I am having a Howard Gossage love-in at the moment – complete with Gossage quotes on twitter and Gossage ads on Pinterest.

This has been inspired by Steve Harrison (of Ogilvy, Harrison Patten Troughton and Wunderman fame) whose book on the San Francisco advertising legend has just been published. A copy turned up at work about a week ago and I have been immersed in it ever since.


I am never sure how well known Gossage is. I called him adland’s overlooked legenda while back and it is certainly hard to find people in the UK that are aware of him and his extraordinary legacy in advertising and beyond. But I get the impression that, while all but forgotten quite soon after his untimely death from Leukemia in 1969, he is far more well know and revered in the US. Goodby Berlin Silverstein opened its doors in 1983 with an ad that read “Introducing a new agency founded by a guy that died 14 years ago” and according to Alex Bogusky, when faced with a new project at Crispin’s they would always ask themselves what Gossage would do – Whopper Freakout and the Whopper Facebook Friend Sacrifice are classic Gossage ideas to my mind.

I suspect the truth is that Howard Luck Gossage a bit of a cult hero – venerated and loved by those that know of him and ‘get it’ but rather passed-by by most of the industry, as he was during his life. Rory Sutherland sums up his appeal beautifully “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”.

And I think that its about time that this changed. It is beholden on those of us that are fans of the man and his work to campaign for his influence to be more widely understood and his approach more widely employed. Because the truth is that Gossage has come of age, or rather the age has come that can make most use of his approach. This is in part because technology has made it far easier to create the kind of communities and campaigns that Gossage pioneered with only the pages of the New Yorker and the humble coupon. And it is in part because we must do better to reduce the tedium of the vast majority of work that the industry creates – a tedium that Gossage loathed and led to his most quoted aphorism “people don’t read ads, they read what interests them and sometimes its an ad”.

In short the example of Gossage has never been more possible to follow and more needed, particularly as the stench of dreary advertising drifts from our televisions to the places we spend time online. In particular I think his idea that you should never confuse the product and the message is incredibly powerful. Most of us believe that the message and the product should be one and the same thing but not Howard, who would build the message around something he thought would interest people and then weave the product into this story – the first international paper airplane competition for Scientific American being a brilliant example.

So if you are a fellow Gossage devotee then at this point may I earnestly suggest that you click hereand purchase Mr Harrison’s excellent account of his life and continue to spread the word. Here in one vastly enjoyable read is the whole of his short but extraordinary life.

If, however, you haven’t the slightest clue what all the fuss is about then may I impress upon you the need to understand a little better the work of a man that died long before many of you were born. Because it would not be an exaggeration to say that Howard Gossage:

1) Invented interactive advertising (as opposed to direct response advertising) in which the audience is invited to get involved with the brand’s life and participate in its activities
2) Invented the idea of creating communities of interest around topics and then galvanising those people into action through advertising
3) Invented the PR stunt as a marketing tool using advertising to catalyse and popularise the activity
4) Created the fee based remuneration model in place of the widely used but utterly discredited commission system
5) Invented the independent media planning agency with the Kick Back agency
6) Discovered Marshall McLuan and made him a household name in ‘60s America, a man that predicted the rise of the connected global village that we all live in today
7) Saved the Grand Canyon from flooding with advertising that changed the way that environmental campaigning forever
8) Helped create the modern environmental organisation and both named and housed the Friends of the Earth
9)Helped start the anti-globalisation movement
10) And almost won independence for Anguilla
And in doing so showed that “changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man”, the title of Harrison’s eye witness account of his life and legacy.
Now if all this is news to you, surely that record deserves a little of your time.

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