Cocky to the Core

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

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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!"

"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."

The antithesis of Madison Avenue, Core concedes its our-way-or-the-highway tack has caused the loss of numerous advertising clients. This led the firm several years ago to begin morphing into a free-form design/entertainment collective. To their arsenal they added directing, animation, clothing design, painting, poetry, printmaking and more. They still make ads, but they also hawk guns and direct music videos.

"You can't define them anymore as an agency," says Rick Boyko, former chief creative officer of New York-based Ogilvy & Mather North America. "There aren't many like them."

Stepping off the elevator at Core, you're not sure where you've landed. Larger-than-life, glam-punk prints of girls tangled up in long, undulating rivers of black hair bedeck the hallway. Just beyond that there's a display case of look-alike machine guns and a rack of T-shirts.

"Paintball is so over," says Eric Tilford. "These are electric guns, with plastic BBs -- also known as AirSoft. It's huge in Asia, and it's just now coming to America."

Follow Tilford past the guns, and you cast eyes on a sprawling space: no offices, no partitions. "The idea is, everything's out in the open," explains Kempter. "Everybody has to comment on what's going on, and all your stuff is out there to be criticized."

"It's brutal as shit," says Jeff Graham. "The idea that gets gunned down here would probably carry the day at ten other places."

Dillon, Kempter and brothers Keith and Eric Tilford, Core's founders, say that cutting-edge spirit was lacking in their past advertising lives. The foursome crossed paths in the early 1990s working at the now-defunct St. Louis office of TBWA/Chiat/Day, where they were suits with no creative control, crippled by internal politics.

Personally, they had little in common: South county native Kempter is a deer- and turkey-hunter, and Dillon, a schoolteacher-turned-ad-exec from Cincinnati, is a lacrosse nut. Eric Tilford claims to be a "dropout from everything," while Keith Tilford says he "hid out" for nine years getting his bachelor's degree and M.B.A.

Professionally, though, they recognized in each a kindred rebel, with the same goal: Open a boutique agency where everyone has a hand in creative direction. No one sells out, and money is always trumped by honest advertising. Ideas come first.

Dillon brashly sums up the creed this way: "If you suck one cock, you're a cocksucker. We chose not to suck one dick, and we don't let our clients sell out either."

In June 1995, the quartet maxed out their credit cards, leased the Washington Avenue loft and moved in mattresses and laundry machines. "We started as a traditional agency, but there was nothing traditional about us," says Kempter.

Core won some early accounts on a barter basis: print ads and bottle labels for Schlafly in exchange for cases of beer, or Calido Chile Traders branding in exchange for royalties on hot-sauce sales.

Competitors remember Core coming on strong with ego and bravado.

"When they first came in, these little boys were full of piss and vinegar," recalls Glenn Jamboretz of the Glennon Company in Soulard. "They put out correspondence saying 'The work in this town is not the quality of that in New York, Minnesota or Chicago, and we're here to raise the bar.' They wrote that to different clients and sent out press releases about what they stood for. It was like the bad boys coming to town."

Other press releases were seemingly generated to flaunt just how preciously clever they can be. One of them touted gender diversity by announcing Core's improved female-employee-to-toilet-bowl ratio: "We've always wanted to build an agency -- and restrooms for that matter -- that 'look like America.' It's one small step towards breaking the porcelain ceiling for all women in advertising."

The attention-craving Core also dashed off incendiary letters to national trade publications, chiding competitors for being motivated by money. "I'm proud of my work and the people I work with," Kempter once lectured Adweek. "I'm just embarrassed by the stupid, sophomoric, self-serving industry of which I'm a part."

The Ad Club's Betsy Heck remembers how Core infuriated local ad firms when, in its second year in business, it took home two dozen trophies from the American Advertising Federation's ADDY Awards. "Everybody else had three or four awards," she says. "There was a lot of jealousy."

Core revels in its king-of-the-hill early years. "The people who didn't loathe us thought we'd be a flash in the pan and then gone," brags Dillon. "But now those same people are ripping off our shit!"

"There has been intense imitation of what they do," agrees Mark Ray, executive creative director of Arnold Worldwide-St. Louis.

Ray notes that Graphis, a New York-based visual arts magazine, named Core one of the world's top ten print design agencies in its second year in business. Shortly afterward, the national trades began heralding Core for elevating print advertising from something functional to artistic, citing the fine-art quality of Core's photography and typefaces.

Its innovations included fonts that looked hand-scrawled, copy that read as if spoken by the ad's subject and vintage, grunge looks that industry insiders say have since become commonplace.

"They really helped put St. Louis on the map," says Kipp Monroe, executive creative director at Waylon Advertising in St. Louis. "Core became the creative force in town and has helped keep St. Louis relevant."

