"This gives us our own identity, finally," sighs Tilford, 34, explaining how R&D earned its name as an experimental group-a name that ultimately confused clients-and always had the intention of one day breaking away. Well, Jackhammer shouldn't confuse anybody, though its independent punch has been a long day in the making. Beitter has been with the agency for 13 years, and Tilford for over five, including the two and a half years they've spent building R&D, which has reopened under its new moniker with $8 million in billings.
And while Jackhammer will continue to share offices with The Richards Group and make use of its account and media buying resources, as well as the Internet and programming skills of its Click Here subsidiary, Tilford and Beitter believe the new name and financial autonomy will help it attract more cool clients. The name "stands for what we do," Tilford says. "We break through formulas and barriers." The change comes at an auspicious time for Jackhammer, which recently scored a mini coup by winning major project business from the aforementioned Doc Martens. After pitching to create the Doc Web site, Jackhammer was surprised-wham!-when the client asked it to not only do the site but to make an international TV, print and POP campaign based on it, all of which should be up and stomping by the end of the year.
The equally cool Oxygen inline skates win dumps the very offbeat European approach of former agency Hasan & Partners (see Creativity's Upfront section, April 1996) for a more predictable American "extreme" attitude, with grungy art direction and headlines like, "Life is like water, once it gets stagnant, it begins to stink." Indeed, rude 'tude is a Jackhammer staple, but that's what happens when you do a lot of videogame work. Headlines like, "Old soldiers never die, they just turn into bloodthirsty mutant zombies," and "Don't shoot until you see the whites of their exposed skeletons" (both for Final Doom), are spat out like dum-dum bullets, but unlike many in this category, R&D/Jackhammer plays this goth game with real visual flair.
Yet as Jackhammer begins to pitch accounts on its own, it is not positioning itself as the razor's edge boutique where clients go when they want something more (or less) than Stan's standards. "I don't want Jackhammer to be perceived as the hot creative group," says Stan Richards, arguing that his agency is responsible for just as much creative gusto, and has won just as many awards. The point of R&D initially was to establish a "system to turn outstanding creatives and account people into entrepreneurs," Richards says, explaining that R&D functioned as a think tank, running trials on things like unusual office arrangements that increased communal space, or nifty electronic billing systems, which were later adopted by the main agency.
Richards would prefer to differentiate between the two shops by the kinds of accounts they handle best. Large retail accounts are well-suited to the Richards Group, which bills $350 million, while Richards doubts videogame clients would consider an agency as big and as established as The Richards Group to be "hip enough to do advertising for games where people kill each other." Well, yeah, a headline like, "The meek shall inherit hell," probably wouldn't fly at Continental Airlines. Yet Tilford resists the notion that his shop does the edgier work. "I wouldn't couch it like that," he says. "I think we just have a different way of approaching the work from a strategic standpoint."
Strategy aside, like The Richards Group, Jackhammer's stock in trade is print. In fact, the Jackhammer reel is limited at the moment to three grainy, micro-budget b&w spots for the Hummer, no dialogue, no VO, just a little type and a lot of Hendrix-style wah-wah. (TV is also promised later this year for client Tony Chachere's cajun seasonings and dinners, which may recall the in your face "Pain is Good" campaign for Calido hot sauce, one of several joint ventures of R&D and St Louis' Core, where Tilford's brother Eric is CD.) But the similarity between the shops stops at the underwhelming reel. Richards Group clients include Continental-which Tilford's group handled and relinquished once it had built up enough of its own billings-Motel 6, Home Depot, PrimeCo. (a wireless telephone company) and the Florida Department of Citrus, which is clearly not Jackhammer territory, though "We'll leave the light on for ya," has possibilities.
Jackhammer takes a more holistic approach, creating packaging, posters, even developing proprietary fonts for its clients. The ID Anthology Collection, for instance, offers Quake, Doom, a Cyber Demon action figure, dog tags, a T-shirt, a poster and a prepaid calling card, all emblazoned with the ID logo. "We're trying to blur the lines between what is design, what is advertising and what is art," Tilford says. He likes to toss around the term "brand art," and he defends it by noting that Hummer and ID have sold their ads as posters. "The only difference between what we're doing and what art is, is that art is open to interpretation and a certain response." Well, it can be argued that the same can be said of the ads, but never mind, anything that's good enough to hang on a dorm room wall is art in our book. And there's still that R&D science angle lingering; the agency refers to its studio as a "lab," where they're often experimenting with type, using whatever tools are on hand, even the microwave oven, Tilford claims, to achieve unusual artistic effects and a natural but unnatural look.
As an example, Tilford points to the "desperate, clawed look" of the type used in a recent ad for a game called Hexen. Scratched out around a blood-splattered swamp monster are the words: "It will take brains. It will take muscle. It will take whatever it can from your body and feed upon it." To match the tone of these words, Tilford explains, they came up with a specialty typeface, painting a pliable surface and then clawing out letters with knives, fingernails and screwdrivers. "We go to great pains to come up with something unique," he says. "It may mean creating the type out of metal"-which was done for an earlier Hummer campaign-"or it may mean painting the metal type and stamping it down"-as seen in the latest Hummer ads-"or any number of processes with the photography or typography. Anybody can simply pick up a typeface and put in a visual, and anyone can manipulate it through Photoshop and make it look Mac designed."
"The designers at Jackhammer are obsessed with the end product," adds Beitter. "I'm not saying to a fault. It's an all-night occasion to come up with a design."
A bulging end product like the Hummer is intrinsically obsessive; the agency and the client thankfully don't take this ridiculous vehicle too seriously. "You are invincible. You are all-powerful. You are unstoppable. You are on your way to the grocery store," goes a headline from the latest print series.
Speaking of wide loads, while Tilford and Beitter talk about expanding the agency, they insist it will be on their terms. Jackhammer, in fact, was invited to the recent pitch for the West Coast portion of the Daewoo cars account, and though they won't be adding a subcompact to their collection of funny cars, Tilford finds it very encouraging that a "Dallas agency was in a West Coast review," something that doesn't happen all that often even for The Richards Group. Jackhammer will continue also to collaborate occasionally with Core, a shop with a similar total-design philosophy, and Tilford is thinking about jumping on the digital foundry bandwagon and selling some of those hand-crafted fonts. "I want to keep doing what we're doing, but I'd like to work with a larger palette, with larger problems to overcome," he says. "We want to grow, but only by using the approach that we like and the type of client that we like to work with."