In Focus: The Oldest Advertising Agency in Orlando
At 65 years and counting, the family-owned agency is also Florida’s oldest.
Pete Barr Jr. didn’t always want to be an ad man. As the CEO and president of the oldest advertising agency in Orlando, that might come as a surprise.
“I’d love to tell you I was born wanting to be an ad man, and at age seven, I bought my first suit and my first briefcase,” Barr laughs. “But I was a regular kid.”
Born and raised in the heart of downtown Orlando, Pete Jr. considers himself the rebel of the Barr family. He was outgoing, always doing his best, yet he found school challenging “because I wanted to do other things.”
Pete was so rebellious that when it came time to pick a college in a University of Florida family, Pete Jr. attended Florida State University. “Yes, my mom, dad, and brother were all Gators.”
Whether he’s a Gator or a Seminole, none of that matters much in 2022, as &Barr celebrates 65 years of success as Florida’s oldest advertising agency, with Pete Barr Jr. leading the way.
“I guess I’m the oldest person in the agency. It seems like just the other day when I was 27 years old, and I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It’s all gone by so fast, and here we are in our 65th year.”
&Barr has come of age alongside Central Florida, amid recessions, pre- and post-Disney influence, culture wars, technological revolutions and even a pandemic, not just surviving but thriving.
Growing up with Orlando
Pete Jr. grew up in 1960s Orlando. It was a time when one could smell orange blossoms from anywhere in town if the wind was blowing just right. A time when the only reason a tourist would travel to Florida was for the beaches, and to go to Disney meant traveling to California.
“I grew up in the downtown area, on Lake Cherokee. Orlando was a quiet, sleepy place back then.” Pete attended Boone High School and played tuba in the marching band. “I was a rebel, and Mr. Casey, the band director, he was probably the one teacher who would have control over me during high school.”
Chuck Fry and Bob Hammond found the agency that was later renamed &Barr in 1957. After graduating from the University of Florida, Pete Barr Sr. joined the firm.
“Chuck Fry hired my dad before Bob could, and after a short period, the three of them got together. My dad had that youthful energy. He was a pusher, and he’s still that way today.”
Pete Barr Sr. still lives in the big house in downtown Orlando where he raised his family with his wife, Nancy. “My mom and dad had a magical life. He’s truly amazing. I’ve very close to my dad. I’m close to him regarding business and share a lot with him.”
Invaluable lessons passed down from father to son.
Like all good fathers, Pete Jr. learned how to shake hands from his father. “There’s only one way to shake their hand. You don’t hurt them but look them in the eyes and give a firm handshake.”
Personally Written Notes
“My dad was all about the handwritten notes. He had a podium in his office that was kept flat, like one of the original stand-up desks. That’s where he kept his stationary and his cards. He’d go to the table daily and write follow-ups and notes to people he had called or met. He was diligent about that, and he pushed that on all of us, even though none of us were as good at it as he was.”
“One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from my dad is his discipline. He has an amazing work ethic. He believes that the best time to do something is now. My dad is a ‘get it done now’ kind of person. If he says, ‘I want you to have this shovel.’ He’s coming over now, not later.”
“The other day, I tried to explain to my dad the idea of not returning a phone call or getting ghosted. I thought he was going to flip out. He’d never heard of such a thing.”
Pete Jr. says Pete Sr. hasn’t lost a step and is still as disciplined today as he was 50 years ago. Despite his propensity for rebelliousness, Pete Jr. sees a lot of himself in his father. “I have a lot of him in me, but I also have a lot of my mother in me. I have the best of both.”
The Successor to the Throne
“What’s so exciting about this 65th anniversary is that I’ve been here 35 of those 65 years,” says Pete Jr.
Even though he didn’t spend his youth yearning to be the next “McMann and Tate,” when the time came for him to select a major in college, he went with the family business. An internship soon followed, and after graduation, he returned to Orlando and started working at the Orlando Sentinel in the advertising department.
“I was a normal 22-year-old guy and wanted to make more money. I wanted to move out of my parent’s house, I wanted to party with my buddies, and I wanted to meet a girl.”
Pete Jr. met and married his lovely wife Cheryl, and they have been happily married for 36 years.
“Even though I’ve been fortunate and have been a privileged person, my dad has always made my brother, and I work hard for everything we have.”
When he eventually left the Orlando Sentinel for the family business, it wasn’t a natural fit at first. “The Sentinel was a fabulous training ground. I knew the business, and I’ve been around the agency my entire life. I ran errands and was a gopher as a teen. It took me some time to find my way when I came here.”
Different leadership styles are required for different times, and &Barr was fortunate to have someone like Pete Sr. as the founder. &Barr was just as lucky to have Pete Jr. lead the company into the future.
“When I joined the agency, we had about 20 employees with all the old techniques. Back then, clients wanted to meet with older, experienced people. It was a bit of a curse if you looked and sounded young. Today, clients want to meet with younger people. The industry is driven by youth.”
What &Barr does right is it combines youth with old-fashioned business professional training and expertise. “I felt like we had to keep reinventing, innovating. I’ve made some mistakes, but I’ve gotten a lot of things right along the way.”
What’s in a name?
During the recession, the agency searched for its future identity, and Pete Jr. made a big decision.
“We were in transition, and someone asked me, ‘Have you ever thought of changing the agency’s name?’ I hadn’t because I’m a pretty traditional person. I cherish meaningful things.”
After some thoughtful consideration, they changed the name to &Barr.
“It was getting down to the core of what we are, which is about the intimate partnership with our clients. That’s where we got the &. The & is intended to symbolize partnership, and shared goals.”
Looking to the Future
At a time of volatility, when businesses that were once considered institutions are shuttering their doors, &Barr is going strong. The key to that success is a strong team with visionary leadership.
“My dad came from a different time when leadership styles were slightly different. You know the term ‘benevolent dictator.’ It may sound negative, but the word benevolent is in front. My dad wasn’t a dictator but ran the agency in his image. He was powerful, and he was impressive.”
How does Pete Jr. describe his leadership style?
“Even though I don’t run the place quite like that, I sometimes dictate. You have to make the call and stand up and make decisions. However, I try to be a collaborative leader.”
For the Barr family, &Barr is like another family member at the table. “This agency is our family. You go to a Thanksgiving dinner and talk about the business. It’s way beyond an ad agency. It’s a family.”