q&a: GSD&M Co-Founder Roy Spence

Roy Spence, Chairman and Co-Founder of GSD&Mdownload (2)

Roy Spence is one of the founders of ad giant GSD&M. Roy has brought in two other Texas based marketing organizations, Harbinger and Harman Friday. Together they are partnering with Texas State University’s Meadows Center for Water and the Environment and the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) on a project to raise awareness in Texas on water use.

What drew you to your new collaboration with the TWDB and the Meadows Center?

I got a call form Jeff Walker (TWDB) who is from Brownwood like I am.  I was born during the beginning of the great drought in 1948. When I was 5 my Dad, who was a salesman, would take me with him and he would point out all the farms that went bankrupt.  Every single night we asked God for rain.  In January 1957, President Eisenhower came to Brownwood and toured the drought devastated landscape.  A couple of weeks after he left it started to rain again.  There was a little drugstore called Palace Drug that had a plaque on the wall that said, “Thank you President Eisenhower for defeating Hitler and saving America, and thank you for coming to Brownwood and making it rain and saving Texas.”

Influencing public opinion has a long history. What lessons do you draw from successful campaigns for the environment, such as your “Don’t mess with Texas” campaign or the US Forest Services Smokey the Bear campaign?

Three things we learned. The people of Texas and of America are busy people. The influencers are so much more in tune with the real issues than the general public because the general public is focused on their families their jobs and other things. Never assume that the people of Texas will act unless you give them a powerful reason to act. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t engaged, they are just busy. You must have a powerful creative and preemptive big home to ladder into, like a big home of ‘Don’t Mess with Texas,’ or a big home of ‘Keep Austin Weird,’ or a big home like ‘Texas. It’s Like a Whole Other Country,’ such that people say wow I’m intrigued with that.

Finally, measure, measure, measure and report to the people of Texas on how you are doing. The people of Texas will support things that are working. During the ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ campaign we had a guy from California who would measure whether litter on Texas highways was declining or not. Four years later litter was down 70%.  We were winning, the state pulled together. I remember that when I was young my Dad would tell me to throw stuff out of the pickup and on to the highway because it kept people employed. Tell the people of Texas are we winning or are we losing?

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Tim McClure, your partner, was the genius behind  Don’t Mess with Texas, and in your book you conclude that the lesson of the Don’t Mess with Texas campaign is that “When it comes to persuading people to do the right thing, communication is often a more effective tool than simply passing more laws.”  We don’t seem to be very good at communicating as opposed to trying to regulate.  Why is that?

Marketing and advertising often get a bad rap and I understand that. On the other side if you look at it as storytelling it is as old as humanity. When I think about government processes/political structures I think Mickey Gilley said it best, sometimes they are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”

The American people and the people of Texas will do the right thing if you allow them to be part of it.

Texans have a unique identity of self. Does this unique identity make campaigns focused on Texas issues easier or more difficult?

Both. It becomes more difficult because if you assume that you know the Texas mindset . . . and you’re arrogant in that way then you really don’t listen to Texans.  You can miss the mark and miss it by a mile. It is difficult if you kind of get the Texas mentality. If you miss it by a little bit you miss it by a mile. On the other hand, it is easier because if you really understand the Texas state of mind you will nail it.

As someone who is new to the world of Texas water, what has been your impression of the Texas water community?

I had no idea about the water community. One thing they all have in common is they are passionate and opinion rich about water. If we can have a big home that everyone rallies behind that is the key. If we can find common ground on higher ground we can fight like cats and dogs on how we get this done, but not on whether it will get done.
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For decades there has been an ongoing struggle between what might be characterized as the “water hustlers” and the “tree huggers.” How do you craft a campaign that gets buy-in from both camps?

During ‘Don’t Mess with Texas’ we laddered up from litter to pride ‘we need to ladder up from water’ to ‘helping Texas generations for all time…not just survive but thrive.’ The message needs to be something like Texas is a living organism and water is what will keep it alive.

It seems like most Texans already know that water is often scarce in our state. What is the key to harnessing that sentiment and turning it into action?

Go back to the first thing we talked about. People are worried about their immediate needs. We have to shine a light and put water on a whole new ladder. We have to separate out water and then there is everything else. We have to say to the leaders of Texas we have to solve the water problem or the other issues won’t matter in the long-term.

I’m interested in what goes into your creation of a campaign. Here is a slogan that I came up with, can you evaluate it? “No water? No Texas.”

The idea is right.  I like the idea, but we need to ladder it up, it is missing a rallying cry.  This would be a good subset line.  You cut off the water and Texas dies. Period.

We have to stop just talking to ourselves. Sam Walton didn’t like to spend money on advertising, but he told me that if Walmart doesn’t advertise we are going to cheat the people of America out of saving money. And he meant it. Herb Kelleher went out to democratize the skies. Only rich people could fly before Southwest Airlines. In the end will have to let the people of Texas in on this problem and the people of Texas will solve it. The truth is that if there is no water, there is no Texas.