Howard Luck Gossage: Why "he's the Velvet Underground to Ogilvy's Beatles and Bernbach's Stones" and the subject of a brilliant new book

GOSSAGE-Front_Cover_Artwork-WEB.jpgBy Gawen Rudder

Thirty years ago, when Jeff Goodby, Andy Berlin and Rich Silverstein launched their fledgling San Francisco agency, they paid tribute to their mentor with the headline, 'Introducing a new agency founded by a guy who died 14 years ago.' Years later Silverstein confirmed their inspiration. 'Yes ...Gossage was the reason we founded our company."

Run that past me again ... 'Gossage?' Howard Luck Gossage (1917-1969) the man who became known as 'The Socrates of San Francisco', whose thinking pre-dated Mad Men, Bernbach, Ogilvy et al.
I'd heard something of him, skimmed through Book of Gossage decades ago, and read about a restless mind, disillusioned with the world of advertising, but determined that, "Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man".

That became the title of a new book (available from Amazon), written by multiple Cannes Lions winner Steve Harrison, and it's top of Jon Steel's recommended reading list. As early as the first page, it became clear Mr. Gossage was no ordinary mortal - his wife Sally, at the time a successful Broadway actress - spurned the advances of the then world's most desirable man (pre-Liz and pre-booze) Richard Burton, to pursue and marry this extraordinary man.

Screen shot 2012-08-06 at 11.41.38 AM.jpgAlways curious, I turned to the back of Harrison's book to gain some sense of the landscape upon which Gossage exerted influence. Wide and varied is the answer; from his eclectic coterie of contemporaries, to present-day influential ad-generations. The former include Stan Freberg, Marshall McLuhan, John Steinbeck and Tom Wolfe. Plus passionate latter day converts such as Carl Ally, Andy Berlin, Alex Bogusky, Jeff Goodby, Hal Riney, Rory Sutherland, and of course, Jon Steel. Safe to say it would be an amazing read.

Which it was. As the tale unfolds, one wonders how it is that the name Howard Gossage isn't higher up the totem pole of advertising greats. As Ogilvy's Rory Sutherland, asserts, "He's the Velvet Underground to Ogilvy's Beatles and Bernbach's Stones. Never a household name, but to the cognoscenti, a lot more inspirational and influential." Or Jeff Goodby, who said, "What's really amazing is that the work he did foretold what's happening on the internet and social media right now."

Some people have prescience, the gift to "... dream things that never were ..." as Bobby Kennedy said. Gossage dreamed things long before they became a reality, like interactive, social media, cause-related advertising, the media buying agency and PR-generating pseudo-events. He also pioneered what we now call 'behavioural economics', finding the real reasons people make a purchase decision and then providing triggers far removed from conventional advertising.

Were it not for the recognition of present day west coast heroes like Hal Riney, Goodby et al, the work of Gossage might well have gone un-noticed by the present day generation of creatives, many of whom have little to learn from history or anything older than the latest D&AD or Cannes reel.

Qantas1.jpgHe first made his name with Qantas whilst freelancing for an agency - a couple of mergers on from Allen & Dorward which created the now abandoned 'I Still Call Australia Home,' His characteristically long headline, 'Be the First on your Block to win a Kangaroo' couponed competition was to name the airline's Super Constellation. Yes, the first prize was a live kangaroo! Second prize a stuffed 'Koala Bear' (sic.)

By 1957 he had his name on the door at Wiener & Gossage. For openers he kicked back at the media commission system and in a compensation first demanded clients pay for ideas.

Conditions apply: He would only deal with the client's president.

One tale, perhaps apocryphal - he did indulge in occasional hyperbole - went like this:
Gossage: "I've got to quit this account because I can't stand your advertising."
Paul Masson Wines President: "But you do the advertising."
Gossage: "I know, that's why I'm quitting the account."

An absolutely true story reveals him as a man who stuck to his principles. He knew he had to remain small because his business wasn't scalable and turned down the Volkswagen business pre DDB because of his philosophical hatred for bigness.

Like John Bevins, another man of principle, he was a copywriters' copywriter with long copy (often over 1,000 words), plus coupons and come-ons, his nod to direct marketing. In fact one infamous example was a full page environmental advocacy ad that carried no less than seven coupons, each addressed to a different member of U.S. Congress.

Screen shot 2012-08-06 at 11.37.59 AM.jpgThroughout his too-short advertising career he followed his 'changing the world' dictum and is remembered as the advertising force behind 'Friends of the Earth', just as Todd Sampson and Leo Burnett will be remembered for 'Earth Hour' almost forty years later.

The agency was housed in a restored vintage Firehouse that became a salon and safehouse which attracted savants and the counterculture, writers, actors and entertainers like Ken Kesey, Candice Bergman and Joan Rivers, Dr Benjamin Spock and Berkeley firebrands. Little wonder he earned the sobriquet, 'The Socrates of San Francisco.' He had Steinbeck writing ads for Rover cars, was lauded by Wolfe, had Freberg injecting humour into his radio commercials and embarked on a mission to make McLuhan famous, which he did.

Screen shot 2012-08-06 at 11.42.00 AM.jpgAnother Qantas side-story. Challenging Ogilvy's success with Hathaway, Gossage created a campaign for Eagle Shirts that put a product sample in the prospect's hands. The offer was a square of shirt fabric with a button-hole in one corner. Qantas frequent flyers might recognise it as the button-on napkin which has been part of the premium in-flight dining experience since whenever.

Gossage's ad created a record number of responses at the time when it ran in The New Yorker. His headline read, 'Send for your free Eagle Shirtkerchief (Shirtkin?) (Napchief?)'

An optimistic pessimist with a curiosity about people and how the world worked, he believed the power of creativity and communication to be a force for good in the world and promoted sustainability long before the word entered our lexicon.

Then at the age of 51, he got leukaemia.   

Gossage described this to friends as 'fatal but not serious' and it didn't slow him down at all. He plunged into new projects with renewed energy and... (There is more, but he loved the power of an unfinished headline.)

The agency existed for a mere twelve years, but his influence on people such as Jeff Goodby remains to this day, as he says, "The best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done."

Gawen Rudder is Manager, Business Services & Advice,
The Communications Council, Sydney


Casting Director said:

A huge unsung talent, and whatsmore, he could be played by Shaun Micaleff.

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