POV: Interview with Duff Stewart, CEO of GSD&M

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



Duff_StewartDuff Stewart is the CEO of GSD&M, where he has been for more than 20 years. GSD&M is Austin- and Chicago-based advertising agency.

Tell us about GSD&M. What differentiates the agency and your work?

We work with purpose-based brands that focus on the difference they want to make in the lives of their customers. We’ve found that truly successful companies exist not just to make money. They want to make a difference in the world. And our roster is full of those kinds of organizations: Southwest Airlines, Walgreens, the U.S. Air Force, L.L.Bean, John Deere, Goodyear and many more.

Our success as an agency is due to the great clients we’ve been fortunate to work with, the culture of curiosity and community we’ve built over the past 41 years and the amazingly talented people who form our team.

How does your background in economics change the way you think about client campaigns and projects, versus say a CEO who comes from a creative background?

Great advertising achieves a balance between art and commerce, using creative thinking to build a client’s business. We have great people on each side of that equation who deliver every day on the behalf of clients. And we have to achieve the same balance within our own business. We manage GSD&M with creative ideas as a foundation, but we also have to achieve our financial goals. My experience in economics and finance is helpful in ensuring we’re able to keep the doors open, the lights on and the best talent in place.

GSD&M works with great iconic clients. What is the most important part of maintaining a client relationship?

It’s about trust.

A marketing budget is usually a big portion of a brand’s overall expenses, and we’re stewards of those resources. We make a lot of vital decisions on behalf of our clients, and we take that responsibility very seriously. Each of our client relationships is a strategic partnership where we work together to define a vision, solve a problem and reach an audience. And trust is at the heart of those partnerships.

How has digital shifted the workflow, processes and structure of GSD&M? How do you think agencies need to be structured to create work that is truly integrated?

For any agency that’s been around for more than a few years, the transition to digital is a huge sea change. At GSD&M, every aspect of how we do business has been affected — from who we hire to how we collaborate to the product we deliver. A more digital approach requires an open environment where silos are broken down and everyone can contribute to a campaign from the outset and throughout the process. By working in a more integrated way, the work itself is more integrated.

GSD&M recently celebrated its 41st anniversary. While a lot has changed, what core principles of advertising do you feel are still relevant today?

Despite all of the changes in our industry over the past few years, the fundamentals haven’t changed. We still have to understand who we’re trying to reach and what difference we want to make in their lives. And we still have to intrigue, entertain and persuade them that a product or service is of value.

As the social, media and marketing chatter continues to increase, what do you think a brand needs in order to win mindshare?

First, a brand needs a product or service that people want. It doesn’t matter how loud you bang the drum — if you’re not offering something of value, people won’t come.

Second, a brand has to know who it’s trying to reach. The notion of a truly mass market is disappearing. It’s a crowded, complicated marketplace and targeting the right consumers has never been more vital.

Finally, a brand has to be good at storytelling. That means knowing what message it’s trying to deliver and doing it at the right place, at the right time and in the right way. And it all has to be authentic to the brand, because consumers are smart, engaged and have a well-tuned ear for what rings true and what doesn’t.

The advertising industry as a whole is struggling to attract and retain talent. What types of professionals are you looking for?

We still need art directors, copywriters, planners, producers, media buyers, project managers, account managers and all of the people who make an organization run — from accounting to IT to HR.

But the very notion of what constitutes “advertising” is changing dramatically. In today’s marketing environment, we also need digital developers and producers, user experience experts, social community managers and people who can produce compelling live events.

But in terms of who we’re looking for, there are common elements among every discipline: an ability to listen and contribute to a team and an unwavering curiosity about how we can do things better.

Technological advancements have certainly expanded the ability of advertisers to reach consumers in new and interesting ways. But should brands and advertisers be cautious? What should they keep in mind when researching and developing strategies for new platforms?

Every media platform isn’t appropriate for every brand. A company has to identify its purpose and target audience and then use the media that will reach that audience in an authentic way. And because marketing is now largely two-way communications with consumers, feedback is swift. So a brand can and should adjust its content and media strategy when it learns what works and what doesn’t.

What trends in advertising are you and your clients most interested in for 2013?

The biggest trend we’re interested in for 2013 — and for every year — is growing our clients’ businesses.

Advertising and what it involves is changing, and it’s going to keep changing. The relationship between online and offline is a story that’s still being written and there are a lot of players — compelling content, mobile, experiential, traditional and more. We have to keep listening, learning and leading within a complicated environment. You can’t single out a specific trend that defines every problem you’ll face.

We get paid by big brands to pay attention and help simplify things in a way that will make a difference. And that’s a different proposition for every client. The common focus is doing whatever it takes to grow every one of our clients’ businesses.

One reason you love what you do: I love what I do because every day I get to work with brilliant people.

Mentor: My best mentors are GSD&M’s founding partners: Judy, Roy, Steve and Tim. They have always placed a great deal of trust in people, giving both the freedom and responsibility to do the right things right. The fact that I’m the CEO today is testament to the leadership of our founders and their unwavering commitment to integrity, curiosity, community and winning. Every person in our agency is given the tools, perspective and opportunity to be the CEO of their piece of the business. I’m fortunate to have grown up — personally and professionally — within that environment.

Must-read book: Roy Spence’s defining work on purpose: “It’s Not What You Sell, It’s What You Stand For.” It’s a great read with lots of specific brand-based examples, and it represents our agency’s approach to growing our clients’ businesses for the past 41 years.

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