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If you’re wondering why, you should think back to what you were doing at nine in the morning on April 7, 2004. Can’t remember off the top of your head? There’s an excellent chance you were online watching a man in a chicken suit flopping around a living room. The site was called “The Subservient Chicken.” Made by The Barbarian Group for Burger King with ad agency Crispin Porter Bogusky, it allowed you to type instructions into a box. Whatever you asked, the chicken did.

Somehow users couldn’t resist giving orders to the obliging bird. In its first 48 hours, “The Subservient Chicken” recorded 25 million visitors. And it didn’t stop there. Two-and-a-half years later, the site is still popular.

“The chicken was the big moment,” admits chief operating officer Rick Webb.

And it’s not just one Web site. The Barbarians regularly come up with ideas that generate huge audiences. Recently, for example, they built a high-velocity beer can cannon and used it to obliterate melons, television sets and flower vases. The resulting video—lovingly recorded with a 2,000 frame-per-second camera—has been viewed more than 2 million times.

Of course, it’s tempting to think that creative lightning simply strikes more often than usual on Boston’s Newbury Street, but the Barbarians have a long history of grabbing Internet attention. Though the firm was launched in late 2001, its founders were all veterans of an era in which interactive designers vied with one another to create eye-popping mini-sites.

From 2000–2001, the mini-site was much like the viral video of today. Corporations hired ad agencies to deliver online experiences that “pushed the limits,” typically with creative uses of design and technology. Though that’s a long way from chickens and cannons, the future Barbarians were good at it too. Robert Hodgin’s Turbonium.com, for example, was so remarkable for its time that Macromedia, the maker of Flash, once ran an ad about it. Its memorable if not particularly classy tagline was “How the (expletive deleted) did they do that?”

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But like everything on the Web, the push-the-envelope mini-site didn’t last long. Companies began to demand something more than dazzling (and often pointless) examples of Web wizardry. At the same time, the Barbarians were approaching burnout with agency jobs that forced them to continually produce new ideas for the same clients.
“Inevitably you get bored,” says Benjamin Palmer, the firm’s president. “After doing nine mini-sites for Volkswagen, it struck us that this kind of work was going to be common…and ad agencies were not the place for people doing it.”

They realized that the industry needed independent firms that specialized in ultra-creative Web sites. Agencies could hire them piecemeal for specific projects, much like they did with film production companies. The advantage for the Barbarians would be that they’d work on enough different projects to keep their creative edge. The advantage for the agencies would be that they wouldn’t have to maintain large in-house staffs.

Things got serious at the end of 2001, when Hodgin received a large freelance contract from Wieden Kennedy and asked his friends to pitch in and help. They formed The Barbarian Group, and the resulting site, for Nike ACQ, was a big success. Soon several Boston-area agencies were partnering with the upstart firm.

“We didn’t care about taking the brand away and we didn’t care about being an agency of record,” says Webb. “We cared about brands and taking them to the Web.”

For the most part, the Barbarians spent their early years working out the kinks in their processes. Then came the chicken. For online advertising, it was a watershed moment. Rather than another beautiful mini-site, it was a de-designed, cheaply-shot interactive video, with a simple interface and message. But it reached millions of customers around the world.

Soon, everyone was knocking on the Barbarians’ door looking for a similar return on investment. While the firm has not yet built anything that matched the chicken’s absurd popularity, it has created a number of successful viral campaigns.

We always focus on what would be the most fascinating thing to do, before we think about how we’re going to do it.” —Benjamin Palmer

A large part of the Barbarians’ success is due to their ability to make the seemingly impossible happen, something they attribute to their unique creative process. Nowadays, most interactive agencies work on something called the “brand extension” model. It begins with a lengthy discovery phase, in which a firm learns everything it can about its client’s brand. Then, it writes a proposal that takes those offline concepts and “extends” them to the Net.

The Barbarians typically turn this on its head. “When we put together a brief, I send it to the whole company,” says Palmer. “We always focus on what would be the most fascinating thing to do, before we think about how we’re going to do it.”

In other words, the crazy idea comes first, and then the Barbarians reverse engineer it back to the brand. Though a risky way of doing business, it makes sense. On the Internet today, advertisers don’t merely compete with other advertisers, they also have to compete with anyone who has a video camera. A traditionally clever TV spot stands no chance against a ten-second video of grandma falling off a stepladder.

Not surprisingly, the Barbarians usually deal in the extreme. Sometimes they use over-the-top humor, as they did in their site for Milwaukee’s Best Light. Its highlight was a series of male-oriented activities, such as a game in which users help a sleazy guy surreptitiously ogle his best friend’s sister.

“It doesn’t look real pretty but it works,” says Webb. “It’s a holistic approach to the brand…and it got the word out on the viral side.”

Other projects take advantage of the firm’s techno-design roots. A good example is the award-winning Comcastic.com, which the Barbarians helped execute for Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. Intended to demonstrate the virtues of broadband, it features brightly colored, high-speed multiplayer games. The result is smooth and beautiful—worlds away from the low-fi videos typically associated with the firm.

But, like the chicken, the firm’s most intriguing projects tend to use interactive video. The best recent example is AnyFilms.net, which was produced for Samsung with advertising agency Margeotes Fertitta Powell. Initially the project’s creative brief asked for an online video-editing application, but at this the Barbarians balked. Plenty of similar sites already existed, and they weren’t popular with users. Instead, they went into their usual creative process and eventually dreamed up an entirely new way to “edit” a film. “Ben [Palmer] came up with this idea of a graph with two emotional axes, and icons that are visual representations of plot elements,” says Webb. “You place the icons on the grid and make a film without thinking too much about it.”

The chicken was the big moment." —Rick Webb

Of course, getting AnyFilms.net to work was an enormous task. The Barbarians and their agency partners wrote potential scenes out on 400 index cards and then manipulated them to make sure that no matter what choices a user made, a coherent story would result. After that, a team of writers created a script and a film crew shot hours of footage. The resulting site features 11,000 possible storylines and 10 different endings.

Needless to say, the Barbarians know that they’re in a tough business. Continually producing work that steals viewers away from viral video is not easy. In fact, to keep their edge, they’ve recently decided to open a lab, where employees will work on purely creative projects for a month or so every year. They hope enough interesting ideas will result to power future viral campaigns.

At the same time, they are also looking past the current rage for video and social networking on the Web. Instead, they’re trying to convince companies to provide useful, branded services for users—an interesting idea, but one that could also create a new arms race of its own.

Still, you won’t find the Barbarians worrying. They see a lot of time and opportunities left. “The best thing about the Internet is that it’s still new,” says Palmer. “There are still a lot more things that haven’t been done than have.”

The Barbarians seem bent on trying all of them. The way they see it, the next Subservient Chicken is clucking around the corner somewhere, and they want to make sure they find it first. ca

Joe Shepter is a freelance writer specializing in travel and interactive media. He has worked with Adobe, Oracle, Whirlpool and Coca-Cola, among others.

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