Kansas City agency Barkley hasn’t lost a single client during Covid and has managed to keep all of its partners on staff without furloughs or layoffs so far. What’s more, they’ve been winning business - a lot of it. Recent months have seen successful Zoom pitches with the likes of Delta Faucets, Copper Mountain Resorts, U.S. Bank Credit Cards and San Jose St University, with a few more to announce in the future and other potentials still pitching. 2019 saw the highest revenue in the agency’s 50-year history, and projections suggest that they’re set to top that by an extra 15% in 2020.
Jason Parks, the agency’s chief growth officer, is knocking on wood as he relays this to LBB’s Addison Capper, who was picking his brains to get the full lowdown.
LBB> You've been winning pitches recently, which is positive to hear considering the circumstances. Tell us about recent months - what have you been winning and what has the experience been like?
Jason> We have been very fortunate to continue to grow in such challenging circumstances. We’ve won a wide range of clients from Delta Faucets, Copper Mountain Resorts, U.S. Bank Credit Cards and San Jose St University. And we have a few more to announce in the very near future.
LBB> How many of these pitches have been guided by / a reaction to Covid? And how has that informed your approach to them?
Jason> Honestly, the vast majority of the reviews have been driven by brands looking for an agency partner that could help them connect with modern consumers and drive long-term growth versus a momentary reaction to the pandemic. However, I do believe that Covid might have accelerated some of the reviews as brands are focused on growth.
LBB> Tell me about the act of pitching in Covid times - what is the experience like?
Jason> In some ways, it’s the same as pre-Covid. And in other ways, it’s completely different. The process has been very much the same. Beginning with RFP responses, client briefing meetings, work sessions and then final presentations. What is different is the method. Obviously, everything is virtual. The two biggest challenges are facilitating creative ideas when teams can’t meet in-person and finding ways to demonstrate chemistry and culture in an online environment. There’s something special about the energy of being in the pitch room together - orchestrating it in an online environment is a challenge. In contrast, one of the interesting outcomes we’ve noticed is that barriers come down more quickly since you are meeting someone in their kitchen, home office or deck. You get a more authentic sense of who they are as a person than you normally would get in their office setting.
LBB> What have you learned from the experience that you will take into the post-Covid pitching process? And what can't you wait to leave behind?
Jason> We definitely miss the energy of being together to collaborate on ideas and making the final presentation. I’d leave conducting the final show via Zoom behind in a heartbeat. I admit that I’ll miss the current dress code for final pitches - dress shirt with a pair of shorts or sweatpants. That’s been nice.
On the positive side, it has at least shown that it’s possible to do pitch meetings remotely, so I imagine we’ll see a hybrid approach in the future, perhaps with chemistry and final pitch face-to-face, but with tissue sessions on video conference.
LBB> You're also exercising some interesting approaches to strategy and account management too. What does that involve and what was the setup inspired by?
Jason> We have a strong belief in building what we call ‘whole brands’ which are brands that grow across a spectrum of business ideas to marketing ideas. But we can't just believe in it, we have to build it. And that starts with strategy. So we've built a strategy coalition that is made up of agency strategists, client-side marketers, and management consultants, all in-house and at all levels with both generalists and specialists.
We avoid the old-school, strategy in a corner, hand off the brief, type of strategy. We embrace the reality that strategy is messy and blurs the lines and integrate it from start to finish.
Just as we create modern brands for modern consumers, we also modernised the outdated role of old account management and client services. The core of these trusted advisor roles is brand leadership, they become business experts in guiding brands along their journey with Barkley and to help create the conditions for creativity to thrive.
LBB> How has this setup aided you in your recent new business wins?
Jason> I think we have thrived during Covid because 1) we don't think like an agency, 2) we cultivated a team of business experts with high adaptability, so we were ready when the crisis hit and 3) we have empathy for what our brands and clients are going through and are willing to make decisions that protect our long-term market share. Even to the extent of giving up some short-term profits, we are adaptable to our clients’ needs. It's the right thing to do to protect their business and ours.
Thanks to this mentality and diverse client roster, we have not lost a single client during Covid and have managed to keep all of our partners on staff without furloughs or layoffs so far.
LBB> You were promoted to chief growth officer in March of last year. Overall, on top of Covid times, how has the past 18 months been for Barkley?
Jason> It’s been a wild ride. We were fortunate that we had the highest revenue in our company’s 50-plus year history in 2019. And we’re forecasting topping that by another 15% in 2020. We’ve done this through a strong focus on client retention, organic growth and winning 17 accounts in the past 18 months (I’m knocking on wood as I say this).
LBB> You're based in Kansas City - I wondered how that impacts your new business ventures these days, if at all?
Jason> Kansas City is a positive, highly creative city. VMLY&R and Hallmark are headquartered here. Barkley is one of the largest independent agencies in the country. There’s a lot of creative firepower and inspiration to pull from.
LBB> What are your plans/ambitions for the rest of the year and the beginning of 2021?
Jason> We are in the finals for a few more major reviews, so the goal is to continue winning!