Never heard of the ‘Socrates of San Francisco’? 9 reasons you should have.

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Howard Luck Gossage, one of the industry’s true mavericks, died 50 years ago this year.

Less widely remembered than his contemporaries David Ogilvy or Bill Bernbach, HOWARD’S pioneering thinking – on interactive advertising, social networks, cause-related marketing and how he felt the industry needed to change for the better – was decades ahead of its time. On the anniversary of what would have been his 102nd birthday on 30 August, Beth Pope takes a look at his legacy, and the light it shines on the world we operate in today.

Those of us who rail against the failings of today’s marketing industry may well feel a kindred spirit in Howard Luck Gossage, a man who had a restless curiosity for how advertising really worked, and how it could be put to use for good.  Here are just some of the reasons the man known as the Socrates of San Francisco is as relevant today as he ever was. 

  1. The world of 2019 isn’t all that different to 1959.

    The advertising industry of late 1950s America faced numerous calls for change, with widespread cynicism and distrust about the true effectiveness of the billions being spent on clients’ behalf.  A flurry of books outlined the industry’s shortcomings, including how what some dubbed a ‘black art’ was manipulating the public in hidden and dubious ways. Wider societal change added to advertising’s malaise: an era of mass consumerism was on the verge of being rejected by a new generation railing against conformity and commercialism. Sound familiar? Howard Gossage was angered by an industry he saw as unfit for purpose and unsuited to the way the world was evolving. As Steve Harrison, a later proponent of Gossage, said: “He was determined to change it … by looking beyond advertising to the galvanising ideas of his age and harnessing them.” 

  2. An outsider himself, Gossage understood the power of different perspectives. 

    “We don’t know who it was discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.” 

    Raised in the American Midwest during the Depression by a vaudeville actress mother, Gossage lived a transient and insecure childhood “ashamed of my poverty, inadequacy and social unacceptability”. Little surprise he never felt at ease among the white, male, Protestant culture prevalent in Madison Avenue’s bubble. When it came to starting his own agency, he chose a less-than-salubrious area of San Francisco, and recruited a vibrant mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds. It was an environment he thrived on, recognising its importance in generating fresh thinking and ideas. 

  3. He was unafraid to challenge the prevailing agency business model.

    “A multi-billion dollar sledgehammer driving a 49-cent, economy-size thumbtack.” is how Gossage described the true impact of the work being generated by many of his contemporaries. The commission system that saw agencies paid based on the amount of media space they booked had created an industry where a bad ad running twenty times generated more income for its agency than a good ad run once. With his business partner Joe Weiner, Gossage broke ranks by insisting their clients buy less media, not more, becoming the first agency to earn fees based on the value of their creative alone.  

    Fast-forward 60 years and our industry is still one that prospers from advocating solutions at scale. We only need look at the millions being spent today on digital ad media and bells-and-whistles mar-tech platforms to know that the notion of sledgehammers and thumbtacks is alive and well, reincarnated for a digital generation. 

  4. His idea of what drives a dynamic creative culture holds true today.

    In 1958 a survey among advertising executives found that cripplingly long-hours, pressure and anxiety had created an industry that only 8% would recommend to their children. We are scarcely any better in 2019, with a recent survey involving The Drum finding that 92% of agency staff claim to have struggled with their mental health in the past 12 months. Hardly a culture designed to fuel energised thinking.

    Instead, Gossage nurtured an atmosphere of fun and relaxation. He allowed staff time off to pursue activities that encouraged a learning culture, decades before enlightened companies began thinking this way. And long before it was the norm for boutique agencies to seek out former warehouse buildings, Gossage was repurposing an old fire station and welcoming a wide range of creative minds – the likes of John Steinbeck, John Huston, Jessica Mitford, Joan Rivers, Marshall McLuhan, Candice Bergen and Tom Wolfe – to hang out there. As his subsequent business partner Jerry Mander put it: “[Howard] loved being around smart, intelligent, funny, creative people of any discipline … What he lived for was the exchange of ideas and the exchange of experience.” 

