WORDS Lauren Kramer > PHOTOGRAPHY Lia Crowe
Founder of Barlow Media, Carrie Barlow is a woman at the helm of an industry where her clients share a singular goal: to rise above the marketplace noise and get their messages heard.
Carrie’s specialty is helping her clients affirm their core target audience, identifying that demographic’s psychographic and sociographic profile and then devising and executing a media strategy that will allow their messaging to be amplified.
At 57, her client roster has included big names like Kal Tire, SunRype, Concert Properties, CityTV, London Drugs, A&W, Value Village, the BC government and United Way, while her political work has encompassed national advocacy groups and many provincial and federal elections.
A small-town girl from Prince George, Carrie knew her calling from day one. She left home at 18 to study marketing and communications at BCIT in Vancouver and, after graduating, joined an agency and launched her career in advertising. The next 18 years were a blur of 50-hour work weeks as she addressed the needs of clients large and small, and later, added a part-time teaching position at BCIT in strategic media planning and buying to her schedule.
But by 2000, pregnant with her son, she was ready for change. Suspecting that those long hours at the agency were incompatible with child raising, she started Barlow Media out of a home office in North Vancouver.
“I knew there were BC-based clients out there seeking local media-buying agencies staffed by people who lived among the same consumers and understood the marketplace and its challenges, rather than working with a Toronto-based agency,” she reflected. “I was lucky to have the support of several clients who left the agency to work with me, and thanks to my teaching position at BCIT, I could pick the cream of the crop as my staff base. In media, team talent is your only offering.”
Within nine months Barlow Media had outgrown its home office and moved into commercial office space. Today the company has 10 media buyers on staff, the majority of them graduates of the program Carrie still teaches to this day.
“All of us at Barlow Media are trained in media planning, buying, strategy and maintenance across all media, offline and online,” she explained. “Clients come to us with a product, service or message they need to communicate, and after reaffirming their core target audiences and the required response for success, we construct a media journey of the exposure they need, be it visual, audio, digital, mobile or even game-based. Once we have a cohesive plan in place, we execute the strategy.”
A testament to her skill in devising custom media strategies, Carrie’s clients are loyal and enduring. Case in point: Kal Tire has been a client for 20 years.
“All our clients respect the fact that it takes so much today to be part of the conversation and to have your message really rise above the noise,” she says. “Narrative and tone are really at the forefront of the social and editorial space, and our clients need the personal investment and custom solutions that a media company like ours is able to deliver.”
Hers is an industry where change occurs at lightning speed, which means media planners and buyers have to be on their toes, educating themselves about new regulations and innovations across the media landscape. Because Barlow Media has a relatively small, nimble team, decisions can happen fast, allowing strategies to pivot and respond to changing conditions immediately.
The pandemic presented its own set of unique conditions. The contracting market meant companies were running lean and trying to make their finances stretch ever further. For Barlow Media’s team, that created the perfect storm of opportunity.
“You test your skills during the bad times more than the good, and when we leaned in together, we created far more cost-efficient, inventive and effective plays within the media landscape,” she says.
In terms of media consumption, it was also a time of turbulent change.
“[Former US president] Trump created a situation where people who never read the news before are now reading it and having an opinion on it. To me, that’s a victory,” she says. “In Canada we saw people in all demographics, but particularly the younger demographics, engaging in the news. That’s great because it impacts society and gets people more involved in their communities.”
Carrie clearly loves the exhilarating, break-neck pace of media buying, and the challenges it presents. But she’s the first to admit that while being her own boss helped her create a work environment wherein she could juggle motherhood with a career, it didn’t necessarily make life easier. She still works 35- to 40-hour work weeks, and 50-hour marathons when she’s working on election campaigns.
“The hardest boss you’ll ever work for is yourself,” she says with a laugh. “If I don’t get out of bed, no one else will do it for me. Starting my own business gave me the freedom to make decisions and realign the way I perceive balance, but to this day, it’s still a struggle to maintain that balance, but these are exciting times and I just don’t want to stop.”