On a rickety-looking loft in a Santa Monica warehouse that’s older than most of the people working in it, there sits a beat-up metal garbage can stuffed with silver and gold.
There’s a Clio poking out over the rim of the can, and what looks suspiciously like a Cannes Golden Lion. Crammed on top of them are enough Belding bowls to support a soup kitchen.
Yes, these are the awards that can be found under glass cases in the front lobbies of most advertising agencies, at least those fortunate and talented enough to have any of them. But this is Ground Zero Advertising, whose mission in life is to do everything a little differently.
“We like winning awards, but sometimes it gets in the way of doing really innovative, creative work,” said agency co-creative director and co-founder Kirk Souder. “A year ago, we didn’t enter any awards shows, and I think it had a really positive effect on the work.”
Ground Zero was created in 1994 through an alliance between two young creative hotshots and the general manager of the L.A. branch of a huge international ad agency. Together, they have built an agency that started literally from ground zero to one with $55 million in billings in only three years, an almost unprecedented feat for a local ad shop.
Ground Zero has been successful, observers say, because it makes advertising that stands out from the rest of the field. The agency’s niche is reaching young consumers; it has created commercials for such clients as video game maker SegaSoft, Yamaha jet skis, ESPN2 (whose concentration on “extreme” sports attracts a young male demographic) and Michael Jordan cologne.
Understanding its audience, Ground Zero makes commercials that don’t look like commercials; they look like comedic documentaries, outtakes from weird science fiction films, or anything else that disguises the commercial nature of the spot while still getting the client’s message across.
“As soon as you do advertising, you’re doing something that doesn’t feel authentic,” said Souder. “If it looks like an ‘ad,’ people smell the big, giant corporation that’s behind it.”
One example is the Belding-winning commercial Ground Zero created for SegaSoft’s “Obsidian” game. A strange-looking man opens a refrigerator, takes out an egg and gingerly lays it on a kitchen counter. As he works, the egg tilts and falls off the counter. Terrified, he rushes to catch it … but too late. The egg hits the floor, but, strangely, remains completely intact. Suddenly the man shatters into pieces. “Your rules don’t apply here,” runs the spot’s tagline.
“I think (Ground Zero) stands out, like any agency that’s trying to break the mold does,” said Harry Cocciolo, an associate creative director in the San Francisco office of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners who served as a judge for the Belding awards. “They just really tend to put a premium on the left-field ideas that still make sense, and grab people’s attention.”
Souder, 35, met creative partner Court Crandall while both were working at the now-defunct L.A. agency Stein Robaire Helm. They branched out with the help of third partner Jim Smith, former general manager of Lord, Dentsu & Partners in L.A., who handles the strategic and client development side of the business.
“For me, I think making good advertising is a combination between life experience and self-examination,” said Crandall. “We encourage people here to be more emotional than logical.”
Crandall, 31, was a journalism major in college who switched over to advertising after working for about a year as a newspaper sports writer. Souder’s career-changing revelation came a couple of years earlier, when as a junior in college he realized that the life of a scientific researcher wasn’t for him and he switched his major from physics to visual arts.
The English-born Smith decided to quit Lord Dentsu when the agency was planning to transfer him back to Europe. He was acquainted with the work being done by Souder and Crandall, and thought they’d make the perfect creative team for his new agency.
“This was not a business that was started by a couple of 24-year-olds leaving Chiat/Day,” Smith said. “When we started the agency, the three of us had an average of 13 years of experience in the business.”
The three men work with 27 employees in one of the most bizarre corporate offices in Los Angeles, which is unusual even in an advertising community that prides itself on unconventional work spaces. Ground Zero’s converted Santa Monica warehouse is laid out with partitions made from the wings of old fighter aircraft and a large open space with a bus parked inside.
Although the warehouse seems to have plenty of room for growth, Smith is confident that Ground Zero will soon have to seek out new digs. He predicts the agency could be double its current size by next year. When and if that happens, it will likely stop taking new clients.
“We’re not trying to compete with rock stars for income, and we’re not trying to compete with the guys running the big multinationals,” Smith said.