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Holding It All Together

GSD&M co-founder Judy Trabulsi letters in teamwork, not one-upmanship, at internationally renowned ad agency

From 1964 through 1970, even as it all started falling apart, the Beatles held the world in their hands, igniting hysteria everywhere they went and climbing toward the title of arguably the most influential rock band ever.

They were loved by millions. But ultimately, four guys—John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr—couldn’t just let it be. Oversized egos, sensitivities and infighting led to their inevitable breakup.

Meanwhile, in 1971, far from the limelight in what was then the relatively small town of Austin, six University of Texas graduates—Jim Darilek, brothers Bill and Steve Gurasich, Tim McClure, Roy Spence and Judy Trabulsi—quietly co-founded an advertising agency. Over time, the group settled on a name: GSD&M, representing the last names of Steve Gurasich, Spence, Darilek and McClure.

By the mid-1970s, the firm’s acronym name was becoming established in the Austin area. But the departure of Darilek, the art director, created a sudden problem: The D of GSD&M was gone. Shouldn’t Trabulsi’s “T” replace Darilek’s “D” in the agency’s name?

No, said Trabulsi, who was busy building the media department. The firm was just now gaining traction in the Austin advertising market. If GSD&M changed its name based on losing one of its partners, potential clients might back away, fearing instability. So she approached Darilek: Could GSD&M keep his initial? Darilek said yes and signed a contract stipulating that the ad agency could keep the “D” for as long as it wanted.

So the name stayed the same, and Trabulsi took ownership of its only unclaimed part: the ampersand, the piece that holds it all together. “It got to be we cared more about the company and the people in it, and it wasn’t about me,” she says. “I have enough self-confidence that I didn’t need it (the T) in there. Co-workers knew the role I played.”

Who knows? The Beatles might’ve stayed together with a similar attitude. On that note, harmony, Trabulsi says, came naturally for the four GSD&M co-founders who emerged as permanent fixtures: Spence, now GSD&M’s chairman; Trabulsi; Steve Gurasich; and McClure, the creative mind responsible for numerous famous ad campaigns, including the most memorable of all—“Don’t Mess With Texas.” (Bill Gurasich, who handled many of the firm’s early real-estate accounts, remained with GSD&M until 1990.)

Early on, Trabulsi says, the foursome fell naturally into their roles: She gravitated toward media; Steve Gurasich handled the accounts service department; McClure focused on the creative components; and Spence—the energetic face of the agency—worked the business end, pulling in clients.

Through the years, Trabulsi says, the quartet built a culture of community and family. “We were building something together, and we were all very happy with what we were doing,” she says. “We didn’t know any of the rules. We didn’t know that you were supposed to be mean to people or that it wasn’t standard to take care of the people working for you.”

Today, the atmosphere at GSD&M Idea City, which occupies an expansive building near downtown Austin, is light and airy. Sunlight floods through multiple, vertical windows towering over the lobby, giving a feeling of freedom.

This is a group that loves to play, including Trabulsi’s dog, a sheltie named Luca, and Spence’s black Labrador retriever, Miss Ellie. Both dogs have roaming privileges and hall passes at work. On a January afternoon, Miss Ellie and Luca playfully growled and roughhoused on the carpet in Trabulsi’s office, with Miss Ellie occasionally stopping to grab a large stuffed monkey and proudly parade it around the room.

The 63-year-old Trabulsi, seated behind her desk, smiled, her face soft and relaxed, as she pointed to the metal ampersands that dot her office. Forty-one years after launching a business with virtually no money among them, four of the original GSD&M partners are still together, running one of the world’s most successful advertising and marketing agencies.

“Something became bigger than the individuals,” Trabulsi says. “And what became bigger was keeping this dream alive and doing what’s best for the company, which meant doing what’s best for our people.”

And with that, the dream plays on, as Luca and Miss Ellie joyfully wrestle beneath the ampersands.

Camille Wheeler, associate editor