AUSTIN — The afternoon sun poured brightly through the glass panes that form the front wall of the headquarters of GSD&M, the advertising agency that Roy Spence co-founded in Austin 45 years ago. Spence glanced through the windows toward the frame of a skyscraper going up across West Sixth Street.
“How many stories did they say that building is going to be?” he asked staff members who happened to be working nearby, but no one was quite certain.
In the years ahead, the new building could prevent some of that sunlight from reaching Spence’s building, but it will not block the ideas from continuing to flow. Spence and his team at GSD&M are making certain of that.
Those ideas and the success they built for a series of well-known international clients have led to Spence’s induction into the American Advertising Federation’s Advertising Hall of Fame in New York City on Monday night. It’s described as “the most prestigious award bestowed in the advertising industry honoring individuals who have raised the standard for advertising excellence.”
“It’s a great honor,” Spence said. “I’m only the second Texan to be inducted, and the first one was my mentor.” Liener Temerlin, for whom the advertising school at SMU is named, was inducted in 2003.
Many of the Hall of Fame’s inductees are singled out after they have completed their primary careers, but Spence chuckled at the notion that the federation might think he should be backing away as well. While Spence has identified the “next generation” of GSD&M leaders, he remains enthusiastically at the agency’s helm. After all, the ideas are still flowing like sunshine pouring through windows on a warm Texas afternoon.
With the foundation of growing up in Brownwood and playing football on a Gordon Wood-coached championship team, Spence and three partners founded GSD&M in 1971. Spence had studied government at the University of Texas, and — as the story goes — never considered himself to be an ad man and the group wasn’t quite sure what an ad agency was. What he didn’t know, however, turned out to be a key part of their success.
“I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to know who the CEOs were,” Spence said. Instead of dealing only with marketing departments of major corporations, Spence forged relationships with top executives.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Spence said, having now stepped into his unpretentious office in the back of the building — a corner area decorated with framed newspaper clippings and photographs. Among them are Spence meeting with presidents of both parties.
His computer screen is mounted in front of a treadmill exercise platform, a work combination he said felt awkward at first. But he quickly adapted to the concept. The conversation moved from memorabilia to philosophy.
“You have to stand for something,” Spence explained, referring to the principles for which GSD&M stands.
Those are carved into the floor of the gathering area just beyond the entrance lobby. Framed in a circle, staff members and visitors alike see the values of freedom and responsibility, curiosity, winning, community, integrity, and restlessness. They are impossible for anyone entering the building to miss.
“You have to have a purpose that goes beyond just making money,” Spence said of business endeavors. “This is the future. It’s something that young people understand now more than ever before. They want to have a purpose when they go to work. To them, it’s not just a job. That doesn’t satisfy them.”
It’s the message that Spence preaches to his staff, and the message GSD&M teaches its clients, to readers of Spence’s books, to those listening to his frequent speeches — indeed, to anyone who will listen.
“It means the difference in waking up in the morning and thinking about calling in sick, or waking up in the morning and thinking you can’t wait to get to work.”
In addition to emphasizing purposeful client work, Spence has devoted himself to a variety of community projects. In Austin, he co-founded the Purpose Institute in 2007, a program that still stands to help companies discover, articulate and activate their core purpose.
Spence has also leveraged the agency’s resources to make a difference on a national level, playing an integral role in powerful campaigns that urged the country to come together to help after Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that hit in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
After the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Spence brought together President Clinton, President George H.W. Bush and President George W. Bush for the “I am an American” spot that helped steer a nation away from discrimination and hate, and channel its anger into a celebration of diversity.
Among his current community interests are assisting in the development of a “kiddie park” in Austin similar to one that’s been a fixture for generations in San Antonio, and preserving the historic Lions Municipal Golf Course, the first public course in the South to be desegregated.
Even the location of GSD&M’s facility was a nod to community improvement. Spence recalled that 20 years ago, when the agency was planning its new facility, a scenic site along a lake had been selected. However, Austin’s mayor was attempting to revitalize portions of the city’s downtown, focusing on an area where a row of automobile dealers had been located.
“The mayor asked me to build on West Sixth Street, and I told him I would if he could get all the permitting approved in under two weeks,” Spence said. “That was unheard of, even then. But they did it.”
Prominent among the memorabilia displayed in his office is a football helmet from Spence’s years playing football for the Brownwood Lions. The lessons Spence said he learned growing up in Brownwood a half-century ago have served him well throughout his life, but they also ring as true as ever now.
“A lot of kids grew up saying they couldn’t wait to get out of Brownwood,” Spence said. “I came to Austin to go to the university, but I wasn’t one of those kids. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute I was growing up in Brownwood. I cherish my friends and family. It’s where I came from.”
Spence typically celebrates his hometown whenever he has a public forum, so don’t be surprised when the words “Brownwood, Texas” are spoken at the induction ceremonies at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on Monday night.
Without doubt, hugs will be exchanged Monday, too, because, as Spence says, “I’m a hugger.” They aren’t simple, brief hugs, either. They are full-fledged, arms-wide-open embraces.
“Everybody you meet is fighting something,” Spence said. “It’s important to keep that in mind.”
Spence stays in contact with several close friends living in Brownwood, many of them high school teammates. But his visits here haven’t been as frequent since his father Roy Spence Sr. died in 2009. Before then, spending Sundays with his father in Brownwood had been a highlight of each week.
Listening to Spence talk about his family and hometown, it’s obvious that those influences have been major factors in what he does, and how he goes about doing those things.
Another key influence was his high school football coach, who died in 2003.
“Shortly before he passed away, Coach Wood came to visit, and he gave me that,” Spence said, referring to a white football helmet with the letter “B” perched in his office window. “He shared with me why he was so successful as a coach for all those years. He said it was because the players believed in the other players, the players believed in the coaches, and the coaches believed in the players. That’s the secret to success.
“When you look at politics today, that’s what is missing in our country. We don’t believe in each other any more.”