Jay Cranford is a man of many appetites; a lover of film, a creative engine behind his own advertising company, a generous patron of Little Rock’s arts and culture scene and an accomplished crew rower.
But what anchors the intersection of his many passions most firmly, he’ll quickly tell you, is cooking. The kitchen extends his creativity and challenges his mind as he orchestrates memorable dinner parties, feeding guests lucky enough to be invited as well as satiating, however briefly, his hunger to learn.
“I’ve always had this duality of arts and science, I love both,” he says. “I love the artistic, emotional side but I’m a huge fan of science and reading and research, which you need for advertising. So, there’s the artistic side, which you either have or you don’t, and then the science side I believe you can learn if you have the knack to study hard.
“Cooking’s a lot like successful advertising in that way; you need both sides, because insights from the data make the art better.”
As mosaic as Cranford’s interests are, it’s advertising that has always fit him best — familiar as a favorite pair of jeans, reliable as his dog Henry, who is half-asleep and shaggy at his feet. Born into Arkansas advertising’s royal family, the profession has been his primary ambition, if not his only skill, for as long as he can remember.
“I knew since I was a child I wanted to get into advertising because I watched my dad do it and I found it fascinating,” he says. “I’ve always been a huge fan of art and I thought this was the perfect blending of business and art. Drawing from video and film, music, illustration and animation, blending it and using it for corporate or nonprofit benefit, it seemed so perfect for me.”
Cranford, the eldest of three sons born to Wayne and Frances Cranford, came by his fascination honestly. His late father founded Cranford Johnson and grew it into a regional advertising force on the strength of marquee accounts, a tiny sampling of which included Alltel, Tyson, Oaklawn, Riceland Foods, Arkansas Best Freight and Arkansas Power & Light, today known as Entergy.
“To understand Jay, you’ve got to understand his upbringing. His dad started the premier agency in the state nearly 60 years ago, and his mother is a former Miss Arkansas and a patron of the arts and nonprofits,” says Denver Peacock, principle of The Peacock Group in Little Rock, who’s known Cranford for 20 years.
“So, for his entire life, he has been around creative pursuits and the nonprofit world but also exposed to the work that his dad was doing in marketing and advertising. He’s been groomed to see the world in a completely different way.”
For Cranford, visiting his father’s office was part living laboratory, part Disneyland, and the many encounters he had with the firm’s clients growing up afforded him perks and adventures not seen by your typical youth.
“Silver Dollar City was a client and every summer we would go up to Branson. It was almost like we had backstage passes,” he says. “We got to cut in line for everything.”
Such interactions also gave Cranford a level of ease with people of power as his elbows routinely rubbed with the titans of Arkansas business. A favorite among many stories was the time former Alltel CEO Joe Ford got him in hot water with Charles Cella, third-generation owner of Oaklawn in Hot Springs.
“I was maybe 11 or 12,” he says with a wry grin. “The Fords invited us to this prestigious, private dinner Mr. Cella hosted for about 50 friends. I met Stan Musial there. Anyway, we were going down the buffet line and somehow, I got in line first. We were sitting with the Fords and I was a hungry kid, so after I had eaten, I was like, ‘Think we can get seconds?’ Joe says, ‘I’d like seconds too, why don’t you go get back in line for some.’
“Mr. Cella sees me, picks me up by the scruff of my shirt and says, ‘Young man, you need to wait until everyone gets theirs first.’ I was mortified. I slumped back to the table with my empty plate. To this day I tease Joe Ford, ‘You got me in trouble with Mr. Cella.'”
As much as all of this thrilled the young Cranford he says at no time did his parents pressure him into following in the family business. It was just one example of a parenting style that allowed the boys to make their own decisions, such as when Cranford decided to attend college back east after graduating from Catholic High School.
“I wanted to study economics,” he says. “I went to University of Pennsylvania in downtown Philadelphia, because it was the number one school for economics in the country.”
Cranford excelled in his classes, but the transition from Arkansas to Philadelphia was too much for the homesick 17-year-old. He left after one year, though not before he got recruited to the rowing team.
