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Statesman: 40 years later, GSD&M still shaping Austin’s advertising landscape

By: Brian Gaar, AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF

Published: 7:22 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 27, 2011

In 1980, Yvonne Tocquigny was 24 years old and working for a small advertising firm in Austin. While she was on a ski trip, the company folded.

She returned to Austin with no job and no money, in the middle of a recession.

“No one was hiring, and I was just screwed,” she said.

She turned to Tim McClure, a founding partner of the Austin agency GSD&M. The firm didn’t hire Tocquigny, but she starting doing creative work on a freelance basis. Later that year, she started her own marketing firm — and she credits GSD&M.

“They put the fuel in my fire, in the very beginning of my business,” she said. “And I will always be grateful to them for it.”

In its four decades of existence, GSD&M has left a lot of people telling similar stories.

 

GSD&M Employees Today . The company that basically started the Austin advertising industry is about to turn 40. How have things changed for GSD&M, and does the company still set the bar for the local advertising industry?

Created in 1971 by a group of University of Texas graduates who didn’t want to leave Austin, GSD&M wasn’t the city’s first ad agency. But with its ability to pick up national clients and expand beyond the region, the firm essentially birthed the modern Austin advertising industry, local experts say.

“They put (Austin) on the map,” said Sherry Matthews, a former GSD&M employee. “Until they grew and really got into the national arena, most of the agencies here were considered local shops.”

In the decades since GSD&M was founded, the business of advertising has grown to a $3.7 billion industry for the area, employing more than 16,000 people, according to a 2010 study commissioned by the Austin branch of the American Advertising Federation trade association. It’s hard to put an exact number on how many agencies are now in Austin, but the Austin Advertising Federation has nearly 150 member agencies.

And over the years, a number of former GSD&M employees have gone on to start their own companies or occupy prominent positions at other agencies.

 

Mark McGarrah, a former GSD&M executive, left the firm in 1996 to start an agency with fellow GSD&M colleague Bryan Jessee.

GSD&M had a huge impact on both the advertising landscape and the larger creative culture of Austin, he said.

“They kind of paved the way for Austin to become a culture that values creative thinkers,” McGarrah said. “That grew over the years — you get people from all over the country now that want to be in Austin because of that great creative community. I think that’s something they definitely helped nurture and grow over time.”

In 1971, when GSD&M was formed, the U.S. advertising industry was headquartered in New York, and the outliers were Chicago and Los Angeles, McGarrah said.

“And beyond that \u2026 you’re crazy,” he said. “And that’s probably exactly what they were. They were just too young to know it.”

That’s a characterization Roy Spence, one of GSD&M’s founders, probably wouldn’t dispute. Back then, GSD&M’s founders just wanted to stay in Austin, Spence said.

The company, he said, wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for Austin’s influence.

“I give huge credit to the culture of this city for us being successful,” Spence said. “Although we have very few clients here, but it was the idea of: Nobody’s too good, everybody’s good enough. You jump off the building and build the wings on the way down. You can fail and be OK, because failure is not permanent.”

Their idea worked — GSD&M racked up a number of big-name clients over the years, including Southwest Airlines, AT&T, Wal-Mart, Coors beer, BMW, Chili’s Grill & Bar and the U.S. Air Force.

And some of their campaigns have become embedded in pop culture.

“Don’t mess with Texas”? That was GSD&M’s. Southwest Airlines’ “Bags Fly Free” campaign? Ditto.

Even the “I want my baby back, baby back, baby back” Chili’s rib jingle came from GSD&M.

The company also grew — at its peak in 2007, GSD&M had more than 900 employees. Today, it’s close to 500 but still remains Austin’s largest advertising agency.

CEO Duff Stewart said being based in Austin also gave the firm a unique perspective.

“In some ways, I think that kept us more in touch with America, because we weren’t at the center of these advertising meccas,” he said. “We were at the center of where people really live and do things.”

Matthews, who now runs her own advocacy marketing agency, jokes about having attended the “GSD&M School of Advertising” when she worked for the agency for 10 years, starting in 1973. When she began, the agency had fewer than 10 employees. When she left, there were 150.

“What you always saw was quality,” she said of the firm’s success. “Tim McClure would have no less, when it came to creative.

“They didn’t let bad stuff go out the door.”

The company became a model when Matthews started her own agency.

“If I hadn’t spent the 10 years with them, I doubt I ever would have developed the skills or the confidence to go off on my own,” she said.

Matthews, McGarrah, Jessee and other Austin agencies have since made their own mark in the industry, winning their own shares of awards and acclamation. The Austin Hispanic agency LatinWorks, for example, has lately become the most decorated shop in town — this year, it picked up two awards at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

“Certainly they were the pioneers,” LatinWorks CEO and managing partner Manny Flores said of GSD&M. “Probably with a few others, but they were the most prominent.”

Though GSD&M didn’t create the Austin advertising community from scratch, its work boosted the city’s reputation on a national and global level, said Scott McAfee, a former creative director at the agency.

GSD&M’s founders exemplified the ethic of the city, said McAfee, who is now a creative director of another Austin agency, Sanders/Wingo.

“They are one of those key voices that said, ‘What the hell?’ and didn’t know any better, and thus were able to build something on a global scale,” he said.

“They were both a product and a creator of Austin.”

McAfee recalls a visit to New York in 1995, when he had an unexpected brush with his then-employer. On a newsstand, he saw that Mastercard had moved its media account to GSD&M — a major coup for an out-of-New York agency.

“Who would think that all of AT&T’s branding would have been handled out of Austin, Texas?” he said, referring to a former GSD&M client. “Same with BMW.”

As for Austin, it “truly has become one of the significant cities, when it comes to advertising,” said Austin Advertising Federation president Karen Goumakos. “GSD&M’s part in that cannot be understated. They truly led that change in perception.”

In recent years, the Austin chapter of the Advertising Federation has grown so large that it was put in the federation’s top division, along with heavyweights such as New York and Chicago. And in 2010 and 2011, the local chapter has won the federation’s “Club of the Year” award.

“When we go to the national convention, time and again people will come up to us and say, ‘Hey, I hear you’re in Austin. I hear there’s a lot of great stuff going on there,'” Goumakos said.

Spence admits to a certain amount of “humble pride” at the work of ex-colleagues.

“I’m proud of them, because they’re out there, jumping off the building, building the wings on the way down,” he said. “The stories of all these agencies is just amazing. I’m proud to know them — I’m not proud of us.”

McClure compared it to being a parent.

“It’s like children and grandchildren out there,” he said. “It makes us very proud.”

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