Fast Chat: Gossage Biographer Steve Harrison

The legacy, prescience of a 1960s adman

Howard Gossage was a 1960s adman that future generation creative stars such as Jeff Goodby and Alex Bogusky cite as an inspiration. Like Goodby, he was based in San Francisco and ran his own agency, Weiner & Gossage. Gossage took pride in crafting persuasive print ads that used stunts—“Win a kangaroo!” for Qantas airlines—hyperbole and response coupons that readers could mail in. But it was his work for causes, such as the successful halt of the construction of a dam in the Grand Canyon in 1966, that Gossage loved most. In a new biography, Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man, former Wunderman worldwide cd Steve Harrison reflects on Gossage’s legacy and why he’s still relevant today.

Adweek: What inspired this book?

Steve Harrison: Gossage had been an inspiration throughout my career. I came across his book of speeches, Is There Any Hope for Advertising? when I was a rookie writer in 1988. I stole that book from the Ogilvy & Mather New York library and used it as my guide first as a copywriter, then as a creative director and finally as the owner of my own agency. Secondly, I felt that what Gossage had to say was even more relevant today … but there was another dimension. With a lot of talk nowadays of advertising needing to have a “higher social purpose,” it was also his perception of advertising as a means of changing the world that makes him so current.

What did you find in your research that surprised you?

How prescient he was. For example, I found in his letters an explanation for what he called his ad platform technique—the idea of building PR into his communications plan and doing an ad that was designed to amplify the message and generate much more activity via the press and other media. He was also the first guy to introduce a pure play media buying agency. Not only that, Gossage also got into what we now call behavioral economics—finding the real reasons why people make a purchase decision and then providing triggers far removed from conventional advertising.

Which of Gossage’s cause efforts do you think he was proudest of?

The Grand Canyon ad. With that platform technique, he said something in an ad and then he waited for controversy to occur around it. To be frank with you, they were never going to flood the Grand Canyon. Gossage made that up.

Something to be said for hyperbole, right?

Howard knew that he was going to get this to work and that you agitate them until you got people angry. But the guy wasn’t a saint … he was a hard-drinking, hard-playing, heavy-smoking kind of tough guy. He did what was necessary in order to achieve what he thought was a good and just cause.

Why were Howard and Marshall McLuhan such kindred spirits?

They were both great storytellers, great raconteurs. They both made things up equal in nature (laughs). And you know, they enjoyed each other’s company. They should have been Irish—both of them. They thought they were. And they both said things in order to make people think.

Alex Bogusky, a Gossage fan who you quote in the book, exited commercial advertising to apply himself to causes. In that context, his exit seems very Gossage-like.

I don’t think I can speak for Bogusky, but I know that Gossage [wanted] to get out of advertising. He eventually couldn’t reconcile the commercial imperative with what he believed was his own power to influence people. That was the moral dilemma that he had. He couldn’t reconcile the two things.  

As an agency leader, Gossage seemed pretty quixotic. Turning down the Volkswagen account seemed to illustrate that.

Two things. Gossage knew that he had to remain small because he knew his business wasn’t scalable. He also had a philosophical hatred for bigness … but [still], he was businessman. He made a lot of money. [Weiner & Gossage was] only 13 people and they charged $50,000 for a job, which in 1960 was a helluva lot of money.

What would Gossage think about the frenetic pace and disposable nature of advertising today?

Like all good copywriters, he spent quite a lot of time agonizing over [writing]. So, I think it would have been difficult for him to write at the speed at which today we are asked to. But I believe he would have questioned if speed was absolutely necessary [and said] that the time should be taken to actually reflect in order to allow people the opportunity [to respond]. He would have argued for reflection. He would have argued with the client and said, “I’m trying to do my job correctly.” God bless him. I wish there were more people like that in our industry.