Let's say you're a marketing director for a car manufacturer. One day you receive a poster-size package with a letter saying, "I saw your ad in XYZ magazine (attached), and it isn't very good. We could do way better work than this, as evidenced by the samples enclosed. However, if you disagree (that your current ads are O.K.), I wish you good luck: you'll need it."

You've just been "shit-hammered."

That's Core strategist Jeff Graham's technical term for his unsolicited pitch to new clients.

Rather than court agency consultants to help him score new business, Graham simply combs magazine and television ads for brands he thinks need retooling. When he finds a company he likes with ads that "suck," he sends "the shit-hammer."

Nine times out of ten, the tactic fails, he admits. "But I'd rather get a job based on the merits of our work than bamboozling a potential client with some bullshit advertising spiel."

If you were the NFL, Panoz (sports cars) or Never Compromise (golf products), "the shit-hammer" worked, he notes.

Graham has a cat named Reagan and a workspace wallpapered with iconography of the dead president. Next to his computer sits a framed thank-you note from George W. Bush, which Graham got in return for sending some Core-designed posters of Mark McGwire to the then-governor of Texas.

Every week during the first half of the year, Graham and Kempter travel to the University of Missouri-Columbia's journalism school to teach an advertising class. They consider it talent-scouting and do it sans salary.

"The class is about being an account person that doesn't suck," says Graham, "somebody a creative person would want to work with rather than somebody who, when you see him coming down the hall, you say, 'Oh, shit.'"

Graham frequently jabs at traditional account strategists, the "futzes," as he calls them, people who "conduct focus groups while sitting behind black glass eating M&M's and laughing at consumers."

Graham is deadly serious about the research he does for clients, and he does it on his own dime. On the Never Compromise golf account, he spent his lunchtime learning to putt. For Epiphone (a brand of Gibson guitars), Graham bought a guitar and took lessons for two years.

"You can't just say, 'I'm going to do your ad.' You have to live it."

"We dig down deep, we understand and we translate," adds Kempter. "We find the brand's soul. And we illustrate it."

Take Core's print campaign called "History's First Rough Draft" for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Enthuses Dillon: "I'm so freakin' proud of that. It got so many people over there re-energized about newspapering. We got e-mails up the ass from people telling us that!"

"It did make our editorial page editor cry," says Terrie Robbins, vice president of advertising at the daily.

Kempter, for his part, calls work for Miller Brewing Company Core's biggest success story. In 2001 Core was put in charge of re-branding the struggling brewer's image and pitting it against Anheuser-Busch. At the time, A-B was promoting its storied family legacy -- something Miller could not exploit. Searching for a strategy, Kempter went on a brewery tour.

The factory was filthy and littered with broken glass, Kempter recalls, but its straight-shooting workers gave it a down-home, corner-tavern feel. Core decided they were Miller's heritage and should tell their own stories in a series of five television commercials set to thumping club music by the then-little-known, Washington, D.C.-based band Thievery Corporation.

"I thought viewers would respond to the factory workers much better than they would to August [Busch] the Fourth standing out in some field wearing an Armani shirt," Kempter says.

"That [campaign] was an amazing story that connected us to humanity," recalls Hank Richardson, president of Portfolio Center, an Atlanta-based advertising and design school. "Yes, at the end of the day it was about selling a product. But Core put a moral value on the product. And that's very different from what the majority of creative firms are about."

Core touts its choosiness with clients as its primary difference from other agencies; its founders claim they've fired or turned down 75 percent of contracted and potential clients.

"Years ago we were offered Winston cigarettes," says Dillon, who hates smoking. "I argued that we were gonna make the thing so fucking cool that people would want to smoke!" Needless to say: "We turned down a fucking goldmine."

"Core will always be literally true to their vision," confirms Doug Spitzer, senior vice president and creative director at New York-based AKA Advertising, which hired Core to do Nike ads. "If what they pitch is not what we want, they'll go ahead and say, 'OK, maybe this isn't the job for us.'"

"Rather than do a bad ad for somebody, we just won't do it," offers Dillon.

Several ex-clients declined to comment on firing -- or being fired -- by Core. But Bob Bagby, vice president of marketing at Tulsa-based Zebco fishing products, cautions that Core's not right for every client.

"Core will come into your house and tell your upper management what they think," he says. "That can create problems."

"It's not like they were assholes," remembers Bagby, who still makes an annual trip to Missouri to go deer hunting with Core employees. Rather, Core's and Zebco's five-year relationship soured when suddenly Core's ads got too artistic, he says.

