THE AD NAUGHTS: CREATIVITY IS NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME AT GROUND ZERO.

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Few Southern California agencies can grip the spotlight like Ground Zero. Almost four years after this Santa Monica startup burst on the scene, it's still a talked-about agency that has kept a high profile in area pitches; in June it won the Western regional business for the Korean car manufacturer Daewoo, which has an estimated $15 million in billings. Combined with other clients added in the last year, including ESPN2, Bijan's Michael Jordan cologne, SegaSoft, Sega Interactive and Web guide CitySearch, the agency's billings are estimated at between $40 million and $50 million.

But perhaps the biggest change for its founders, Court Crandall, 31, and Kirk Souder, 35, is handing off the day-to-day writing and art directing. Early on, Ground Zero promised its clients that the partners would be working on every campaign. "We don't pass you off to a B-team when you leave the room," a promotional booklet promised. And clients had good reason to want Crandall and Souder as the lead creatives on their work. For two years at Stein Robaire Helm in Los Angeles, Crandall and Souder had impressed a lot of folks.

Since meeting and pairing off there, they'd snatched a Gold Lion in Cannes for a TV spot for L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, which featured a closeup shot of a TV dinner to contrast the dullness of everyday life with the supposed excitement of modern art. There was the Kelly finalist print campaign for Teva sports sandals and the Clio-winning Pioneer Electronics spot for BBDO West, which Souder and Crandall had done as a freelance team shortly before Ground Zero opened. That's the spot with the footage of the famous Galloping Gertie shaking suspension bridge, only in the Pioneer spot it's blamed on a slacker sitting in the car with a blaring Pioneer CD player.

So all eyes pivoted on Souder and Crandall when they decided to leave SRH in '93 and start their own agency, partnering with Jim Smith, a general manager at Lord Dentsu & Partners/Los Angeles. Features about Ground Zero in The New York Times and Ad Age added to the hype. Both stories marveled how, in six month's time, Ground Zero had revved account billings from zero to $40 million (a figure disputed as inflated by some agency peers), with such big-name clients as Porsche, Atari and L.A. Gear.

But Crandall and Souder say that they're more concerned these days with creative directing and letting the rank and file get a chance. "You get other people, but you also get the partners," Souder tried to explain of the new take. Assuming the role of creative director is something Souder says he loves doing. "My dream is to never have another ad coming out of here with Court's and my name on it," he adds.

And certainly, as John Stein, creative director at Los Angeles boutique Band of Gypsies points out, as an agency grows, "at a certain point it becomes impractical" for creative directors to handle all the accounts. "When you do the math, the time and talents of agency principals are probably promised to clients three times more than they can actually handle."

Lee Kovel, creative director at Kovel Kresser & Partners, Los Angeles, along with some other creative peers watching Ground Zero's development, is impressed with their growth and constant appearance in pitches. Adds Stein, "I think they're trying to broaden beyond a creative boutique. They're smart guys-there's not a lot of great creative being done in Southern California, and they're doing a lot of it."

But has passing off the baton affected the quality of its work? And beyond that, have Crandall and Souder changed their views about advertising, or did the creative community fail to grasp the Ground Zero philosophy from the start? Indeed, the agency is in a new phase of growth with 10 new employees added in the last year, which brings the staff total to 30. Junior and senior creatives are assuming greater responsibility for work. For instance, a spot for the SegaSoft CD-ROM game called Obsidian, which was created by art directors Pat Harris and Armand Briones and copywriter Michael Burdick, is undoubtedly one of the best spots on the reel. Apparently, Butler Shine & Stern CD John Butler mistook the spot for part of The X-Files when it aired during a commercial break on the program.

