Barton F. Graf Will Close, Ending Its Run as Advertising’s Weirdest Agency

The independent shop will close by the end of the year

Portrait of Barton F. Graf holding the BFG 9000 gun from Doom
Gerry Graf named Barton F. Graf after his father, immortalized in this agency portrait holding the 'BFG 9000' gun from classic video game Doom. Barton F. Graf

Independent New York agency Barton F. Graf will close its doors by the end of 2019 after nearly a decade in business, the agency confirmed for Adweek.

The agency will wind down existing relationships with clients including Supercell, Little Caesars, Diageo and Fox prior to closing.

Visited at his office by Adweek today, agency founder Gerry Graf declined to comment.

Headshot of Gerry Graf
Gerry Graf
Barton F. Graf

“My first reaction was ‘ugh.’ We need Barton F. Graf,” TBWA\Chiat\Day New York CEO Rob Schwartz said, adding that agencies like Barton F. Graf “keep us all on our toes.”

“They keep us laughing. They keep us human,” he said. “The more you look at the creative landscape, the less funny it is. That was a great funny factory.”

Schwartz noted that the shop’s closing points to the fact that remaining independent has become increasingly difficult, not only within the advertising industry but in general.

“I think it’s very hard to be independent in almost any industry now,” Schwartz said. “What this does say is that scale is here to stay. We have to figure out how to have unique voices within scaled enterprises.”

Graf founded Barton F. Graf 9000 in 2010, following stints as chief creative officer for TBWA\Chiat\Day New York and Saatchi & Saatchi, naming the agency after his father. Barton F. Graf soon developed a reputation for its quirky and often bizarre humor that would remain with the agency throughout its history.

It began working with Kayak as one of its earliest clients, bringing on Dish Network shortly after in 2011. Building on its early success, the agency established relationships with Little Caesars and Unilever (including on the Ragu brand) in 2012. Supercell soon came aboard, and, in 2015, the agency brought the company’s Clash of Clans game to the Super Bowl with an ad starring Liam Neeson that was among that year’s most-watched on YouTube. The agency also picked up four Snyder’s-Lance brands in early 2015: Cape Cod potato chips, Snyder’s of Hanover pretzels, Pretzel Crisps and Lance crackers.

It soon became clear that the agency had outgrown its original home, and it moved into a larger office. At the beginning of 2016, the agency dropped the “9000” from its name and moved away from the BFG abbreviation.

Later that year, Barton F. Graf began a string of leadership changes with the departure of executive creative director Scott Vitrone. Ian Reichenthal, an executive creative director who had long served as Vitrone’s creative partner, followed suit less than a year later, following the arrival of former JWT CCO Jeff Benjamin as partner, executive creative director in February.

In May 2018, Grey New York partner, evp and global account director Caroline Winterson took over as CEO with the departure of Barton F. Graf co-founder Barney Robinson and partner, chief strategy officer Laura Janness. The following month, the agency hired Savanah Brihn as Janness’ successor as chief strategy officer and promoted head of project management Sara Kastner to the new role of chief operating officer. Robinson and Janness went on to co-found a new agency called Lightning Orchard, along with “The Most Interesting Man in the World” creative Jeff Kling, in November 2018.

This past February, Benjamin resigned from the agency. The following month, Barton F. Graf went through a series of layoffs after a number of clients, including Supercell, moved to project-based relationships. The industry trend of clients moving to project-based relationships appears to have hit Barton F. Graf, an agency founded at a time when AOR relationships were still the norm, especially hard.

“The shift from the once-standard agency-of-record model to project-based relationships has hurt a lot of agencies,” VCU Brandcenter executive director Vann Graves told Adweek. “The closure of a great creative shop like Barton F. Graf will be a great loss to the industry. Gerry and his team at BFG have created their own unique style that has resonated with both clients and audiences.”

“It’s incredibly sad. There are not a ton of agencies, especially small ones, who are out there carrying the torch for creatively driven work, and now there’s one less. Clearly, it’s harder than ever for creative-first shops to survive in today’s marketplace,” Deacon Webster, co-founder and CCO of independent creative and media agency Walrus, said. “We’ve reached an inflection point in the industry—clients are either going the direction of enlisting their accountants and a room full robots to play the numbers and deliver mediocre but predictable results, or they’re putting their faith in innovative, out-of-the-box thinking that has the power to change businesses.”

Barton F. Graf leaves behind a lasting influence on the ad industry, including independent agencies formed by veterans of the shop. In addition to Lightning Orchard, former Barton F. Graf executive creative director Eric Kallman teamed up with former CP+B president Steve Erich to found San Francisco shop Erich & Kallman in May 2016.

“I was absolutely crushed by hearing of the closing of BFG. Not only did that shop have an enormous impact on my life and my work, I think it’s made a huge influence on the standard of work in this industry. You can see the profound effect Gerry has had on all the people that have ever worked for him, in their work and the work coming out of their new agencies,” Zoe Kessler, an art director and creative director at Barton F. Graf from 2016 to 2019, told Adweek. “His approach is sprinkled around the industry through each of us that have been coached by him. I feel really lucky to have spent time under his tutelage. Hopefully, the Barton brand can live on after its closing through us.”

David Griner and Patrick Coffee contributed reporting to this story. 

@ErikDOster Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
@Minda_Smiley Minda Smiley is an agencies reporter at Adweek.
Publish date: August 6, 2019 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT