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Best CEOs: Duff Stewart helped solidify foundation at GSD&M, took ad agency to next level

Duff Stewart CEO GSD&M Best CEO 2023

Austin Business Journal

Duff Stewart runs one of Austin’s most iconic businesses — and his stewardship has served it well.

Stewart basically grew up, professionally, within the halls of advertising powerhouse GSD&M. Not many CEOs worked as interns at the company they now run, but Stewart did. The business is perhaps best known for bringing to life the Don’t Mess With Texas anti-litter campaign, though it has a series of advertising hits under its belt.

While the esteemed founders rightly get much of the credit for the business’ success, GSD&M quite literally owes its values and home to Stewart. For example, Stewart articulated the agency’s core values of “integrity, curiosity, restlessness, community, freedom, responsibility and winning” that are carved into GSD&M’s floor at its Sixth Street headquarters — a headquarters that was built as part of a massive real estate and construction effort spearheaded by Stewart and part of the revitalization of the western edge of Austin’s downtown.

The picture was not always as polished as GSD&M’s ads. Early on as chief executive, Stewart inherited the Herculean task of rebuilding the agency after a number of notable account losses. But he knew the agency at its core from having lived in every role, and he went to work in the weeds. Within five years of his appointment, more than 90% of the agency’s roster was new. Big brands such as BMW, Walgreens and Chipotle were being served, and he expanded the agency’s capabilities in digital, design, experiential and many other areas that were critical to being competitive.

Today, Stewart continues to steward the agency to success through all obstacles and opportunities. A global pandemic and The Great Resignation were navigated well enough to increase revenue by about 18%, according to GSD&M. Some of the newer clients on the books are Capital One and Fruit of the Loom. Southwest Airlines, which put its trust in GSD&M 42 years ago, is still flying high on the firm’s work.

The agency touts itself as being the only one in the industry to have a vice president of community that leads agency-wide volunteer efforts and pro bono or at-cost services to a variety of organizations in Austin. The Austin Parks Foundation, The Trail Conservancy, Opportunity Austin, Out Youth, Health Alliance of Austin Musicians and more have been beneficiaries. In 2022, the agency reported providing about 3,000 pro-bono hours to Austin nonprofits, worth roughly $1.5 million.

Stewart has spent a total of 30 years at GSD&M — 14 as CEO.

“We all knew from the start that Duff was a person of purpose and values, and also a potential leader of GSD&M,” co-founder Roy Spence said in the nomination for this contest.

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