For months it’s been us versus them in the war room at Idea City, the headquarters of the Austin advertising agency GSD&M. “Us” is Us magazine, the entertainment monthly that on March 17 will switch to a weekly called (what else?) Us Weekly. “Them” are high-circulation magazines like People, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide that Us Weekly will compete against for the attention of millions of showbiz junkies who can’t get enough celebrity news and gossip — and for advertisers with very deep pockets.
It’s not the first time that publishing icon Jann Wenner, whose privately held Wenner Media also owns Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, has tapped an ad agency to reinvent one of his titles. His last agency, Minneapolis-based Fallon McElligott, developed the famous “Perception/Reality” campaign for Rolling Stone that ran from 1984 to 1994, poking fun at the perception of the magazine’s stereotypical reader — a pot-smoking hippie — and humorously contrasting it with demographic data showing that the actual reader was really an upwardly mobile baby boomer. What’s driving the Us makeover, though, isn’t so much perception as the reality of the wired world. With entertainment news available 24 hours a day on the Internet and cable TV, a monthly magazine makes no sense. The new slogan the GSD&M team came up with for Us — “A Lot Can Happen in a Week” — acknowledges the time crunch, and Wenner loves it. “This is going to be one of the most exciting things in publishing this year,” he tells me during a telephone interview from his New York office.
It’s going to be equally exciting for GSD&M, which was just named Southwest Agency of the Year by Adweek for the second year in a row. Once a boutique shop best known for selling Texas to the world in campaigns like “Don’t Mess With Texas” and “Texas. It’s Like a Whole Other Country,” it’s undergoing a transformation of its own: from a regional player to a national one; and from an old-fashioned ad agency to one that’s also a newfangled entertainment-services company. Wenner Media is merely one piece in GSD&M’s long-term plan to broaden its mission, and a small one at that; estimated billings, which include forthcoming work for Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal, are just over $10 million. Much more significant was last year’s snagging of DreamWorks SKG, the studio formed by director Steven Spielberg, producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, and music mogul David Geffen. DreamWorks’ decision to send its coveted $100 million account to the Third Coast made headlines in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and GSD&M co-founder and president Roy Spence boasts that it’s only the beginning. “There’s going to be a convergence, a blurring of the lines between advertising and entertainment,” he says. “We want to be at the forefront.”
True to his no-holds-barred form, Spence isn’t waiting to react to that convergence; he’s doing his part to accelerate it. In 1998 he set up a subsidiary called Idea Entertainment that aims to be a content provider of sorts — producing television shows, documentaries, and movies and promoting concerts, even publishing books. For example, GSD&M is co-producing a pilot with Austin PBS station KLRU called Idea City, an exploration of the source of creative ideas; if it flies, Spence hopes to take it national. He says he stumbled across a book that he thinks would make an “awesome” movie (he can’t disclose the name of it yet). Jim Dauterive, a writer and co-producer of the animated TV show King of the Hill, dropped by the agency’s offices last year to perform a staged reading of a new screenplay. “Every copywriter in the advertising business is writing the Great American Novel,” Spence says. “Every director and every producer in the ad business is doing the Great American Film. They’ve all got the screenplays done. So I’m saying to them, ‘If you want to do advertising and books and movies, let’s do it here.’”
Skeptics inside and outside the agency, though, question whether such projects will produce tangible payoffs for the agency and its clients. “Roy is such a dynamic person,” says a former top employee. “On the one hand, he generally gets what he wants, one way or another. But sometimes he gets an idea and it’s cotton candy; once you delve into it there’s nothing but air.” Spence acknowledges he is taking some risks but adds that he’s just sticking a toe into the entertainment waters, not jumping in. “Hell, it’s dangerous” he admits. “Some people say, ‘It’s another Roy thing.’ But I like to plant seeds. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but my feeling is that in this business you’re growing only if you’re creating.”
That GSD&M could even hope to be relevant in the glamorous but cutthroat world of entertainment is partly a function of its size. Its workforce has grown astronomically, doubling in two years’ time to about six hundred. Many of the new hires are in the media department, which negotiates and places TV, radio, and print ads; media-only accounts now represent a third of the agency’s total billings, which this year are expected to hit $1 billion. Twenty-eight years after it got fired by its first client, a men’s wear company, for running a newspaper ad too small, GSD&M boasts a blue-chip roster that includes Southwest Airlines, Pennzoil, the PGA Tour, Wal-Mart, and MasterCard. Its single-largest account — some $250 million in annual billings — is SBC Communications, the San Antonio-based telecommunications giant.
Being based in Austin has also proven to be an asset as the agency ventures into entertainment. Filmmakers, directors, and actors live and work there, and the South by Southwest Music Festival and the Austin Film Festival have put the city on the cultural map ( GSD&M participates in both by hosting events and donating time and agency talent). “Austin is a brand in itself,” Spence says. “And the brand is distinctive: