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No Nametags: Rick Webb, The Barbarian Group

In our No Nametags interview series, Geekosystem chats with the creators, operators, and visionaries in today’s tech scene.

Last week, we spoke with Rick Webb, co-founder and COO of The Barbarian Group, a digital marketing firm and creative agency with a personality, as immediately displayed upon visiting their website: “Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as fear, surprise, art direction, design, technology, content creation, strategy, gaming, viral marketing, an almost radical devotion to Internet culture and nice red Swedish Fish™.”

Speaking with Webb at Tom & Jerry’s, a bar in NoHo that happened to be displaying an art installation during the time of our chat, we discussed the differences between running a tech-related firm in Boston and New York, his angel investing ventures, his music label, The Archenemy Record Company, known for geek rockers Freezepop, his views on the tech and advertising bubble and on advertising in today’s world of modern technology.

Geekosystem: First off, we need to get something out of the way. How was it running a music label, and how was it working with Freezepop?

Rick Webb: The label started first, but everybody knew each other. As Freezepop got big on the label, the Barbarian Group was just getting started. We almost had dual roles [running the label], it still is [running], we still put things out, but the Barbarian Group took off…and there’s been a lot links actually on Freezepop Forever when it got rereleased with the advanced CD, the Barbarian Group did all that content and we did a video for them for “Less Talk More Rokk,” so we’ve always been pretty connected [with Freezepop], but it’s all just from Boston tech–the Barbarian Group has done work for Harmonix. The two companies, Harmonix and Barbarian Group, have sort of been the two hearty tech things that have come out of Boston.

Geekosystem: So, you’re not in Boston anymore.

Rick Webb: No, I was the last person to leave. Keith came down here in about 2007, and what happened was we just went with it, ‘Oh, we have New York office now,’ and it was just his apartment. Upon seeing we had a New York office, it upset one of our original theories, that people would hire an Internet company regardless of where they were. I think we were a little too overly optimistic about that. The first few years we thought Boston would’ve been fine and nobody would’ve cared, and that’s probably true, but as soon as we came here… we realized that it was really a community.

Geekosystem: And you’ve found that New York has been treating the business better?

Rick Webb: Well, Ben was already here and it was already our biggest office. Our headquarters are officially in Boston…but all our work was coming from here [by the time I moved down.] If you look at our top five clients, it was always that two of them would be here.

Geekosystem: You do a bit of angel investing. Is that what you would consider your main thing, capital “T?”

Rick Webb: No, it’s very complementary. The Barbarian Group is definitely a full-time job. I think there are some advantages. If you look at the things I’ve invested in, like Foursquare and Fashism, they’re things that brands are really interested in, and they’re new advertising opportunities. There are advantages on both sides. Our clients are always looking for really interesting new things to reach their audience, and the hot ones are always impossible to do.

Geekosystem: Which startup have you found was the hardest one that you ended up getting?

Rick Webb: Foursquare is definitely in the most demand, but that’s also different than everything else I’ve done because [I got in on the] second round, they were really good friends. I was one of their beta testers. That was the hardest, but it was total friends–everything I’ve done so far is with people I’ve known already. The other angle where they sort of overlap is the Barbarian Group used to do a lot of startup work…and what I’ve realized is [angel investing] works sometimes and it doesn’t work other times, and some of the startups I’m working with were actually companies that we thought about doing work with but the Barbarian Group decided not to. It was still a good idea, but they weren’t right for us. This is what I do and love and have loved for a long time…and it’s working out okay, so I’m starting to learn to trust my instincts a little bit, but I’m also worried about the bubble side of it.

Geekosystem: I’ve read a few of your, uh…very long…articles…

Rick Webb: I’ve been having a massive internal debate about that. I don’t think there’s any doubt we’re in a bubble, but you take your straw and you have gum, your bubble is a bubble even if it’s a millimeter big. That doesn’t mean it’s going to pop right away.

“We’re in a bubble, but the Internet is hugely influential and not changing.”

Geekosystem: Then you think it will at some point?

