You’re basking in the phantasm of the Breaking Bad mid-season finale. You’re also contemplating whatever comes about in the last eight episodes. Walter White kicking his “empire-business” to the curb, coupled with his DEA agent brother-in-law finally finding out about Walt’s exploits, will conjure up a very cataclysmic finale. Will Walt die? Will Hank die? Will Jesse take on the empire-business or will he turn against Walt for the altruism he’s been trying to claw at? Or would Breaking Bad expand to a feature film?
And then all of that pondering crashes into smithereens when one of the many annoying sponsor messages derails your train of thought. Or diverts it to a drive to Target for a garden hose that you’ll forget to use because it’s winter, and plants are greener in LA this time of year.
But most (I hope) come to realize that you need to have ads to even grace your eyes on compelling content like, let’s say, Mad Men. I’m beating an expression to death, but “everything you want comes at a price” in the world of advertising. But the big picture of advertising is about crafting a palatable medium of communication to give that commercial you watch a modicum of joy, making it seamlessly entertaining with the programming it pays for.
This could be just my opinion but there’s a bevy of kids in the “now” wanting to pursue some type of creative career: photography, acting, music, screenwriting, graphic design, architecture, interior design, writing, and countless other lines of work that allow you to have a say in how the end product comes to be. In other words, being creative or a “creator.” It might be symptomatic of this ever-growing alternative culture that makes people seek validation in what they think of and what they contribute as emerging as a crucial cog in the human ecosystem. Essentially, the forwarding yourself advances the greater whole. But it’s just my perspective of being a twenty-something that subscribes just to developments in the “now.”
Kicking off a series of interviews with advertising creative directors, I was very fortunate to be given a chance to talk to Court Crandall, Executive Creative Director of LA’s award-winning ad agency, Wong Doody Crandall Wiener. Pretty much one of LA’s many Don Drapers. You might wonder as to why on Earth someone would want to cover something so hackneyed, overdone, and despised as advertising. Going along with that question, I wanted to segue into how the ad industry cross-pollinates with the entertainment world we enjoy everyday.
It was a very timely inquiry, because Court recently extended an invitation for me to check out an event that followed his directorial debut as a filmmaker. It brought me to Compton High School, where I sat in on his lecture to a crowd of freshmen and heard him talk not just advertising about, but about how a wide breadth of jobs are spawned out of writing.
Court’s kids would often play basketball with kids who were enrolled in the Compton School District. This inspired him to extend an opportunity to an LA community that the greater part of So Cal is inclined to forget because of Compton’s reputation. So he conceived of a philanthropic endeavor for the benefit of giving “cold-shouldered” students an opportunity to move forward. WDCW went on to finance a competition for Compton High students: a free throw contest where the winner gets a $40,000 scholarship. Surely, it wasn’t a practice in opportunism, but more of a force to motivate kids towards higher education.
As for his directorial debut, Court and the rest of WDCW created a splinter brand of the agency that services film production. And so came the creation of a film that centers on the extension of the agency’s good will. Court took on the initiative of directing a documentary, Free Throw. To expand on his creative versatility in film as well as writing, he wrote the film a lot of us young ones abide to with great confidence, Old School. On top of that he wrote A Lobster Tale, which is centered around small-town America. His fortuitous leap from writing to directing serves as a motivating display for how writing can accelerate one’s creative intuition into a powerful result.
Not only did he exhibit the great works of the Wong-Doody machine, he amalgamated his creativity with those of Compton alums such as rapper The Game and pioneer hip-hop group NWA. The “Crandall-Creative” described his writing exploits and the drive that brought him to where he is now, and explained how his Executive Creative Director father shaped him to delve into copywriting. From there, he worked his way up the hierarchical rungs of the ad game to make the best use of his off time for creating and, of course, getting rewarded for it.
Court gave every freshman writer-to-be a notebook, a tool to collect any cursory, stray bits of creativity. Crandall then capped off his lecture with a deftly informative A to everyone’s Q. After the students left, I sat down with the Executive Creative Director to give him my Qs.
Solomon Sloan: I’m feeling jittery right now, especially to be able to score a chat with you with all of this going on here: you doing a lecture about writing and telling the students here to go for it. To pursue it. Thanks for the invite.
Court Crandall: Yeah!
SS: You said you were a Creative Director, so I looked up Wong Doody on the computer and I see that you’re an Executive Creative Director. That’s like the top spot at an agency, right?
CC: Yeah. I mean I don’t know if it’s the top spot, but yeah, I’m in the management and one of the top partners in the agency.
