The AdPulp Interview: Steve Harrison, Howard Gossage’s Biographer

When The Book of Gossage was first released in the mid-90’s, I was a student in ad school. I’d never heard of Howard Gossage or seen his work, but his philosophy about advertising and his work clearly had an influence on many ad professionals. Still, he remained a bit of an enigma, a sort-of cult favorite among ad people.

Thankfully, British author and veteran adman Steve Harrison has written a wonderful new biography of Gossage entitled Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man that takes a closer look at the man, his business, and his work.

Harrison talked at length with Gossage’s business partners and other people who were frequent guests at his agency, famously located in a old San Francisco firehouse. Sadly, Howard Gossage died in 1969. But much of his work (reprinted in the book) features reader engagement ideas and some very innovative calls to action. So you can definitely connect his print-based, copy-heavy work with a lot of the interactive and multi-faceted ideas we see today.

I spoke with Harrison about his new book, and the legacy of Howard Gossage:

Q. Why did you decide to write a book about Howard Gossage?

A. He was a hero and, my goodness, we need one or two of those at the moment. By that I mean he’s a role model not just to advertising people but for everyone who feels the individual is nowadays powerless in face of forces beyond their control. When he saw a problem, he didn’t complain about it. He’d say, “You can’t stop dogs pissing on fire hydrants” (a more elegant form of the current: “shit happens”) and set about putting things right. If this meant taking on forces stronger than himself, then he welcomed the fight … spending his own money, then he stuck his hand in his pocket … courting controversy, then he relished the spotlight.

This made him the kind of old fashioned “can do” paragon who is so rare in today’s dependency culture. Whereas we’re only too willing to defer to the state, the government, the corporation or whatever big institution we see as controlling our destiny, Gossage would have rejected this as another pernicious form of consumerism. I think his is a very uplifting and inspirational story. If Frank Capra was around today, he’d have made a film about Gossage.

Q. You mention that you first read Howard’s book Is There Any Hope For Advertising? when you came across it in the Ogilvy & Mather NYC office library. As someone who was a Creative Director and later, agency owner, did you ever try to apply Howard’s philosophy to your own work?

A. Gossage was the first adman to see PR as an integral part of his campaigns. So, if it’s possible to be an “early adopter” thirty years after the event, I’d say our agency was one of the first to emulate him. And we were emulating him. I made everyone at HTW read The Book of Gossage and from that came a style of work that got noticed by the media. And then by awards judges – I think we won more Cannes Direct Lions than any agency in the world. Some of those Cannes Lions were for the press and posters we did for M&G Investments. That campaign was our six year long homage to Howard Gossage.

Q. What’s the one (or two) biggest misconceptions people who are familiar with Howard have about him?

Many people believe he hated advertising. He just hated the thoughtless crap that predominated (and still does). As the personal letters that he wrote to his friends Barrows and Dagmar Mussey show, he had a lot of respect for Bill Bernbach’s work, and he admired David Ogilvy to the extent that, on occasion, he even showed him his ads before sending them to print.

The other misconception is that he was an idealist who spurned the opportunity to make money. Yes, he was an idealist but, again as his personal letters indicate, he was pretty shrewd with the money. For example, in 1957, Gossage was charging clients a minimum of $50,000 a project (that’s $420,000 in today’s money). The agency was never more than 12 strong, so that’s quite a lot of profit coming in (and Gossage knew how to spend it).

Moreover, on the occasion when he famously resigned Paul Masson Wines “because I don’t like the advertising I’m doing”, he’d anticipated that he was going to be fired and got his resignation in first. Even smarter was his manoeuvring to hold on to the bits of the account that were making money and recommending that the labor-intensive advertising go to DDB.

Q. If Howard were alive today and still working in advertising, what type of work would he be doing? How would he be using today’s technology for his clients?

I know that Gossage invented interactive in the 1950s and I everyone says, “Oh Howard would be having a ball with social media”. But I think Facebook has proven to be most useful in customer service and the hygiene aspects of brand relationships – which were exactly the bits of the job that bored Gossage rigid. He much preferred the big galvanising ideas that got everyone talking. Which means he’d have been the master of the PR Ad events that now lie at the core of every big award winning campaign you care to mention.

As to the type of work; someone recently said Howard would be writing coruscating copy about the bankers. He probably would. But he was also a great believer in personal volition and honesty and I suspect he’d also be pointing out the unpalatable truth that individuals have a responsibility for managing debt.

Having said all that, it amuses me when people tell me what Gossage would be doing and thinking now. He was such a contrarian that he’d probably be appalled to discover that his interactive style and PR Ad events are now the orthodox approach. And he was such an original thinker that it’s dumb to shoe-horn him into out our own ideological positions.

Q. How important is it for today’s young creatives to learn and appreciate Howard’s story?

A. Back to question 1. He was a “can do” hero and I think that’s what our respective countries need now if we’re going to get ourselves out of the economic – and moral – mire.

On a slightly more prosaic level, young creatives (and old) must understand his most important message about advertising; that thing about “People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.” What he meant by that was: don’t try to write a better ad than anyone else; that’s easy. What you’ve got to do is write something that is more interesting than everything else surrounding the ad. So, for example, in the press, you’ve got to write something more interesting than the editorial. That’s what he strove to do. And that’s why, as Jeff Goodby says, “the best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done.”



About Dan Goldgeier

Dan Goldgeier is a Seattle-based freelance copywriter with experience at advertising agencies across the U.S. He is a graduate of the Creative Circus ad school, and currently teaches at Seattle's School of Visual Concepts. Dan is also a columnist for and the author of View From The Cheap Seats and Killer Executions and Scrubbed Decks.