“The rowing coach basically grabbed me and says, ‘Son, I need you to sign up for crew.’ I didn’t know anything about it, but I signed up and went down to the river,” he says. “I’m still a little jealous because the team I was on, in what would have been my senior year, went to Oxford, England, and won the Henley Regatta which is like winning the Tour de France.”
Returning home Cranford enrolled in the University of Arkansas where he’d graduate magna cum laude in economics and as Economics Student of the Year. It was a degree that gave him valuable insights into the less-colorful side of business as well as honing his data analysis skills.
Also during his time in Fayetteville, he researched the most prestigious American advertising firms, eventually whittling it down to Chiat/Day, now TBWAChiatDay, in Los Angeles.
“They were by far the hottest agency, they helped make Apple and Nike famous,” Cranford says. “I loaded up my car and drove to LA, didn’t know a soul out there. My dad had a friend, I stayed with him for the first week then had to get a job and an apartment. This was 1989.”
Given Chiat/Day’s reputation, jobs were intensely competitive. Cranford landed a spot at another famous agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, where he worked on the Toyota account. But he never took his eye off the ultimate prize.
“Chiat/Day had 50 to 100 people applying for every position there. Initially I was too chicken to even apply,” he says. “So, I went to Saatchi first. One day, I was reading the Wall Street Journal and Jay Chiat, the agency founder, had a quote about hiring employees: ‘Maybe what we ought to do is have employees tear out 20 ads they like, and tell us why they are good ads.’
“So that’s what I did. I had some friends at Saatchi help me put together this folder and I put Jay Chiat’s quote on the outside and then raided the magazine library and tore out my favorite ads, only two of which were Chiat/Day ads. On the inside, I wrote, ‘Here are my 20 ads, I’d love to talk,’ and mailed it to him. They called me two days later and I was hired.”
To this day, Cranford’s head shakes at the story.
“It was pretty cool. When I walked in, they were like, ‘Oh, he’s the kid who sent in the folder of ads.’ They hired me as a junior account executive and I worked on the largest savings and loan at the time, Home Savings of America. It was very prestigious, but I was immediately fighting to get into creative. I did love the account services aspect of it, but my true passion was creative and writing.”
Moving up meant lots of extra time and work, something Cranford poured himself into without hesitation.
“One of their famous quotes was ‘Chiat day and night’; you worked there as long as you needed to, you came in on the weekends,” he says. “During that time, the creative director started this nighttime class for employees who wanted to get into the Creative Department. He wanted to give existing employees this opportunity because no one had ever been hired into the Creative Department, they hired people from all over the world.”
YOU ARE NOT READY
“I entered this nighttime class and he would come in with this assignment and what was so cool was it was a real assignment. He’d have a troubled client and here’s the competitor messaging that we have to fit into this outdoor board. Just these weird assignments and I would relish it. I was already staying late anyway, so I stayed for this class and after 6 months of this, an opening came up and they gave me a job. It doubled my salary overnight. I was a junior copywriter.”
Cranford’s creative highlights included work for the Energizer campaign and pitching and winning the Sony Playstation account, in part on his tagline, “You are not ready.” To this day, the accomplishment sits him bolt upright in his chair.
“I love being able to visualize an idea based on strategic insight,” he says. “[Playstation’s] primary target was 18- to 35-year-old males and they wanted to be challenged. Sony entered the market when Nintendo was big and so was Sega, but Playstation came in with millions more pixels, 3D and much more sophisticated gaming. Basically, they were saying, ‘This game is going to kick your ass.’
“I said, ‘That’s basically what we need to say, but softened up a little bit.’ I came up with, ‘You are not ready,’ the art director made everything like a puzzle because these guys like a challenge so they wanted a puzzle of the tagline. It came out ‘You are not,’ and then a little red ‘e’ so you had to solve ‘ready.’ So much fun; the energy of it, you’re skipping lunches, staying late. We must have presented 30 different campaigns to win the account then probably another 50 until they actually selected one.”
