had bought the Barbarian Group was part of this whole thing. It was roped into the scandal. I don’t know how. But suddenly the people who had bought the company, that had been our partners at this holding company, that we thought were going to be there for life were out. And there was a whole new world of people that were put in.

This company was not expecting it right? Korean companies are generally not built to suddenly have the CEO and the second in command suddenly disappear. They don’t really have like people in waiting and like a whole like deep bench like we do, like some people do.

Anyway they were gone and basically these new people came and were like, “Why do we own this weird little company in New York that doesn’t really do anything? What’s the purpose of this?” And so ,for five years after I left, the Barbarian group did great. But within a year it had laid low by forces completely beyond its control. Ben and Keith had stuck around for a long time, but at this point they had to leave the company. An amazing woman named Sophie, who we had all found together to hire to replace me, she was CEO, she had to leave the company. A series of new leaders were brought in, usually Korean, usually didn’t know anything about the company, generally financial. And things got dark. The other thing I have to confess is that’s literally my secret quote. I set it on background back then, but that’s kind of like chicken, so I’m admitting it today. So, about two years ago on Christmas Eve, I left my house without telling my wife, because I get up earlier than she does. And I drove into town where I live now in North Carolina and I met the nominal American CEO of the parent company that owned the Barbarian Group at this point right?

I was sitting in my car and I was like “Oh my god what am I doing?” But I offered to buy the company back. I didn’t have the money, but I figured if they said they were interested, I could probably get the money. I figured I could get Sophie back and I didn’t really want to run the company. And I was sitting in my car and I was like, “What am I doing? This is insane.” I was freaking out. Why I was I doing it? I had been gone for five years at this point. I didn’t really want to do it, it wasn’t really part of my life plan. But I just felt like I had to do it, right?

So, in this desolate office, emptied employees for the holidays. The ironic thing is I took this picture off the internet but if you find the picture, right here, this is the guy’s office and he’s literally sitting in the office right where he was sitting when I had the talk to him, but I cut it out because I thought that was a little too on the nose. But anyway, I told this guy, I came in and I was like “I want to buy my company back”. And he was like, “Well, I don’t really blame you but the truth of the matter is, I don’t really know who I report to anymore. And I’m like the American CEO nominally in name only, and I don’t really have any authority, but I guess I can try and pass it along to whoever’s in charge of this place now.” So, you know, he tried. It’s probably not super surprising that I never heard back right? And I’m still not too sure how I feel about that right? You know, I think it will be okay either way. Like my life is going pretty well. I was living in the woods in North Carolina by this point. I was like trying to get my health back and I was like, “Wow, I don’t know if I just dodged a bullet or if that’s a real bummer.”

But I think it’s okay either way, you know. I was kind of I was out of it, right? I mean I was living in the woods but at the same time I had been writing a book for the last few years about advertising and economics. I had been consulting for this great start-up. I was pretty deep in the world of digital and advertising still, so I figured like I could probably step up to do it. But you know, I was excited about the challenge. But that being said, I feel okay that it didn’t work out. A wise monk said, “the wheels of chance will turn my way”. This was designed by Peter Saville.

Since then, the Barbarian Group has gotten like a lot worse. And then now it’s getting a little bit better. They’ve got a new leader now. The name survives. They’re trying again. I’ve talked to her a little bit. I wish them all the best of luck. She seems pretty great. I never really talk about any of this but Adobe asked me to talk about it. So like I figured I should probably step up. I figure this is a room filled with really talented designers. And I know that from writing Agency that some of you are probably thinking about this sort of journey, or you’ve done it or some of it sounds familiar. And I suspect if that’s the case, much of this, you now, could be useful for you.

I’m expecting a baby with my wife this fall [APPLAUSE] It’s pretty exciting. But you know, it’s interesting. You know some days I think about taking the bio, like I still have it in my Twitter bio right? “Co-founded Barbarian Group”. It’s still there. And some days I get angry, like especially the last couple of years I was like all angry. I was like “I’m going to take it out, I can’t do it, it’s going to go away”. But, you can’t really do it you know? Like it feels like a child. I feel like it’s out there in the world. Like, I used to think that like management was akin to parenthood right? You’re responsible for the livelihood of all these people that work there and it was really stressful. And I still think that’s true, but I think perhaps more so it’s true of the company.

If you found this company and then it’s out there in the world. It’s being its own thing. It’s making its own decisions. You don’t really have any say about it. And it’s still tied to you through these invisible bonds. But it’s its own being now. And I feel like that’s kind of a taste of what will come with this child, right? The company’s kind of hopefully prepared me for that a little bit. And if it is, I think I can live with that. There I am way in the back. And I get to use my laser pointer again. [LAUGHTER] And that’s it! Thank you very much.

[APPLAUSE]

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Rick Webb