Rick Webb: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It’s going to at some point, but that could [happen] in a lot of different ways. I think that we, in tech investing and tech in general, we — partially because the crowd is so young and partially because the Internet is a battle — look at what’s happened so far and assume that’s what’s always going to happen, and we don’t look at wider examples of similar economic trends outside of tech. For instance, everybody assumes advertising is right for disruption, that it’s the main way to make money in tech and algorithms are key to that, because Google made its money by algorithms related to advertising, [so we think] that every other major tech thing is going to make money by algorithms related to advertising. So, I really wrestle with what’s happened in bubbles outside of advertising.

It’s really hard to reconcile between being an economist whose always known exactly what the characteristics of a bubble are, against always having worked on the Internet my whole life and profoundly believing in its potential for transformation, and empirically seeing it all around us. It’s obvious it’s changing our lives. Trying to reconcile those theories is actually one of my biggest mental problems right now. We’re in a bubble, but the Internet is hugely influential and not changing.

Geekosystem: Do you think there’s a way to avoid bubbles, or at least sustain them forever so they’ll never pop?

Rick Webb: No, but it might not pop this time. I have to admit, I’m still wrestling with it.

Geekosystem: The Barbarian Group is mainly advertising. You know the saying, ‘The most creative minds are sitting in offices trying to figure out how to get us to click on stuff?’ How are you working on ways to get us to click on stuff?

Rick Webb: First, I have to say something about that quote…everybody’s saying that about someone else. You say that about advertising, and I say ‘Oh, that’s funny you say that about advertising, I thought it was tech that’s taking the greatest minds and making us click on stuff, [but then tech says] we all thought it was the financial industry.’ I don’t think that advertising is — at this point, it has a very high handicap of taking the greatest minds in this country and doing anything. We’re probably fifth in line, after tech and finance and law.

Geekosystem: So, every industry is destroying minds! How would you get me to click on an ad, me being, lets say, someone who knows what he wants and knows whether or not the ad is for something I need or want?

Rick Webb: Well, with that question you are presupposing a lot. In setting up that question, you’ve eliminated a large set of tools that the Barbarian Group would use. If I have an automobile brand and you’re exactly the person I want to sell to, and you were on a website that was reading something that aligned with your demographic — that’s a lot of ifs, and it’s our job to cover all the other ifs. Just because you are the exact demographic of people that like Volkswagens and people that like Volkswagens read art blogs, you could be on a golf blog, and most of those social mechanics are useless.

But, lets say you are on an art blog…there are two big tools that are still at our disposal. One, we can work a deal with that blog to sponsor really good content on that blog and make it clear that we sponsored it. So, you’re reading something that you find really wonderful, and you’re thankful that this brand brought it to you. So, that’s sort of like the premium sponsorship opportunities. The other tool would be some sort of widget from some sort of tech company that knew that your friends had seen this article also, or that your friends liked Volkswagen, and you bring the social world into it. But I think that’s where the disconnect is. Most of the tech world equates advertising to that widget. They’re not even really thinking about the premium content — though they are now because they’ve funded a ton of blog networks — so, they’re kind of becoming aware of the branded content, but everything else at they’re disposal doesn’t really enter the world of finance. We could do a game, we could do an event, a branded utility, or offer people a free thing.

Geekosystem: You’re saying that a creative way to get me to click on an ad is to get me to like the company — not necessarily as if I’m doing them a favor, but more of ‘X company is so cool, I’ll click on their ad.’

Rick Webb: Right. The Barbarian Group is actually very non-tech…I mean we have developers, lots of them, but we build things to suit custom consultation. It’s much more like your lawyers. You were wronged by an entity and you needed to sue them, you don’t go to LegalZoom and just get the lawsuit papers, you go to your lawyers and you sit down and plot out how am I going to do this? What’s the best approach? What’re the pros and cons? Holistically, what’re we going to do here? Is there a PR angle? Do we work the press? It’s actually very similar, and I think most of tech investing forgets that entire side of advertising.

Geekosystem: What’s next for the Barbarian Group? Anything big, or are you just going to ride the current wave?

Rick Webb: The wave moves slowly, and I feel like the Barbarian Group is well-positioned for it. The vision of where advertising is going at this point is pretty clear. We used to go to panels and conferences and we would argue these totally different visions of it, and everybody kind of agrees now, so everybody is trying to become this entity we all know, and I think we were very well-positioned for that in a lot of ways, but everybody has to move a little bit. We are well-positioned…but it’s a race to perfecting the vision that everybody sees is happening now.

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