Like the show, the commercial takes place in a sort of warped reality. Shot by Rocky Morton of Morton Jankel Zander, the spot begins with a melancholic jazz track and a man in his underwear chopping a tomato with a knife. A single egg he's placed on the kitchen counter begins to totter from his violent swings. Suddenly, as the egg falls to the floor, the man's face fills with horror as he tries to stop it. The egg bounces on the floor and remains whole, while the man (thanks to a spiffy special effects shot using a plaster mold) shatters like an egg shell. "Your rules do not apply here," goes the ominous tag. The spot won a Best in Cinematography at the Beldings and three Gold Clios.

Another strong campaign, for CitySearch, an urban Web guide, comes from two new associate creative directors: Gavin Milner, a former ACD on Apple at BBDO West, and Alec Beckett, a copywriter who worked on the Solomon account at Kelley Dexter in Boston. This campaign goes head-to-head with Microsoft's Sidewalk Internet guide by depicting CitySearch as the cool one created by and for locals. Thus, the tag, "Views from the inside," is illustrated with wry spots that use handheld cameras to get locals to spill insider secrets. Similarly, the print shows locals holding cardboard signs to express themselves: "Don't eat the salmon," warns one unlucky restaurant patron holding a sign from underneath a bathroom toilet stall.

Suitably more controversial is an effort for Sega Interactive, which several teams are working on, that has raised a few critical eyebrows in its attempts to appeal to male youths. For the debut of Heat.net, Sega Interactive's first online gaming site (www.heat.net), Ground Zero devised a movement called the Institute for CyberDiversion, and fabricated a story about a cyberguru named Dr. D. G. Bartha who founded the peace movement, which encourages people to vent their primal killing urges online. "Imagine a place where you can chop off someone's head and walk around with it like it's a lunch box, and that person doesn't get hurt," shouts the cult leader, in a rant from a fictitious rally that plays on the site.

In April, Ad Age ran an editorial calling the campaign "particularly horrific and insensitive."

"It was picking one little random tree in the forest," gripes Souder, who was a creative director on the campaign. "To me, the idea of CyberDiversion is as controversial as giving people a punching bag. It's a fun, irreverent idea," he adds. "Instead of saying here is Heat and this is what it does," Souder says, this approach transcends your typical communication venues. Nevertheless, aspects of the marketing plan have been changed. The words "free guiltless killing," which used to flicker on the intro page, are gone. And of the dozen ancillary Web sites planned, such as a page made to look sponsored by a group called Mothers Against CyberDiversion, the children's activities site has been pulled.

But despite the glimmers on the reel, there's also a body of GZ work that's middle of the road. Print ads for Yamaha Waverunners, which the agency resigned in May over strategic differences, for example, are standard photo and body copy.

Meanwhile two former interns, recently turned junior creatives, are responsible for the latest ESPN2 campaign, which doesn't compare to some of Wieden's work that swept awards shows for the past two years. The TV features Spinal Tap's Mike McKean dressed up as Queen Elizabeth touring America to promote the National Soccer League and the sport in general.

A campaign for the Athletic Footwear Association, whose primary lobby is to encourage teens to run, should be praised for its unconventional approach. To shake the cobwebs off the image of running as a pastime for aging boomers, Ground Zero created a new sport called "all surface running," and then shot a pseudo documentary starring slackers who'd risen from their couches and videogames to run in packs around cities and malls, enjoying themselves immensely. While not entirely believable-running through New York's concrete jungle looks painful-it represents a fresh approach, likely to appeal to the age group, which is where the agency has garnered a bit of a marketing niche. The piece aired as 13 short segments on cable's Prime Sports Network during a show called Planet X. This summer Ground Zero is taping more "All Surface Running" segments with On Tour, a 26-week rock concert tour that's being taped for PBS.

Creative work aside, few faces from the agency's original client roster-including Atari, Vans, Daily Grill, Cobra Golf and L.A. Gear-are around anymore. Ground Zero resigned Daily Grill and Vans, while Cobra moved its account to the nearby office of TWBA Chiat/Day, later moving in-house. Other project clients, like Porsche

and Disney, haven't resulted in any work of late. Early videogame leader Atari folded, allowing Ground Zero to pitch Sega.

