When Carl Byrd graduated from the College of the Arts in 1989, he was unsure of his next step. Byrd had a B.A. in Graphic Design, but also a passion for dance that led him to Chicago. There, he worked at a paste-up job for a paper, until he decided to move to San Francisco for a job with the Gap.
Those familiar with Byrd’s work might expect he moved to San Fran for a glamorous job in marketing — the same one that would eventually propel him to huge success — but in reality, the job was in retail. Byrd felt connected to Gap’s brand, and knew he wanted to work in marketing, so he took an unconventional but simple first step: He got a job there.
Byrd explained his path to success, along with his invaluable tips for creating brand awareness and building ad campaigns, to a lounge full of students on Friday, January 6, for an In the Know event in conjunction with the College of the Arts and the School of Art + Art History. Byrd is an active member of the College of the Arts Friends and Alumni Council (COTA Council), and was in Gainesville for a Council meeting. Afterward, he graciously agreed to participate in the event, where he talked candidly with students about his story, and the iconic ads he has created during his industrious career.
But, as Byrd explained, that career started quietly, in a Gap retail store, where he chatted with customers and stocked shelves like all of the other employees.
“I would talk to the executives when they came in,” Byrd said. “But every job that opened up would require computer and graphic skills I didn’t have.”
Instead of giving up, Byrd found an intensive course that would teach him the skills he needed to become competitive in a marketing field. Through a combination of this dedication and the connections he’d already made during his time at Gap, he was able to land an interview with the corporate office.
Obviously, they were impressed by his work. Before taking on a full-time marketing position, Byrd worked as a production artist during the day, and would close the retail location at night. Though it was an overly demanding schedule, Byrd acknowledged that it was part of the hustle, and a factor in his later success.
“In your career, you need to do what’s asked of you, and then do more,” Byrd explained.
It paid off when Byrd began working for Gap marketing full time, and became the architect behind some of the Gap’s most iconic ad campaigns during the 1990’s. Inspired by a Fred Astaire movie — and his own love of dance — Byrd created the “Khakis Swing” campaign, capitalizing on a revival of swing dancing in San Francisco. The ads featured swing-dancers clad in Gap khakis, and spread the swing dancing revival nationwide.
That concept, to Byrd, is one of the most essential parts of marketing.
“You have to find what’s in the zeitgeist a little ahead of the curve, and then you have to serve it to the masses,” Byrd explained.
Another key part of marketing success is taking risks. Byrd learned this lesson well in 2006, when he worked with the Gap on a new commercial, featuring a dancing Audrey Hepburn. At first, the idea that the company could license footage from Audrey Hepburn’s estate — and also the AC/DC song that accompanied it in the commercial — seemed absurd. But Byrd decided to try anyway.
“The timing ended up being perfect,” Byrd said. “So I learned, always take risks with your work, and ask for the impossible, because you might as well try.”
Throughout his career, Byrd has worked with iconic photographers like Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz, as well as legions of famous designers, actors and models. His company, CarlByrd&Co, has clients that include the Gap, Macy’s, Target, Amazon and LeSportsac, among many others. Despite all of this success, Byrd recognizes his need as an artist to continue working and innovating.
In addition to serving as the President and Executive Creative Director of his own company, Byrd has also begun to explore an outlet in filmmaking. His directorial debut in the short film “Dinner at 40” won multiple awards at LGBT film festivals in 2014. He has two new films, a short film called “Dance with Me,” and his first feature film “Marc Jacobs is my Father,” in the works.
For more information on Byrd’s work, visit his company’s website: carlbyrdco.com