In 10 years, Cranford had accomplished everything his younger self had set out to do: excel at the highest level of his profession, take in the best of art, film and dining in a world-class city and even get the occasional taste of home when his brothers Chris and Ross came out to live with him for a period. But one day, it was simply time to do something different, stretch creatively, come home.
“I got the bug for film,” he says with a shrug. “Chris graduated from film school and I wanted to write and direct a film. So, in ’99 I came home, reached out to friends and family and was able to raise $150,000, had a screenplay written, cast it, flew in one or two actors.
“I felt familiar here, I wanted to showcase Arkansas. I filmed it in Little Rock, at the Little Red River, showcasing these places where I grew up. Plus, my brother was here to help me bring this to life.”
“His moving back made perfect sense to me,” says Steve Sweitzer, Cranford’s creative director at Chiat/Day. “Our friends who live in the cities go, ‘Why in the world would you do that?’ But ultimately, he had his own dream to have his own company. His father had his own company and he was inspired by that.
“We talked about things like that; I’m from the Columbia, Mo., area, so I was a farm and ranch boy living in the big city. My dream was always to have my own shop, so that’s something we shared.”
Cranford’s film, “Company Men” didn’t catch fire and before he knew it, he felt the tug of advertising again. He joined Stone Ward as creative director for seven years, after which his father invited him to CJRW in 2007, a gig he departed in 2014 as vice president and chief creative officer. Six weeks later he founded Cranford Co. with his two brothers and senior designer John Jacobs, a venture housed out of Chris Cranford’s attic.
“Apple and HP are famous for starting in garages, here we are in an attic,” Jay Cranford says. “We were in the attic for about a year and started picking up clients from what we learned from Dad. People would hear about us and call us.”
Jim “Bear” Dyke has known Cranford since childhood and his Napa Valley winery operation is a Cranford and Co. client.
“I started in Washington, D.C., and started a public affairs firm there. As I view Jay’s services, I view it through the lens of the type of service we would offer,” he says. “I think everything they have done for us is a level of creativity that you don’t have to force.
“They very comfortably gather the information that they need and are very clear about what you want to accomplish. And the product is magnificent; I mean, they did an ad for us for Wine Spectator that I’ve got framed. Sometimes you can have somebody come up with some creative stuff and everybody’s like, I don’t know what the hell that’s all about. Jay understood what we wanted to communicate to people.”
Today, Cranford and Co. occupies a stylish minimalist space in downtown Little Rock’s tony Creative Corridor. He likes what he sees in the neighborhood, the kind of old-meets-new district that could easily pull talent from the coasts to here. In front of the building, facing north, he can almost see the red-brick corner digs of CJRW, an ad house that bears his father’s fingerprints. But his view goes much farther than that.
“I’m still convinced that at its core, advertising will always exist because there’s always that need to connect companies and nonprofits with individuals,” he says. “People always complain that in advertising, you’re forcing people to buy something they don’t want. I disagree. I think advertising, especially with the right client, can do an immense public good. Through our work with the Arkansas Department of Health, we’ve convinced people to stop smoking and that might have saved someone’s life. There’s so much good advertising can do.
“There’s a lot of focus on work that improves quality of life and that’s where our work with nonprofits comes in, not to mention our pro bono stuff. We love giving our talents and time to The Rep, Ballet Arkansas, Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, American Heart Association, Ronald McDonald House, Care for Animals. It’s giving back to the community and making it as rich as it can be because that benefits us and all the people who live here.
“We learned the importance of that work from Mom. She’s a great volunteer. Volunteered a lot with Arkansas Arts Center, she’s worked with the Arkansas Nature Conservancy. We learned a lot about giving back from her, about doing what you can to help.”
And from Dad, you ask. Cranford’s voice turns pensive.
“I think there’s a passion we all have for this business and I’m sure it was ingrained from Dad,” he says at last. “Being fair and honest; finding a magical, human way to engage with someone. It can be hard or easy, depending on the subject.
“What I learned from being around him was class, elegance and being trustworthy. You have to be honest, work hard and care enough to come up with a solution. You can’t just throw something at the wall and hope it sticks, you have to see it through to success. You have to care about the big picture.”