Court Crandall On The Spot

The New England-bred scion of a former ad executive, Court Crandall, 41, made his way west to hone his creative advertising skills. While there, he decided to add movies and children’s books to his resume. A founder and creative partner at Ground Zero (via Lexus shop Team One) in Los Angeles, Crandall had a “Story by” credit on Old School, and his first movie, A Lobster Tale (starring Colm Meaney and Graham Greene) has just premiered at the Austin Film Festival. On the agency front, the shop has added Beck’s beer, won in August, to its client list.

Q: How did you get interested in advertising?

A: Dad was chairman of Cabot, Boston, and I learned early that I can’t do anything else. I can’t add, subtract, divide. I’ve maxed out with my son’s fifth grade homework. … I was going to be a sportswriter, but realized I didn’t know a lot about sports. So I put a portfolio together. It was awful. I redid it and wound up at Rossin Greenberg Seronick & Hill [as a junior copywriter]. … I learned everything [there]. They saved me years of learning by making throw-up gestures when I presented my work. It was tough love.

When did you move west?

I came out to Team One [as a copywriter] in 1990. Tom Cordner [then-lead creative] was a good guy and, I still maintain, had one of the great departments in the history of Los Angeles, including my wife, Denise Lambert, who was an art director. … But there was no business except Lexus. I was teamed with Carl Warner. We launched the Lexus Coupe. That got [some] notice.

How did Ground Zero start?

I went on to work at Stein Robaire Helm in Brentwood in 1992 [as vp, cd], and I was partnered with Kirk Souder. … We talked about starting our own agency from the first week … He’s the only one I know that is close to genius. It was a great weight off my back that if I couldn’t solve something, he could. We partnered with Jim Smith [who had been at Lord Dentsu] and started Ground Zero in 1995. To fund ourselves, we freelanced.

Who was Ground Zero’s first client?

The Daily Grill. I wrote the existential thoughts of a chicken. … Then we got into [Disney’s] Buena Vista Home Video pitch. We thought we three knuckleheads are not going to win this—but if we go another round, we’ll get good ink from Adweek. Somehow, we won.

How did the partnership with Kirk break up?

Kirk had a sexual deviancy. No, seriously, when he had a son, he took a couple of years off, [then] became chairman of Riney, then went back for his master’s. It was just assumed that once you leave, you don’t come back. … But we’re still friends. I give him foosball advice.

Is Beck’s your first spirits brand?

We have Pinky vodka, a high-end flavored vodka made by Swedish wine makers. In fact, we’re the agency and the client—we own the U.S. distribution rights. We want to be an interesting company, not just an agency.

What work are you most proud of?

Apart from my two children, getting Lobster Tale produced after it falling in and out of option for 10 years. It’s the first screenplay I wrote.

So give us the pitch.

An ordinary lobsterman is losing everything because he doesn’t want more. His son wants more than the town offers, his wife wants out, his boat is breaking down. [Then] he finds this green moss that has health benefits and everyone wants a piece of it. It’s about the excesses of materialism.

What possessed you to try screenwriting?

Tim Kelleher, a friend, wrote something called First Kid. The option kept running out. He sold it twice for half a million. Twice! So I thought, “Damn, I’ve got to try that.” So Fox buys Old School right out of the gate and I’m thinking, this is easy. But the independent thing is not a get-rich-quick proposition. It’s a new challenge. [Creatives] make good screenwriters because they think big idea first and know how to pitch.

Will you do another?

My goal is to run Ground Zero, but make one movie and write one children’s book a year. Hugville [January 2006, Random House] is about my oldest son getting too cool to be hugged.

Any recent commercial you wish was yours?

I don’t think that way anymore. [But] I would have given all my worldly goods to have written Little Miss Sunshine.

What keeps you up at night?

That my children will hold that play I missed for a focus group against me for the rest of my life.

What’s on your nightstand?

Healing Back Pain. A friend’s script. And my son Zane’s spelling words for the week.

What’s your advertising philosophy?

Try to solve the problem. Think about the client’s problem before you worry about being creative and standing out.

What’s your pet peeve?

Pretense. As copywriters and art directors, not only are we not curing cancer, we’re not even curing jock itch.

What was your smartest business decision?

To marry my wife, who I met on my first day at Team One.

What was your worst business decision?

Telling Ving Rhames how to deliver his lines for E! Entertainment, at which point I thought he would hit me.