Why the client turnover? "It may be their way or the highway, that's my gut feel," says Kovel, meaning that if clients don't buy their shtick they walk. Souder, who explains that many of the early accounts were "positioning projects," rather than agency of record accounts, disagrees. "Absolutely not," he says. "That's a common misconception from creatives but not from our clients," whose ideas, he points out, are an integral part of the Ground Zero admaking process.

"We're not interested in growing by acquiring more and more accounts," Souder adds. "We want to reach that growth by having six or seven exciting brands."

And by exciting brands, Souder isn't talking about what's culturally cool, like a Vans shoe account. He and Crandall would rather turn miracles with brands that appear doomed. For instance, a lot of critics laughed, Souder says, at the thought of an athlete's fragrance when Ground Zero willingly took on Bijan's Michael Jordan cologne account. Carrying the theme, "Go Inside," the campaign features TV spots in which Jordan is portrayed as an everyday (albeit filthy rich) guy, putting golf balls in his hotel room and butchering Italian as he practices with a language tape in his convertible. The print uses a silhouette of Jordan's head as an icon.

"I knew from the day our people here came up with the campaign that it would not be a creative, award-winning campaign," Crandall says. But he adds, "I still think it's one of the best things we've done."

Why wouldn't it win awards? "It doesn't have a joke at the end," Crandall says. "What's so special about that campaign is the restraint, and the fact that since Michael Jordan has become a public figure no one has used him in an honest way that portrayed the guy and didn't make him an actor." Sondra Love, senior VP at Bijan, concurs: "Not many people understood Michael off the court. Ground Zero had an image immediately."

While the creative isn't in your face, the campaign nevertheless spurred sales and helped make the brand one of the more successful recent cologne launches. Crandall cites sales figures that show that, in areas where the advertising did not run, there was a 60 percent sell-through rate, compared to advertised areas, which earned a 96 percent rate.

Did it win awards? No. But then again, last year Ground Zero consciously boycotted the awards shows. Awards have "gone from being a reward to being an impetus for doing something," Crandall says. The agency resumed its place at many of the major shows this year, including the Clios, Cannes and the One Show, but the Bijan campaign didn't surface. Not only did clients miss the awards, but Crandall adds, "It was easier for Kirk and I to say, 'This shit doesn't matter.' But for some of the young people it was their way to get their name out there, get recognized and increase their value, so it wasn't fair to deny them that opportunity."

A lot of the employees seem happy with the new arrangement, too. Sharing the juicier assignments also nurtures a healthy employee morale. Pat Harris, 30, came to Ground Zero from Crispin & Porter two years ago, and says this is the longest he's ever stayed at an agency. Landing at Ground Zero is "like the happy ending to a really bad movie," he says. He finds there's an unusual sense of camaraderie in the open, creative campus style of the office, a converted factory. He and his partner have created a M*A*S*H-like outpost within it-their own tent, replete with military lockers and a cot, in keeping with the Heat.net campaign they've been creating. Also, the fact that Souder and Crandall treat the creative staff as equals, offering ample opportunities for even interns to create TV, is something rare that impressed him about the agency.

Summing up the Ground Zero philosophy, Souder explains, it "transcends what has been tried and deemed traditional. We tell people who come here to be selfish. Take this task and say, 'What can I do that I've never done before?' The hardest part is getting people to believe that's possible. All of a sudden their eyes light up. They look upon their day here as one of experimentation and fun, and as a result, we grow." Our objective, adds Crandall, is to "always be off the spectrum" of the rating scales by which work is judged, and to catch people's attention in the process.

The hard part for the agency "is that since we've started, I think we've always been perceived as a creative agency and we never really wanted to be," says Crandall. "We wanted to be seen as first and foremost a strategic planning group that can solve any business problem you have."

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