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When Ground Zero client BMG, a software publishing company, went to a tradeshow to display their wares and recruit technology brainiacs, they were armed with a tool more powerful than the hottest e-gadgetry: a double-page spread ad that was simply line after line of gibberish. But of course, it wasn't nonsensical at all. It was written in c language, decipherable only by that particularly elite group known as programmers. The headline read, "Does your publisher understand you?"

Regardless of publishers, the recruits were hit. "The twelve best programmers in the business understood it perfectly," explains Court Crandall, Ground Zero co-founder and creative partner. Enough said. Speaking intimately to the target is a point of pride at the middle-sized agency, based in Los Angeles. Its range of accounts is a good case in point. Ground Zero is equally fluent in business jargon, rap, health care and sports. For former client City National Bank, the agency created the blue ladder icon, along with the tag "The Way Up." For Bijan's Michael Jordan cologne, the agency determined after much research that people were more likely to successfully recognize the shape of Michael Jordan's head than the faces of Madonna, Princess Diana or Jesus Christ (which was disturbing to Jordan). Sales of the cologne hit $35 million in six weeks and the fragrance was named the American Marketing Association's New Product Launch of the Year.

Crandall, who began as a writer, adopted his approach to work early, when he was a junior at Boston agency Rossin, Greenberg, Seronick & Hill. "Do the smartest thing you can in the most places," he says. "Being 'creative' doesn't mean you get to be lazy, self-important or uninterested in your client's business." Ground Zero co-founder and chairman Jim Smith says, "Our main difference is that we've never given up on the belief that everything should be brilliant, whether it's a matchbook cover or a Super Bowl spot."

Ten years ago, Ground Zero was formed by three partners and little else. Crandall, Kirk Souder (now president and executive creative director at Publicis/Riney) and Smith took a lunch suggested by a mutual friend, headhunter Linda Watts. Court and Kirk had just left Stein Robaire Helm, where, as a team, they had earned numerous awards and were named "Creative Directors of the Year" by Adweek. Souder remembers, "Within a couple of weeks of working together, we could see ourselves starting our own place." When they left Stein Robaire Helm, they freelanced for agencies Ammirati & Puris, Chiat/Day and others while formulating their game plan.

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Jim Smith was running Lord Dentsu in Los Angeles at the time. "I had been in New York for a month considering running the whole thing out of Europe," he says, "and I just didn't want to. I had kids in school and for a while I considered commuting from Malibu to London—but that just wouldn't work." So Smith sent Lord Dentsu higher-ups a tape of Randy Newman's "I Love L.A."

And Ground Zero was launched—with no clients, very little money and no prospects in sight. Their first client was The Daily Grill, a small restaurant chain in California. On a $25,000 budget, the team shot and produced five TV spots. Business picked up when Adweek featured the agency in a cover story at the end of 1993. To date, the principals have been joined by Andrew Gledhill, president, and their client list includes ESPN, California Department of Health Services Tobacco Control Section, Atlantis Resort (Kerzner International) and Waterpik. Ground Zero's goal has always been to have six to eight clients they can truly get to know and service well.

The name Ground Zero was hatched as a philosophy of work: strip away everything and start anew, always from "ground zero." Crandall uses the name as a reminder to his staff that every assignment is ownable. He explains, "I never want someone to think I'm going to get the best assignments or run everything my way." Souder, who left the agency almost four years ago to travel with his wife and son, says, "Ground zero means to go all the way through a thing before you get to the beginning. You cut through the outer layers."

On 9/11/01, the name, so emblematic of a clean slate, took on the blistering sting of the tragic events that day. The year before, the agency had expanded to include a Manhattan office, blocks away from the World Trade Center. Once 9/11 hit, the agency decided to close their doors in Manhattan. They hadn't been in New York long enough to survive the sobering events that day unleashed. And the coincidence of Ground Zero and Ground Zero seemed disrespectful. Smith says, "My greatest disappointment is that we could have done something great for Manhattan after 9/11, but we just weren't enough of a presence."