"Core was writing headlines about voodoo and science and black magic. Well, my management hated it. We said, 'This is a blue-collar fisherman kind of guy, he ain't gonna understand that!' But Core wouldn't budge. They were committed to it, and in their world it was perfect."

After that incident, both firms realized they couldn't keep working together, but it was Core who sent the Dear John letter. "It was a relief, frankly," says Bagby. "I was tired of refereeing between them and my management."

Says Kempter: "We do wear people out."

Schwerpunkt. Heard of it? Probably not. Neither had all but one of Core's employees three years ago.

Core was turning a profit, yes, but over the years the firm had lost numerous partners. To top it off, Core got bored just making advertising. "We had ADD," says Eric Tilford.

"One day I made a comment about Schwerpunkt, and it stuck," says designer and military history buff John Dames.

Schwerpunkt refers to an offensive battle strategy used by a nineteenth-century Prussian general. Core's founders, so inspired, wrote their own doctrine outlining the firm's future with militaristic-sounding tenets like, "As we break out of advertising, do it in strength and with all guns firing."

The men made Schwerpunkt T-shirts and manuals and held a month's worth of explanatory meetings. Then they held a happy hour and asked each employee to sign a "Schwerpunkt declaration." Those not with "the cavalry" were instructed to look for other jobs. (And a handful did.)

The point was to forge a sense of unity as the firm debuted new business ventures, the first of which -- Coreaudiovisual -- launched shortly afterward, in 2003.

Traditionally, clients hire specialized companies for each production step of a motion design project such as a music video. But Coreaudiovisual sends its own directors on location, then edits the footage and creates special effects in St. Louis. For Core, it's plain fun, and for the client, it's one-stop-shopping.

"It's very rare that an agency can handle even two of those things," says Tim Case, a producer who works in New York and Los Angeles. "Core is crazy. These guys can do all three. And not only can they, they want to."

Coreaudiovisual floats a diverse raft of projects. It recently finished a set of multimillion dollar commercials for Pontiac. Now it's creating DVDs of "motion art" that will play on screens in global nightclubs being rolled out by New York restaurateur Jeffrey Chodorow. "This idea is all about pushing the boundaries," explains designer Tony Gaddis.

This year Core rolled out Coreforsale, perhaps its least comprehensible arm of business.

Coreforsale sells $25 T-shirts through online street-wear retailers, which Core silk-screens by hand. Soon it will offer $1,000 customized BB-guns like the ones used in its war games. There's a white gun called "The Hoth," a pink one called "The Mary Kay" and a gold version coined "The Uday." Coreforsale also has plans for customized guitars and cars.

"Most people are like, 'How do you go from T-shirts to guns?' But if you think about going from T-shirts to guns to guitars to cars, it starts to make more sense. It's doing things that have never been done before," says Graham. "We're trying to connect our brand to pop culture."

"I can vote on the Academy Awards now!" boasts the black-spectacled Eric Tilford one recent afternoon, flashing his new union card for film directors at Tony Gaddis.

"No kidding! That's wild," says Gaddis, inspecting the card.

Tilford picked up the credentials two days earlier in Los Angeles, where he was directing a commercial shoot with "Crime of the Century." That's essentially a nifty name Core recently coined for the pair of directors it dispatches to video projects, a moniker the firm says it chose to symbolize the "crime" it's pulled off with its new business model.

Thanks to Core's cunning, Tilford's becoming quite the jet-setter.

"Three days ago I was riding up the hotel elevator with Ben Kingsley. Unlike most people who would have accosted the guy with shit like, 'Oooh, can I have your autograph?' I just stood there." Tilford pauses. "You know, I think me, you and Dames are like the coolest dorks in the universe."

Tilford and Gaddis rattle off a laundry list of Core's most clever services: We're bringing back poetry through art installations.... We do sets for reality shows.... We're a pop-culture think tank.

"If you asked eight different people what Core was, I think you'd get eight different answers," Gaddis concludes.

Tilford nods. The traveling has got him thinking about something else that makes Core unusual. "You know, people really start scratching their heads when you roll onto a set in LA or New York and say you're from St. Louis," he chuckles.

"It is like a cave," says Gaddis. "You go out and be a good aesthetic, but you need to come back to the cave and mine your creativity."

"We're on a campaign to make St. Louis the Reykjavik of Iceland!" Tilford suddenly hollers out.

"Reykjavik? I don't think I've ever heard that word in my life," says Gaddis.

"Shut up! Björk's from there, and it was all the rage from '95 to '01. Everyone just drinks and the sun never comes up," Tilford continues.

"Nobody knows where it is or what it's about, but everybody on the coasts wants to go there!"

Sounds like Core has another new mission.

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