Will Chau: The Austin Creative Department

GSD&M is an agency built on big ideas. These big ideas have a huge impact on our people, our agency, our clients and our community. We pride ourselves on creating ideas that make a difference and fostering an entrepreneurial culture and environment. For some of our entrepreneurs, their ideas have the power to transform our industry and the world. One of our very own, Creative Director, Will Chau, is an example of someone who did exactly that. He turned a vision into action, which is impacting the lives of local Austin students and providing tools to propel them forward.

Will has been part of the GSD&M family for 10 years. Originally from Los Angeles, he credits an old high school teacher for helping him discover his love for advertising and design.

Prior to working at an agency in L.A. and then joining GSD&M, Will taught at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Although teaching became a strong love for Will, his experience with academia quickly came to a halt when he was rejected from a teaching position because he didn’t have a master’s degree. In response, he decided to create his own vision of what he believed higher education should be in Austin—The Austin Creative Department.

The school’s model offers apprenticeships that help students receive hands-on training, set professional goals and create successful portfolios. In addition, the business model encourages students to take courses à la carte based on what fits them best. It can also help students determine if their passion is to work at an agency, with a specific type of client or brand, or start their own business. Ultimately, The Austin Creative Department’s goal is to help students realize their own purpose through creative problem solving by utilizing real, paying clients with authentic problems that need to be solved.

The first night of class, instructors brief the students on the assignment—here, the clients are present. The students spend the semester working to solve the problem with multiple solutions. Whether it’s a digital or social campaign, tagline write-up or logo design, the work they produce provides them with an in-depth understanding of going from problem to solution. At the end of the semester, the students pitch their work to clients. This experience creates a real-world scenario for the students—except it isn’t just a faux scenario: the clients pay a professional fee to the student(s) whose work is selected.unnamed-1Will’s motivation for teaching was also driven by underprivileged students who were very talented but lacked opportunities that would help them grow and succeed. Each year, one full-ride scholarship is provided to a student with a strong, diverse background and not a lot of opportunity. GSD&M’s Cofounder Tim McClure has been extremely supportive throughout the process, having acted as a mentor and advisor to Will, and offering advice on how to select scholarship recipients. McClure encouraged Will, “Give it to the person who has the most creative potential—not just the person who needs it most.” Because of this advice, the school’s first scholarship student, Elizabeth Perez, graduated from The Austin Creative Department and is now an art director at Leo Burnett in Chicago.

The success rate of The Austin Creative Department’s students has been remarkable. Alumni have started to build amazingly successful careers. Students who have taken two to four courses have gone on to land art director jobs in Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City. Other students have gone on to join the internship program here at GSD&M. One alumnus, Victor AbiJaoudi, joined the startup company Primal 7, that was originally a client for his class. A year after joining Primal 7, Victor became its CEO.

“In order for change to happen, it has to be grassroots,” said Chau. “Our goal is not to crank out students in volume, but rather to take small steps, and eventually when students graduate, they’ll help other people—it’s a snowball effect.”

As this snowball effect continues to expand and propel students like Elizabeth Perez and Victor AbiJaoudi forward, the industry will continue to experience growth not only in talent, but also in diversity and inclusion of those entering the industry. Will’s big idea was simple: to create a higher education program that provided creative students with the tools they need to succeed.

It’s with entrepreneurs like Will that GSD&M continues to have the tools it needs to grow and thrive. By creating a space for restless minds to visualize and put these big ideas into action, we’re able to make a difference, and in our own way evolve the industry.


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