Cocky to the Core

Meet the hotshots at this St. Louis ad firm. They're special. Just ask them.

Twenty hours left to finish the special effects for a Pontiac television commercial, and Jason Stamp has one pack of Parliaments to get him through. Every hour the designer marches into a graffiti-laced storeroom in Washington Avenue's A.D. Brown Building, props his foot on a window ledge and lights up. As the May afternoon winds down, Stamp launches into the curious kind of story one often hears at Core, the downtown advertising-cum-entertainment agency. "I came in early one morning about two years ago, walked down the hallway to the bathroom, saw this bundle of dirty clothes and tried to kick it out of the way. Suddenly this guy says, 'Hey!'

"I ran out to Mitchell and said, 'Am I hallucinating? I think there's a guy in the hallway!' Sure enough, it was some homeless guy who used to walk the ledges of downtown buildings and crawl in windows looking for places to sleep. We gave him a chance to leave. He didn't. So we called the police. Then we set up a video camera and taped the whole takedown!"

Scotte Hardin, a poet and copywriter at Core, pulls on her cigarette and laughs. "So the rest of us would believe you!"

Mouse Eats Tiger, a multimedia installation created by Core, hangs in the entryway to the firm's loft.
Mouse Eats Tiger, a multimedia installation created by Core, hangs in the entryway to the firm's loft.
One of Core's first ads touted the 1995 St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival.
One of Core's first ads touted the 1995 St. Louis Blues Heritage Festival.

"Yeah," Stamp replies. "I don't know why we did it. It's like -- we photograph everything, everybody, all the time. And we videotape our Christmas parties. We've often thought maybe one day we'd do a book about this place, like for when all the founders are dead and gone. Not a book for the outside world -- just for us."

In the ten years since its creation, Core has racked up a client roster that includes such heavy-hitters as Nike, Virgin Mobile USA, Miller Brewing Company and Monsanto. It has garnered an international reputation for pushing the envelope of print design, but still the running joke among Core staffers is that outsiders don't get them.

"We're the square pegs that don't fit into the round holes," observes Marc Kempter, one of Core's four founders.

"I was the dope in the corner of the bar in college," adds Todd "Bip" Hippensteel, a designer. "Nine out of ten people couldn't understand me or what I was into. Core is perfect for me."

Notes an advertising creative director at a competing firm: "They've always prided themselves on the fact that they do what nobody else does."

"I find it amusing that we go about our business quietly building national and international notoriety," boasts Eric Tilford, another Core founder. "People on the coasts love to say, 'You're so cut off from everything in the Midwest!' It's like, 'Fuck you! I know more about what's going on in popular culture than you do. It's called the Internet!'"

Tilford and his eighteen camouflage-clad colleagues devour international magazines, cartoons and music tracks you've never heard of. They play with guns. They're obsessed with Japanese TV shows. Work, they say, is their hobby.

If Core were to devise a logo, surely a raised middle finger would be first off the drawing board. Employees don't so much parade the finger before clients or competitors -- but in-house, they hoist it high.

"We get embarrassed to say we're in the advertising industry --" Kempter begins.

"-- because advertising people are full of shit," employee Jeff Graham finishes.

With annual revenues between $2 and $3 million, Core is far from the top-grossing agency in St. Louis. Actually, it's fourteenth, according to a survey last year by the St. Louis Business Journal.

Core has no reception desk, and not a single human being greets visitors. There's no hierarchy, titles or job descriptions to speak of. As for dress code, it's cargo shorts, T-shirts and black Doc Martens. The company's spotted mutt goes by the name "Cold Cash Money."

All-nighters are frequent at Core, but there's no such thing as a formal meeting. On the other hand, you can often find employees gathering at their 22-foot-long, in-house bar, always at the ready for impromptu afternoon cocktails, or company traditions like "The One-Year." On that occasion, a first anniversary is celebrated with swigs from a bottle of Old Crow bourbon and rewards are doled out -- a lawn mower, perhaps, or a kegerator, or a flat-screen television.

No, this isn't your daddy's ad firm. Consider: Core's got a "Say It" hallway, which hired hands are encouraged to mark up with whatever's on their minds. Until receiving recent reprimands from their landlord, staffers suited up in goggles and flak jackets and played live war games with BB guns. At least five employees have inked "Core" on their left biceps.

"It's a fuckin' cult," mutters J.C. Dillon, another founder.

"Those guys are freaks for advertising, the whole creative process!" concludes Betsy Heck, president of the Ad Club St. Louis.

"They have the potential to rub certain clients the wrong way," notes Mark Schupp, owner of the Schupp Company in St. Louis. "It's a double-edged sword, because they are very passionate about their work, but they will support that to the end, whereas most agencies will push, but not to the point of pissing off the client."

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