In an economy of ideas, GSD&M takes ideas seriously. So seriously that Roy Spence Jr., 49, cofounder and president of the 26-year-old Austin, Texas-based advertising agency, has launched a one-man campaign to replace Austin’s current slogan, “The Live-Music Capital of the World,” with a new tag line, “The City of Ideas.” So seriously that the 300-person, $500 million agency recently moved into a $7.5 million, 83,000 square-foot headquarters building called Idea City. So seriously that GSD&M tells its clients — which include Southwest Airlines, the world’s most profitable air carrier; Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer; Anheuser-Busch Theme Parks, owner of the world’s largest marine-life-entertainment facility; as well as Southwestern Bell, Pennzoil, Doubletree Hotels, MasterCard, and the PGA Tour — that its sole mission is to foster, harness, and focus the scarcest resource in business: great ideas.
To help the agency design ideas, GSD&M has built a space designed around an idea: the city as a place for visionaries. Idea City is a postmodern, two-story, self-contained neighborhood that combines the community-building sense of public space found in the ancient Greek agora with the spirit of creative spontaneity found in New York’s Greenwich Village or London’s SoHo. “We designed this space to foster entrepreneurship, creativity, community,” says Spence. “It’s playful yet serious. It’s eclectic, and yet there’s a purpose behind everything we did.”
Within Idea City, GSD&M creates 5,000 to 6,000 ads each year — with countless ideas contributing to each ad. Behind that multiplicity of insights are a few key ones that guide GSD&M’s approach to generating great ideas.
1. Your butt’s connected to your brain.
It turns out that thinking outside the box requires deep immersion in the here and now: where you sit determines what you think.
Idea City features 30 “war rooms” that house all the artifacts and resources a team needs to focus on a particular creative task. Step inside the Chili’s Grill & Bar war room, for example, and you sense that you’ve made a wrong turn into the actual eatery. There’s a booth with menus and a “Please wait to be seated” sign. A single Tiffany-style lamp hanging over the center of the table completes the authentic ambience. All that’s missing are the family of four seated next to you and a few platters of Mexican-style fare.
“The war room creates a sort of cocoon,” says James Martin, 33, vice president and director of marketplace planning (GSD&M’s research function). “It’s not just decorated with stuff. The paraphernalia is a form of information. And having that information around you helps you put ideas together.”
2. Big ideas come from small groups.
The biggest enemy of ideas is bigness itself. Ideas need the passion, commitment, and determination that small groups engender. To grow big and yet think fast, GSD&M created hot shops: independent advertising agencies operating under the GSD&M umbrella. Each shop is headed by a creative director and a writer, who assume all creative responsibility for three or four clients.
David Crawford, 35, vice president and creative director of a hot shop that has Doubletree and Pebble Beach Resorts as clients, says the point is to stay as close as possible to the work of ideas. “Work in a creative department is all about ideas,” Crawford says. “Those ideas may come at 3 a.m. or while you’re eating lunch. The more organized we can be about the everyday running of things, the more time we have to spend on ideas.”
3. Ideas are serious fun.
It’s not unusual to visit Idea City on a Saturday night and find people playing Ping-Pong or working — or both. After all, what matters is the idea. What doesn’t matter is how you get the idea.
“Our offices look like a whole lot of fun,” says Tim McClure, 49, one of the agency’s founders and its chief creative officer. “What we do is a whole lot of work. It’s just that we put people in a fun environment so they can do their work. Every day you have to start over, and you rarely have time to sit back and say, ‘Gosh, that was a good job.’ Because the next job is already on your desk. The idea business is a hard business.”
4. Don’t just package your clients; make your clients a package.
Strategy is a single idea that solves more than one problem or creates more than one opportunity. GSD&M achieves this by bringing its clients into unlikely — and powerful — combinations. Like painting a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 with a giant likeness of Shamu, the featured act at Anheuser-Busch’s Sea World theme park — a cross-promotion that generated an estimated $12 million in free publicity for both clients. Or crossing the National Basketball Association with the Fannie Mae Foundation to create “America’s Home Team” — a program that uses the NBA’s high profile and urban draw to promote Fannie Mae’s financial resources for rebuilding inner-city neighborhoods.
“In the end,” says Spence, “we’re on a relentless mission to find visionary ideas that get our clients where they want to be faster than they thought possible. That sounds audacious. But if you don’t have audacious goals, your people will be status quo instead of status go.”
Gina Imperato (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a member of Fast Company’s editorial staff.
Sidebar: More on GSD&M
GSD&M was founded 26 years ago by six University of Texas graduates with no advertising experience. GSD&M built its new headquarters with The City as its inspiration. The company takes its values seriously — community, winning, restlessness, freedom and responsibility, curiosity, and integrity. Etched in stone in a large rotunda, they also show up throughout the building in individual workspaces.
“We designed this space to foster entrepreneurship, creativity, community. It’s playful yet serious. It’s eclectic, and yet there’s a purpose behind everything we did.”
“All great cities are built from the inside out, with purpose and energy. That’s why all the executives are in inside offices without windows. That’s the heart of the city, the epicenter.”
Executive offices — intentionally built without windows — represent the heart of the city. Then comes Greenwich Village, the graffiti-covered home of the creative department. Two idea towers — oversized, atrium-like spaces — anchor the building. One tower sports a Ping-Pong table and padded walls; the other features a huge cow on a retractable pulley. The urban theme continues in the agency’s other functional areas: the business department is located in the financial district; the cafeteria and lounge comprise the community center. There are also communities for GSD&M’s clients: neighborhoods where account services teams work in open areas decorated with such artifacts as oil barrels, airline seats, and a giant chili pepper.