  5. He believed in creating advertising that was useful, entertaining or interesting.

    “People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

    Irreverent and playful, Gossage never lost his respect for consumers’ intelligence. He understood that they would reward originality and imagination with attention. And that having a USP was less important than being likeable and memorable. Who else could have come up with the following headline for Fina petrol: ‘If you’re driving down a road and you see a Fina station and it’s on your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn through traffic and there aren’t six cars waiting and you need gas or something please stop in.’

  6. Gossage coined the term ‘interactive’, decades before the advent of digital.

    Gossage’s innate curiosity about how advertising worked drove his interest in experts from other disciplines. Foremost among these was Norman Wiener, mathematician and ‘Father of the Information Age’. Wiener’s influential thinking on Cybernetics – the feedback loop between humans and machines which continuously improves performance – pre-empted today’s AI.  

    Gossage understood the implication for communications. Rather than the prevalent ‘send and receive’ approach of the day, he developed advertising that was designed to be interacted with and responded to. No-one else was to attempt this for another 35 years. According to Gossage fan Jeff Goodby, “I think he wanted to use media to connect with people and hear what they had to say and to tell them things, and to have a conversation with them instead of just talk at them.” 

  7. He elevated direct response into brand response. 

    So how did interactive marketing in the analogue age actually work? Gossage transformed and elevated the use of the humble coupon, and advocated what we’d think of as PR stunts to build a rapport between reader and brand, enticing people to play their part. Rarely related to the purchase of the product itself, by today’s standards we’d term this brand response rather than direct response. This approach suited his distinctive, conversational style of communicating, and it paid back with responses by the sack-load, and communications which blurred the lines between advertising and news, taking on a life of their own beyond anything traditional media spend could achieve. Building communities of common interest through his ads, Gossage was pre-empting today’s digital social media networks and PR-led campaigns.

  8. Budgets weren’t important; it was ideas that mattered. 

    As Stephen Fox, chronicler of American advertising history, outlined in his book The Mirror Makers: “All through the 1950s advertising people deplored the lack of creativity among both practitioners and products.” The problem? According to Professor Greg Pabst at the University of San Francisco, “Too many people in the ‘fifties thought that a big budget was a big idea.” 

    Gossage wasn’t the only one of his peers to recognise this. But he was a rare example of someone willing to stand by their principles. He turned down the opportunity to launch the Volkswagen Beetle because he felt the car was so iconic it would sell itself. Instead he introduced the client to DDB. And the rest, as they say, is history. In our era of global networks, private equity control and pressure to maximise profit margins, few agencies have the freedom to brave such an approach now. 

  9. He was an early proponent of purpose-driven marketing. 

    By the mid-60s, America was a society in turmoil. The Vietnam war. Civil rights marches.  The buds of environmental activism. A hotting up of the Space Race. Americans’ view of themselves, the kind of society they believed in, and humanity’s place in the world, was pivoting. Fracturing even. Having set up his agency in pursuit of a better kind of advertising, Gossage’s passion and focus began to shift to advertising that made for a better kind of world. 

    So when David Brower, Executive Director of a small, western mountaineering society, wanted to mobilise support to put a stop to plans to flood the Grand Canyon, he turned to Gossage. Gossage’s phenomenally successful campaign helped transform the society into a mainstream organisation with significant political influence.  When Brower went on to form his own organisation, Gossage suggested he call it Friends of the Earth and the building that housed Gossage’s agency became its first home. The Green movement was born. 

Gossage’s increasing preoccupation with making the world a better place was the natural culmination of everything he had practiced up until that point. His criticism of the industry’s dubious practices and its disregard for consumers; his constant striving for fresh ideas that would capture the public imagination; his fascination with the science behind effective advertising; his refusal to get caught up in the industry’s introspective bubble; his passion for stretching the capabilities of each channel to communicate, engage and listen. All of these characteristics were underpinned by an unwavering belief that advertising, above all, had to be ethical and accountable. Principles which more than ever hold true today. 

Happy birthday Howard. We salute you.

Beth Pope is Founder and Brand Partner at Firehaus

Steve Harrison’s book, ‘Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man’, an eyewitness account of the life and times of Howard Luck Gossage (Adworld Press), is available from Amazon

This article originally appeared in The Drum.

Beth Pope