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Agency Profile: GSD&M

Posted on July 14, 2011 and read 3,985 times

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ignaciocreditpic Agency Profile: GSD&MIgnacio Oreamuno
President
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For many people, their “glory days” or “discovery years” came went they first went away for college. Some people wish they could go back to those days, and a precious few, well, they enjoyed their college town so much that they never left.

Such was the case when a number of graduates of University of Texas at Austin decided that they loved working together and living in the state capital so much that they didn’t want to leave. Instead, they took their new-found school smarts and in 1971, the team did the most logical thing they could think of — they started a little advertising agency.

Forty years later, that agency is GSD&M, and it’s not so little anymore. With a staff of 500+, GSD&M is easily the biggest shop in town, but like many things in Austin, there is a certain friendliness that just makes everything seem smaller. “Everyone knows everyone,” exclaims one of the creatives. “It’s always shocking when we do group outings and you realize just how many people work in this agency.”

I know that most agencies say “it’s all about the people” and that might be true, but it’s very rare to see an agency the size of GSD&M pull off that “people” vibe so well. Maybe it’s the agency’s beautiful backyard that plays host to many events and festivities to keep creatives entertained. Perhaps it’s the dedicated “People Department” who brainstorm and work to keep the agency staff happy and entertained. Or it just might be the fact that on top of all of the planned in-house events, every given weekend, GSD&Mers are inviting colleagues to their houses for some good old Texas barbecue, or, as their website says, “an unhealthy amount of Mexican food.” Throw in the fact that the agency is a stone’s throw from Austin’s famous 6th Street entertainment disctrict, where just about everybody plays in a band and some of the popular watering holes are even co-owned by agency staff themselves, and you can see that this is a very social agency!

GSD&M’s entrepreneurial spirit doesn’t stop at the bar scene. The agency is home to a number of in-house brands, the most famous of which is Royito’s Hot Sauce, made by the “S” in GSD&M, “Reverend” Roy Spence, and sold out of his distinctive trailer in the parking lot. Also within the agency is a bottled water company and a little tequila operation. I’m sure that none of these companies has trouble trying to find an agency to promote them.

The vibrancy and energy of life at GSD&M is a clear reflection of the Austin lifestyle. “There’s a lot of work-life balance,” mentions one of the CDs, “not only because the agency wants it, but because a city like this demands it. And so we’re competitive when we need to be, but we play when we need to as well. Everyone knows it makes you a better employee. They don’t want to just grind you.” That is perhaps one of the reasons why GSD&M has a surprising number of ‘boomerangs’ within its walls, or people who had left for other agencies all over the US, only to find themselves happily back at GSD&M.


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Just in case you were starting to get the impression that the aforementioned work-life balance was heavily imbalanced in favor of a laid-back life, I am assured that the gang at GSD&M are just as good at working hard as playing hard. According to the staff, the type of work GSD&M makes and much of its culture is defined by its clients. LL Bean, Southwest Airlines, US Air Force, John Deere and Goodyear are all part of the roster, and are all brands they say they serve as  ’icon builders’. “We’ve been with Southwest since the beginning, we helped Wal-Mart get to where it is today,” remarks one CD. “These are iconic brands that you don’t just do a project for and leave them, these are companies that need brand shepherds.”

The role of brand shepherd has served GSD&M well in the past. As mentioned, the agency was AOR for Wal-Mart for twenty years, and also played a major part in the marketing fortunes of AT&T before BBDO took on a leading role. But if you ask some of the veterans if they missed the days when they were serving these big name clients, you might be surprised of the answer. “I don’t think we ever waste time getting stuck in the past and dreaming of past successes,” says one creative director. “Everyone here is excited about change, and it’s pretty much corporate policy here not to spend too much time wondering ‘oh, what will happen if we do this?’ We are simply doing.”

I was utterly amazed at the energy and spirit I found at GSD&M. It’s a place where nobody seems to be hunting for their next Gold Lion (and why should they worry about the French Riviera when the next big thing — SXSW — happens literally in their backyard?) They are more concerned by doing right by their clients and co-workers and having a great time while they are at it. I guess the best way to put it would be in the words of outgoing GSD&M legend, Luke “Hey Whipple” Sullivan:

“This place just feels nice every stinking day,”

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