SS: So you’re pretty much a Don Draper, would you say?
CC: [laughs] My father was a Don Draper. My dad was in advertising literally back in that era, and I grew up watching him.
SS: What agency, what name is he a part of?
CC: He was in an agency called Cabot in Boston and has since become Arnold. Arnold Worldwide is pretty well-known. So I grew up watching him drink his Old Fashioneds and record radio and time out his radio scripts in our living room and stuff like that.
SS: Not only are you and Don Draper Executive Creative Directors, you both share alliterative initials—you’re a CC, he’s a DD, and I guess that would center around what one would call the establishment of self-branding. With CC you could play around to spin-off creative themes like, I don’t know, “creative circus,” “class clown,” or “copy corral.” You can associate so many things that come out of alliterative initials. It prompts me to think perhaps I can be a Don Draper because I’m a writer, so I’m halfway there. I could write but I guess I got the initial thing going on, too.
In regards to the name Wong Doody Crandall Wiener, if you’re the Executive Creative Director, why does your name have a tertiary spot in the order of names?
CC: For a number of reasons. The start is, I had an agency, Ground Zero, for 17, 19 years and then we merged with what was then Wong Doody. And so we had some debate if we should change the name at all or just stay with Wong Doody. But when you put together three scatological names—Wong, Doody, and Wiener—you need something to break that up. And it didn’t really seem right to put my name between Wong and Doody, you know. They were one entity for so long. So that’s the reasoning behind the tertiary position. [laughs]
SS: Ah, it makes a lot of sense now.
CC: But we just go by WDCW anyway.
SS: Are you guys still referred to as Wong Doody as shorthand?
CC: Sometimes. We’re trying as much as possible to focus on the branding of WDCW, and we’re actually on a show called The Pitch that follows Mad Men on AMC programming.
SS: Oh, yes, yes, I remember that.
CC: So the show definitely helped forward the branding of it.
SS: The agencies showcased on The Pitch, are they all localized in Los Angeles?
CC: No, it’s kind of around the country.
CC: Pitting two agencies against each other.
SS: Going along with the WDCW, does it ever get you down whenever people refer to the agency as just Wong Doody and truncate the “Crandall”?
CC: No, I don’t. [Laughs]
SS: You just gave a compelling lecture, and I’m fortunate to be able to catch something motivating that sells these students on the business of selling things. But it’s not only about advertising. It’s about writing and about how it’s extrapolated out to film, books, newspapers, and commercials, of course. That’s where the ad stuff comes in. What is the breadth of your writing exploits? I didn’t realize until you spoke that you wrote Old School, which many people like and adhere to.
CC: Well, my job is really advertising, but I’ve Forrest Gump’d my way to a number of other things, just by seeing what I thought was opportunity and kind of applying my advertising instinct in the category. So with the children’s book, it was as much based on need, if anything, of my own son getting a little “too cool” to hug his dad, so I thought well, we should come up with some creative hugs. And I put it in a book and I thought this would be a valuable tool for parents, especially working parents who want contact with their children rather than just reading to them—I think that would help sell it. Old School was largely based on my own life, as I said earlier. I kind of stumbled into doing children’s books, doing a few movies, directing Free Throw, and I sold a comedy to ABC that died at the pilot stage.
SS: What was it called? It wasn’t the caveman spin-off was it?
CC: No, no, no. That wasn’t it.
SS: Because that was brought up from advertising.
CC: It was called the Sons of Valencia. It never made it.
SS: So what came first, your screenwriting or the advertising?
CC: Oh, advertising came first. I’ve been in advertising since I graduated college in 1987. I didn’t start screenwriting until right after my first child was born. One of my friends I met through the “Mommy and Me” class wives take was a screenwriter, and he kind of inspired me to get going and so I wrote that movie Lobster Tale that took 10 years to get made.
SS: When was that released?
CC: Ah god, I forgot what the year was. It was probably about 8 years or so?
SS: Not only did this lecture counsel Compton High about writing, but this is also a follow-up of that film you directed, Free Throw. For this inaugural Q&A with a Creative Director, I wanted to showcase the world of advertising and how it cross-pollinates with the entertainment realm, and I feel like this whole Free Throw project you’ve been doing is a great launch point for the theme I was going for. It was produced by WDCW Films. Often, creative pursuits branch out from the ad-shop environment, but how did this come about?
