Lay Sells GWL Advertising to Vandergriff, Barnett; Firm Adds Dan Sawyer

Gary W. Lay, a Little Rock advertising man for decades and the founder of GWL Advertising in 1993, has sold the firm to longtime employees Christy Coker Vandergriff and Julie Barnett.

Financial terms of the ownership transfer were not disclosed, but Lay’s initials will say on the agency’s shingle.

In their first announcement as co-owners Monday morning, Vandergriff and Barnett announced the addition of Dan Sawyer to their team as senior director of accounts and new business. Sawyer was vice president and brand strategist for CJRW in Little Rock but was one of eight employees whose positions were eliminated last month as the Main Street firm responded to the COVID-19 economic crisis with cutbacks.

“CJRW cut him on a Thursday afternoon and GWL hired him the next day,” one former colleague said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

In the new executive hierarchy, Vandergriff was named company president and Barnett vice president. They will also keep their previous roles, Vandergriff as creative director and Barnett as account director.

Sawyer, a former minor league hockey player, has 25 years of marketing and ad experience, including a stint with Heathcott Associates. His clients have included sports teams, music festivals and event facilities, and he once worked for the New Jersey Devils of the NHL and Arkansas’ first professional hockey team, the GlacierCats.

“I hope to have an immediate impact on GWL and assist with the fantastic growth that the agency is experiencing,” Sawyer said in a news release. “I plan to use my team building and communication skills to help our team achieve even greater goals. The world needs to know about the exceptional work that we do and how that work translates into measurable growth and success for our clients. It’s my passion to help tell that story.”

Sawyer is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame.

Lay, who according to the firm’s website is 70 but “acts like 40, looks like 80,” started his firm with only one client, auto dealer Steve Landers, whose collection of dealerships was destined to grow.

In January 2018, Lay celebrated GWL Advertising’s 25th anniversary with “a full-service agency that specializes in all forms of advertising and creative marketing with 31 employees and more than 50 clients throughout 10 different states,” the company said at the time.

Lay, who survived two major illnesses, expects to play more golf, a favorite pastime, and enjoy his family and grandchildren. “Summing me up, I’ve been blessed,” he said. “No gray, just black or white.” 

In a statement, Lay said it was hard to step away “from the company I grew from a one-man agency to what it is today,” but said he was leaving the firm in capable hands. “Christy and Julie make the perfect team. As GWL and its employees embrace change and look toward the future, I know that the values that I founded the agency upon so many years ago — work, loyalty, honesty, teamwork, and transparency — will remain integral to not only the work culture, but also client relationships.”

Vandergriff and Barnett say it’s business as usual at GWL, but they feel that becoming a woman-owned firm is worth noting. The industry has changed in her 25-year career, Vandergriff said. “Our clients want a diverse creative agency because they understand that this leads to the creation of better, more relevant work. Ultimately, this work culminates in campaigns that more fully reflect the world and people who inhabit it,” she said.

Barnett, a 15-year veteran at the firm, said she and Vandergriff are “honored and excited to carry the GWL legacy forward while looking for new ways to embrace diversity, inclusion, and growth. And while GWL continues to evolve, our commitment to our clients remains the same. They come first, no matter what.”

Barnett told Arkansas Business that she and Vandergriff never seriously considered changing the GWL name. “No, we honestly didn’t think too hard about it,” she said. “It has such a long history and good reputation, and we always want Gary to be a part of it.”