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Agency Exec Roy Spence Reveals the Problem With Partnerships

By Published on .

Roy Spence
Roy Spence Credit: Nathan Skid

"Everyone wants to be a partner, they just don't want to deal with the 'ship,' the partnership."

That's the view of agency exec Roy Spence, chairman of GSD&M in Austin, which he put forth during a video interview with me prior to his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame earlier this year.

"The ship is hard," Roy told me. "But it's also where it happens. By the way, our country needs the ship of state again. Our country needs to be in the ship of state again, instead of partisanships."

Roy likes to deal with broad issues because he never considered himself to be in advertising. He was hired to build people's businesses or to elect candidates to public office. "I always thought advertising was just one of the tools, not all of them. I love advertising, I'm intrigued with it, I'm inspired by it.

"But when a CEO comes to me and says, 'We're having a label problem, it has nothing to do with advertising, can you help me?' That's the thrill, to be able to go in and look at wicked problems--and I'm not very smart, so I have to be focused, seriously--and come up with an idea."

Roy said he always thought he and his partners "were in the business to solve wicked problems.

Sometimes it was advertising, sometimes it was a one-liner in a speech, sometimes it was working with labor unions. I love the craft, but I love the solutions even more."

His most wicked problem was when his agency took on Southwest Airlines for Herb Kelleher. It was a regulated industry back then, and the established airlines fought to block Southwest from taking off.

"Only 15% of the American people had ever flown. Herb said 'I'm going to get people out of buses and I'm going to get people out of cars.' He didn't say this, but I said it: 'What you're going to do is democratize the skies, in a sense.' They judged, back then, airlines on legroom, food, uniforms, and we got hammered all the time. We were at the bottom of the ladder. We decided one day that we weren't going to take it anymore."

So Southwest created its own ranking, based on on-time performance, customer satisfaction and baggage handling. Roy's partner, Tim McClure, created the Triplecrown Trophy, and they gave it to themselves. Roy said "that one was probably as good a problem as we ever solved."

Roy is a big believer in purposeful marketing. He said his agency learned about purpose in the early '80s when it did an anti-litter campaign Tim wrote called "Don't mess with Texas."

People couldn't figure out what the ads were about until "we finally realized something. We laddered up from the litter business to the pride business, and we did not know that. All of a sudden, the purpose of Texas was to take pride.

"Then we saw Herb. He was in the airline business, but basically we laddered him up to the freedom business, because he was in the business of democratizing the skies."

Roy said the agency had to go through a whole process to get people to understand. He has a company called the Purpose Institute, and Haley Rushing is the chief purposologist. "She's the best in the world at rediscovering that higher ground where companies live…

"It's a huge change, but I think we were on the cutting edge of it. We didn't know it. We got lucky again. But we got into purpose before maybe anybody else did because I just hung around people like Sam Walton and Charles Schwab and Herb Kelleher, and other people who were cutting against the grain."

Roy said they didn't know they were engaging in purpose marketing. "They just thought it would be fun to kick the big guys."

Many times, Roy said, the purpose of a company is only for internal use. It's to rally the culture. Sometimes, he said, as in "Don't mess with Texas" or "You're now free to move around the country," it actually becomes a marketing campaign.

Roy met his future partners Steve Gurasich, Bill Gurasich, Tim McClure and Judy Trabulsi, at the University of Texas (Judy didn't want her name on the door because she thought she was going to get married and leave the company). They had a company that did multimedia shows and they had thousands of students lined up to see the shows for 50¢ a seat.

"I said, 'Great, what is that?'" Roy remembered.

So Roy went to the bank to get a $5,000 loan. The loan officer asked him what his business plan was. Roy said he and his friends wanted to stay together, they wanted to stay in Austin, they wanted to make a difference and make money. They got the loan.

Twenty-five years later, while at a reception, Roy was introduced to an older gentleman with a cane. It turned out to be Robert Smead, who'd cosigned the bank note without Roy knowing it because he wanted Roy to believe that he got it on his own.

"Robert Smead believed in our dream, and he wanted to do something help bring it to life," Roy told me. "When advertising is at its best we believe in somebody else's dream. Through our advertising and marketing messaging, we try to bring that to life. ... That's how we got our start, someone cosigned a note, and we didn't even know it."

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