Ground Zero listens very well and they push back. They're willing to take risks." —Dennis Shirley

In Los Angeles, the agency continued to grow, even in the dismal economic climate post 9/11. ESPN, who began working with Ground Zero in 1997, gave them more assignments and in different areas of business—ESPN 2, ESPNEWS and ESPN network. For a lifelong jock like Court, it was a perfect fit. Lee Ann Daly, senior vice president, marketing, says, "Ground Zero did a lot of work on ESPN 2 in the beginning. We saw that they really understood the passionate fan well—and could make messages with a quirky edge that still delivered on our underlying strategy. They bring a very specific, very distinct flavor to our body of work. They are strategic, but still manage to be 'out there' in a good way."

Ground Zero is housed in an immense warehouse; on one side there's a quiet, residential street complete with picket fences and rose bushes. On the other side, a busy shopping district buzzes away and cars barrel down the highway. To enter the cavernous office space, one has to walk down a gigantic ramp, like a beauty contestant or a cow being led to slaughter. "We're open here," Court explains. "Instead of coming in through reception, we're showing you everything right from the start. Nothing is hidden." The wide, aluminum ramp finally slopes gently down to the other end of the building where you are greeted. Desks, computers, phones and people mingle among each other, with no doors or titles creating boundaries. There are small spaces, like war rooms, dedicated to each client. Each room evokes the personality and flavor of the brand. This is where staffers go to work sometimes, or clients can camp out and work. A large space, decorated like a cozy, oversized living room serves as a focus group area.
 
Crandall, who was raised in Boston, has been around advertising his whole life. "My dad worked with the guy who invented the window in the envelope," he says. "They were big music guys, too. They'd do jingles. I always knew I would write because I can't do anything else." Crandall graduated from the University of New Hampshire and interned at ABC Boston. After college, he worked as a sports writer. Finally, he put together his own book and began working in advertising. In 1990, he came to Los Angeles for a job at ad agency Team One and—although he didn't know it at the time—a wife. (He met his wife on his very first day in L.A.)

Our main difference is that we've never given up on the belief that everything should be brilliant, whether it's a matchbook cover or a Super Bowl spot." — Jim Smith


Although Crandall is proud of his body of work, he talks most about the people around him. "We move people along here," he says. "That's the stuff I get the most out of." Taking his own advice, Crandall has branched out into writing screenplays and children's books. His movie, Old School was released by DreamWorks last year and Random House will soon publish his book, Hugville.

One of the staffers he's moved along is Steve O'Brien, senior copywriter. O'Brien was making a career switch when he happened upon a small announcement about Ground Zero: they were undertaking an assignment to promote running to children, on behalf of the Athletic Footwear Association, later named ASR by Ground Zero. O'Brien, who was a personal trainer at the time, remembers, "I went to my drawing table, took my running shoe and put India ink all over the bottom of it. Then I put quotes from famous runners on it and faxed it to Court." That ingenuity landed him an internship at Ground Zero. "Back then, there were about ten people," O'Brien remembers, "I would do deliveries and wash dishes and come up with ideas. I was working all kinds of paying jobs at the same time, but I spent as much time at Ground Zero as possible."

Refreshingly, this loyalty has been shown by clients, too. Dennis Shirley, president and CEO of Indymac Bank, has been taking Ground Zero with him wherever he goes. He first met Ground Zero key players at a pitch for Great Western Bank in 1996. "Although they didn't win that particular pitch, I was very impressed with them," Shirley recalls. When the marketing executive left Great Western for the Los Angeles Times, he called upon Ground Zero to develop theater trailers (which earned awards for agency and client) and print campaigns. He also worked with the agency at Sanwa Bank, which Ground Zero helped rename United California Bank, and they're currently working together at Indymac Bank. Shirley says, "Their core players are very smart individuals and the European influence shows—they're very good planners. Others may be fine creatively, but they're not really good on the planning side, and it all starts there. Once you've come up with the proper strategy, the creative falls out of it. Some agencies are so independent, they get off strategy. Others want your account so badly, they'll do whatever you want. Ground Zero listens very well and they push back. They're willing to take risks." ca

Julie Prendiville Roux is cofounder of Handmade, a full-service creative agency based in Los Angeles. Alongside her work in advertising, she is a screenwriter and author.

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