CC: This was again based upon my son Chase playing basketball with some boys from Compton who I thought were good kids. So I wanted to do something to help them as well as redefine the image of Compton. I came up with this notion of a free throw competition. I raised some money to put in a scholarship and a little bit of money to make the movie itself. I got the agency behind it and told my partners that I would like to do this as an agency venture rather than a personal venture. We were able to motivate a lot of our staff and use some of our resources to make a feature film which most ad agencies haven’t done, but I think we’re kind of uniquely positioned to make an impact on the future world. It’s interesting now with Creative Artists Agency and Funny or Die, they’re kind of dipping into our well by getting into advertising, so hopefully this is the first instance of it going the other direction where we’re starting to make bonafide entertainment as evidenced by getting Free Throw released on iTunes and Video On Demand and so forth.
SS: Do you guys have any more films?
CC: We might. We’re trying to decide exactly what we’re gonna do next, but yes, that’s the next hope. We’ll continue to produce content of some sort.
SS: Wow, OK. Having coupled a film-development brand with an ad shop, does it widen the breadth and capability for film and theatre students to become ad creatives?
CC: I don’t know if it broadens the potential for them. Again, it’s one of those fields you can prove you can do, so you could create a portfolio and show that you can come up with interesting ads and/or viral ideas that are experiential ideas. So no matter what background you’re from, you have the opportunity to show you can do it.
SS: I guess Free Throw would be the flagship film for WDCW Films. If so, what’s next on the list? Have you thought about that?
CC: A little bit. I might do something with Innocence Matters and this guy named John Smith who you saw in my presentation. He did 19 years of wrongful imprisonment for a drive-by. I may do something around him.
SS: When people think of films being developed by an advertising agency, it sets off the notion that any film by a subsidiary or supplemental brand like WDCW Films would technically serve as one large advertisement. Like an hour-and-a-half commercial that would get a viewer invested into a narrative. What do you say in that regard? Are you guys hoping to distinguish a splinter name as a legitimate production company?
CC: Yeah, I mean, again, we’ll see how things go exactly where we take it, but my belief is that ad people are probably better suited to deliver movies people want to see than almost anyone else because we have a sense of consumers. Ads are written to fulfill consumer needs and to get what consumers want, and a lot of us like to think of ourselves as writers. I think we can come up with pretty big ideas that can have broad appeal. I don’t know why we’re not tapped more often to come up with theatrical ideas.
SS: It’s funny because I guess a lot of failed screenwriters, such as myself, would try to dip into advertising because writing a commercial isn’t that far off from writing a script, because technically you do have to write a script for the production of a commercial.
SS: I see that’s one component that would inspire these kids or people to get into the industry because for the most part, people aren’t inclined to watch commercials if they’re too deep into their favorite television program.
SS: What’s to say that they wouldn’t want to join advertising? But I’ve seen a lot of good stuff—the Old Spice ads from Wieden+Kennedy, the Darth Vader ad for Volkswagen, the Coca-Cola polar bears—but let’s talk about what you guys have done. I’ve looked into your stuff and I want to talk about CNBC because I was in London during the Olympics and I caught that spot. I see there’s a part with the line, “The terror of handing over an idea to the world,” and it’s synced up with frames of Mark Zuckerberg. I’m assuming that was a sly jab? Mischievous fun from an ad creative?
CC: No, it’s just something like an ode to capitalism, which people typically think is bad but that’s what CNBC is all about, bringing capitalism to the free market. So that particular line was kind of coinciding with his release of Facebook, so the world can think, “All right, time to share this with the world.”
SS: What I really want to know about is the Seattle International Film Festival. The spot was very interesting. Did you have a hand in that?
CC: No, but we had the movie in there. Free Throw was in the SIFF this year, but that creative is all done up in Seattle, and my partner Tracy Wong oversees all that.
SS: The spot for SIFF featured a mock trailer for a film that lines up with what I’d actually want to see, Showgirl Ingests Fatal Fish. It reminded me of Dario Argento or Alejandro Jodorowski. But that’s not really a festival entry, is it? It’s just a title that lines up with the festival’s acronym.
SS: Backpedaling to what I saw in your presentation about your agency’s “think tank,” I want to get a good look at it. Perhaps catch Free Throw at the office.
CC: Sure, yeah. Anytime.
I couldn’t have really asked for a more thorough, content-filled, and great Q&A to start up this interview series. Do some homework and brush up on Deutsch. You know, that place where they had that thing with the Darth Vader kid and the Volkswagen.
Free Throw is now available on iTunes and Video On Demand.
To keep up with Court and WDCW, visit http://www.wdcw.com/