Eric Tilford, the 29-year-old creative director of St. Louis agency Core, admits he is not a patient man. He spent two years working at established agencies in town–one year at the now-shuttered TBWA Chiat/Day and another at Simmons Durham–before striking out with a few like-minded malcontents to form his own shop. “We were all frustrated with the system,” Tilford says of his pre-Core take on advertising.
Two-and-a-half years later, Tilford says he’s equally impatient to “step [Core] up to the next level.” Though the 15-employee agency has dominated the St. Louis Addys for the last two years and has been recognized as one of the top 10 creative agencies in the world by Graphis magazine, Tilford says he is eager to conquer the next challenge.
Core built its creative reputation with print work for regional clients, including Bank One and Monsanto, and in niche categories, such as fishing (Zebco) and ammunition (Winchester). The agency now wants a “good, solid mass account” of national stature to move into broadcast work. “We’ve done it with print,” says Tilford. “We have to do the same things in TV.”
Tilford is self-effacing when discussing Core’s work and success, deflecting credit to the agency’s various creative teams for the lush, poster-quality print work that has become a trademark. Core’s distinctive ads have gained notice for their vivid photography, unique use of typeface and evocative copy–all pressed up against a sound marketing backbone. “We continue to get labeled as a creative boutique,” Tilford says. “I’ve got three account executives as partners.” His brother Keith is one. J.C. Dillon and Marc Kempter are the others.
An art director and one of three brothers in the advertising business (Todd is a creative at Pyro in Dallas), Tilford is hard-pressed to define Core’s creative style, suggesting it is whatever best suits the client. Core’s work is marked by its use of hand-printed scrawl or crudely typed copy, written in the voice of the ad’s subject and the client’s intended customer.
Core isn’t above using computers, but such a device might be considered frivolous, the result of an art director having too much fun. Tilford prefers the human touch. “The use of hand lettering comes from the lack of reality in advertising,” Tilford says. “There was no human aspect in ads, everything was so pristine and real. It was so far from anything human that the ads kind of missed the connection.”
Tilford adds, “We bust our ass to make everything we do not look like it comes from a computer.”
For Tilford, type is as important an element in print advertising as graphics and copy. “Type can be art, another piece of the design, another weapon to convey your message,” he says. “It can convey nearly as much as photography.”
If there is one common criticism of Core’s work, it is that there is a sameness to it. Tilford, of course, disputes that, as do some who have looked closer. “If you really look at the work, the only style is that it’s smart, rich, lush and right for that client,” says Mark Ray, co-creative director at Simmons Durham. “The writing is as sharp as anything I’ve seen.”
Tilford says he puts the agency’s print work at the fore of any “best of” list. He holds little regard for the majority of the industry’s output. “I can’t look at most ads, I’m bored to death with them,” he says. “It’s hard to find advertising that gets your blood pumping.” –Trevor Jensen

The idea behind all of Core’s ads, explains Eric Tilford, is “a desire to get as deep inside the head of whoever we’re talking to. I don’t talk to people as consumers and numbers. We kind of hate the word consumer.”