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Executive Interview: John Barker

In this week's post we’ve invited advertising executive John Barker to weigh in on the state of advertising during these economic times and share some of his insight on the advertising industry as it relates to his years of his experience working with cable networks. Mr. Barker helped launch breakthrough series such as Rosanne, thirtysomething, NYPD Blue and Twin Peaks for ABC Network and founded Barker/DZP in 2003, recently selected as one of the HOT 100 fastest growing new small businesses in America by Entrepreneur and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

CU: What should an independent producer keep in mind when mapping out a marketing plan for a new show idea and finished product?

JB: Being mindful and honest about who the target audience really is, that's what will help narrow and define the most promising niche. And with so many different avenues to the public these days, it's easier for that audience to find it. It's a big mistake in my view to overestimate or oversell the target, as in, "this will appeal to women." Really? Which women? When and why? You can't honestly target 150 million people with anything.

CU: What type of design / designers really inspire you?

JB: The world’s greatest commercial designers (meaning outside of fine art) are the ones whose work facilitates the message, adds velocity or layers or nuances. Too many young art directors and designers are wrestling against the message instead of empowering it. The best ones always approach the work with a measure of humility. They understand that design is not the goal, but the path.

CU: What is the best advertising campaign you have seen in the past year regardless of industry or medium?

JB: Unfortunately, one of the best is from cable's arch rival. I think the Verizon FIOS campaign is an example of an agency really nailing it on every level. They focused on the simplicity of a big idea and used the power of humor as well as the moment of transaction. Too much of the industry’s own efforts are just tactical sales spots about the triple play. We've forgotten as an industry to make entertainment bigger and better than ever, which is all FIOS is looking to own. That's a pretty easy message for consumers compared to bundles and busy graphics. As for inside our industry, the campaign I wish my agency had done was Dexter from Showtime. Strategically and creatively, it's “10s” across the board. And Red Group at Showtime is tough to beat any day.

CU: The worst?

JB: There are dozens tied for last. But most of them start with bad copy and get worse from there. But oddly enough, the Head-On spots, which many people give the Razzy, are eerily brilliant. They're so bad that they take on this Mentos-type cultish appeal. I kind of wish we had done them.

CU: In your experience in working with cable networks, how has the role of product placement changed over the last couple of years and what can producers do (if anything) to help foster relationships between the network and their advertisers/sponsors?

JB: Product placement was obviously gaining steam before the recession hit full force. I don't know how those budgets will be affected in 2009. But clearly a willingness to be creative around a network's sponsors is a plus. I don't know about fostering relationships though. That could get a bit sticky with ad sales, since they have their own priorities.

CU: What's the most frequent error non-professional marketers / advertisers make?

JB: Not hiring professionals.

CU: What's been the most rewarding and successful project you've worked on?

JB: Early in my career, it was launching Twin Peaks. I was a 23 year old junior writer and it took me three weeks to come up with a very simple line, "Who killed Laura Palmer?". But it was like the key that unlocked the show and took it from this sort of throw away cult piece and helped it be a real moment in pop culture. Most recently, it was working with Chris Moseley and her amazing team at History to evolve that brand to the "Made Every Day" platform. They're doing some amazing things there in both programming and marketing.

CU: How has cable network marketing has changed in the past two decades and where it is going?

JB: Well, first, it's gotten a lot better. But we're seeing two camps forming. The first, and more successful in my view, is producing advertising and promotion which is strategic, thought-provoking, edgy and iconic. FX has done an amazing job, for example. History, A&E, Showtime, and USA also get high marks, and obviously there are more. But there are a lot of other networks that are just throwing some photo shoots on a bus side with bad puns. It's the print equivalent of a laugh track. But no one's laughing.

CU: What is the quality of cable advertising compared to broadcast and new media?

JB: At its best, it's every bit as good or even better. Probably because we all get a bit more latitude from Standards. But even the average stuff still stacks up fairly well. Particularly in on-air, there are a lot of great people who've grown up in the industry and can use the technology to make up for what they may not have in budgets. That said, when FOX wants to spend $1 million shooting and designing a campaign for NASCAR or what have you, it's going to blow us away.

CU: Is cable leading advertising trends or following?

JB: I feel we're leading in many ways. Particularly on the network side, where a lot of players got an early jump on cross-platform campaigns, since they already had the web properties in place. Most of these companies are smaller and more nimble than the big CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies, so it's often easier to latch onto new ideas and make them happen quickly.

CU: What factors are involved in a network deciding to make a brand change? What are some of the most successful brand changes?

JB: The factors are dollars, plain and simple. At the end of the day, there is little conceptual difference between a cable network and a brick and mortar retailer. Its sales per day per square foot. Cable networks are basically real estate, and if it makes more sense to tear it down and build something more appealing, then those discussions get started. TNN to Spike is a perfect example of a radical change, but Mr. Koonin and his crew at Turner have made a series of more subtle moves designed to do the same thing and optimize delivery across a broader segmentation without cannibalizing internally.

CU: How should cable networks alter their marketing campaigns with regards to the current economic climate? Or should they stay the course?

JB: We're obviously in a bit of a crisis now, but that also means opportunity. The most aggressive marketers will be the winners. I know it's a tough sell in the boardroom, but empirically there is no better time to spend than when your dollars go farther and your competition is quiet.