Sharing Strategies: GSD&M clients hit Austin city limits

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[Austin, Texas] when the s of gsd&m co-founded the agency in 1971, he didn't know what the D in DDB stood for. He wasn't too sure about the other D or B, either. Now president of the country's 34th largest ad shop, Roy Spence still sees himself and his shop as ad outsiders, a strategy that has GSD&M employing Texas charm and a soft sell to boost its balance sheet.

For its Idea Summit last week, GSD&M assembled a who's who of marketing successes at its Texas Hill Country headquarters. In addition to not once invoking the word "advertising," the event contrasted the flash of New York's chi-chi clubs and nouveau appetizers by its simplicity and efficiency. Set at the agency's Lego-looking building, the affair had a friend of Mr. Spence guide clients on how to make their companies stand out; served food from clients, including Macaroni Grill and Krispy Kreme; and probably cost less than a Southern country club wedding.

This low-key but effective approach is part of what makes the out-of-the-way Austin agency a destination for global marketers rather than a pit stop for Texas companies working their way up the capitalistic ladder. It's almost believable when Mr. Spence-who at 52 resembles a California surfer-said he envisions the event helping clients, if not necessarily building agency revenue. In 2000, GSD&M's billings were $1.17 billion, according to Advertising Age figures.

"If we build their business, they will build our business. Our clients recognize that we're going to go through the time and effort to bring something to the table that is beyond the normal advertiser," said Mr. Spence, whose agency largely has grown by expanding relationships with current clients rather than going full tilt on the new business front. Most of the 100 attendees were GSD&M clients, including Southwest Airlines, Charles Schwab & Co., Dell Computer Corp., Nokia Corp., Pinehurst Co. and Wal-Mart Stores.

Preaching the build-your-business gospel was Jim Collins, a former Stanford University professor whose second book, "Good to Great," tells how and why only 11 out of 1,435 companies studied qualify as great. He has addressed the agency and several clients since becoming friends with Mr. Spence in the 1990s. While esoterically obvious, his notions of slow growth (it's OK for 100-year-old companies to take a quarter of a century to turn around and begin thriving) and corporate soul kept the audience spellbound. This is, after all, a crowd where Mr. Collins' inch-thick management book was referred to as a "page turner."

Sharing strategy is a familiar tactic for the Omnicom Group agency (now sibling to DDB, as in Doyle Dane Bernbach). Opened in 1971 by five University of Texas students whose sum ad experience was limited to a single summer internship, the agency lost one of its first clients because it kept screwing up the local newspaper ad. They learned the ropes from the likes of clients Wal-Mart and Southwest, rather than from ad agency veterans. "There's not some advertising bar we go to," Mr. Spence said. "We built a company around learning from business people vs. learning from advertising people."

True to Texas, the event started with a catered BBQ, with creamed corn, iced tea, white bread and a country music duo. The next morning, organizers were savvy enough to serve Krispy Kremes and soft drinks for breakfast.

Clark Collins, VP-active trader marketing for Charles Schwab & Co., said he would attend future summits.

"It's kind of intuitive objectively, but you don't think about [strategy] every day. It's kind of refreshing to step back and take a really good look at what you are doing-what is the purpose for what we're doing? Who are you targeting, and why are you doing it?" he said.

GSD&M officials said that while they wanted this meeting, set to become an annual event, to focus on clients and not resemble a fraternity rush party, future gatherings might be opened to prospective clients. Being five states and 1,740 miles from Madison Avenue, Mr. Spence acknowledged the agency had to offer something different.

"It's unparalleled when agencies bring all their clients in for one day," he said, "and there is not one mention of advertising."

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