Not a Mad Man, just angry

Steve Harrison

Issue 23 | June 2012

Howard Luck Gossage was a direct marketing man who died in 1969.

You may not have heard of him, but you are his protegées. Everything that you think is new and innovative was done by him 50 years ago. Brand response, interactive, building communities, social media, behavioural economics? He did them first, with press ads, long copy and coupons.

Better still, he came up with a technique that nowadays underpins pretty much every Cannes Lions Grand Prix you care to mention.

And, oh yes, you know those achingly cool agencies who tell us that selling things isn’t enough, you also need to have “a social purpose”? Well, he thought of that, too. But he put it more elegantly when he said: “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.”

You may have your doubts about those agencies’ sincerity. But in Gossage’s case it was something he truly believed. And he set out to do it with an irreverence that shocked the ad industry and a flamboyance that inspired the likes of Tom Wolfe, John Steinbeck and the makers of the ’sixties counterculture.

Abbreviated for Directory, this is the story of his life and times:

On 12 October, 1962, Time magazine’s cover featured 12 white, middle-aged men. Look at them today and you’d think they were brokers, bankers or actors auditioning for a part as the strait-laced boss in some family series like Bewitched or The Lucy Show.

Turn inside, however, and you’d see these were the original Mad Men – the real life Don Drapers and Roger Sterlings who, either side of their three-Martini lunches, controlled America’s advertising industry. And what control they had.

According to J.K. Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, they were moulding the public’s mores in a manner never before seen in a democratic society. Worse still, if you believed that other totemic best seller, Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, they were doing it all without anyone knowing.

While these Mad Men toasted each other across crowded tables at their expense-account hangouts, one agency chief, however, was refusing to raise his glass.

This adman had no use for the multi-million dollar budgets needed to drive the sinus-draining and pain-killing properties of Dristan and Anacin into the viewer’s head via incessant, repetitive TV advertising. He preferred to do things differently.

Indeed, he’d rejected the strict hierarchies and loose morals of Madison Avenue's organisation men. To find him you'd have had to travel 3,000 miles to that advertising backwater, San Francisco. And you’d have had to look pretty hard because his agency never numbered more than 13 people.

This man's name was Howard Luck Gossage. No, he wasn’t a Mad Man, but when he saw the ads they were creating, he was very angry. And he set out to change the industry – and in so doing helped change the world.

Getting paid for ideas

The first thing he did was put ideas at the centre of everything his agency did. And then he insisted that his clients pay for them.

No one had ever done this before. Up until then, agencies had made their money out of “the commission system”. This was the 15% rebate they received when booking the space in which their advertising would run. So if, for example, a newspaper charged $50,000 for a particular campaign to appear in its pages, the agency received 15% (or $7,000) back.

Note that they weren’t being paid for taking the client’s brief, researching the market, working out a strategy, coming up with a creative idea or executing that idea. All of that was given away for free. The agencies derived all their money from what Gossage derisively called their “kick

back”, and he was appalled by the situation in which the agency that thrived best was the one that recommended ever higher expenditure on media. So, he decided that his agency would become the first to live and die on the quality of its advertising.

Introducing the creative-led agency

Back in 1957, this made his agency doubly remarkable because this emphasis on ideas meant it was what we now call a “creative-led” shop.

According to Andrew Cracknell’s The Real Mad Men, “In most agencies the creative work was merely a functional job. The power within the organisation rested with the account people …. Not even creative directors had much say.” The corollary of that was – and remains to this day – creative compromise. Account men second-guessed the clients and gave them what they thought they’d buy.”

However, at Gossage’s agency, the creative positioning meant that they were determined to sell the best work, and make sure it ran. As one employee, Jay Conrad Levinson, who went on to write the Guerrilla Marketing series of books, recalls: “Howard’s clients understanding of him was if he presented them an ad, they were not to change it. It was not an invitation to edit. It was. ‘This is the right thing for you right now. Let’s do it.’”.



Gossage hated the dominant bombastic school of advertising and devised his own disarmingly light-hearted and endearingly honest conversational style. With this example, Fina was up against the likes of Shell and Esso who bombarded their audience with grandiose claims about the additives in their petrol. Gossage differentiated FINA by making the brand empathetic and likeable.

If this was unorthodox, then so too was the work that was being presented. For Gossage disliked the conventional style of advertising. As he said, the industry was “A multi-billion dollar sledgehammer driving a 49 cent economy-size thumbtack.” According to his colleague Jerry Mander, what riled him most was “The way advertising was used as a bludgeon …. the one speaking to the many. How it talked at people and pushed them around.”

Waiting for feedback

David Ogilvy and Bill Bernbach shared his disdain for the bombastic school of repetitive advertising. But whereas they built their agencies on the foundations laid by the great admen of the past, Gossage looked beyond the industry to the galvanising ideas of his age.

Foremost amongst his mentors was MIT mathematician, Norbert Wiener. If you don’t know who he is then think of Wiener next time you ask someone for “feedback “or get “in the loop” by logging on to Facebook.

Both terms are fundamental to Wiener’s theory of cybernetics – the idea that man and machine work best together when immersed in flowing loops of information that give feedback on past performance and guidance on future direction.

According to James Harkin, the author of Cyburbia, cybernetics “became what today’s internet gurus call a ‘meme’, a very viral idea that suddenly spread around post war society” revolutionising American science, manufacturing, business and, thanks to a small agency in San Francisco, advertising.

Here is Gossage describing his feedback-driven approach: “We do one ad at a time. Literally, that’s the way we do it. We do one advertisement and then we wait to see what happens, and then we do another advertisement.”

And again in Advertising Age in 1959: “If you say something as interestingly as you can, you can then expect the other party to make a response. So the next time you run an ad, develop the dialog. It makes the conversation much more interesting. And rewarding.”

From his many, intentionally provocative, speeches, it’s clear to see that for Gossage advertising wasn’t static it was dynamic; it wasn’t a statement it was a dialogue; and it wasn’t to be passively consumed by some distant audience.

In fact, Gossage used information loops and feedback to create a whole new style of advertising. As Jerry Mander recalls: “he had a term for it: he called it ‘interactive’”.

Doing interactive in the analogue age

But how did he do interactive in the analogue age?

Answer: the humble coupon.



From the very beginning, Gossage’s work was unorthodox. Back in 1954, Qantas had just introduced a new Super Constellation jet to their fleet and were no doubt expecting a bit of typical corporate chest-beating in their announcement ads.

Instead Gossage captured the irreverent, “no worries” brand essence of what we today call Australianness. Note the outrageous headlines, the colloquial copy and the all-out effort to start and maintain a dialogue.

Which means Gossage was, like many of you, a direct marketer. And like many of you, he used response to not only sell but also to establish a rapport between the reader and the brand.

The only difference is, Gossage was doing Brand Response thirty years before other direct marketers even thought of the term. Jeff Goodby describes his method: “He put coupons on all his press ads, even when it wasn’t necessary to have one. He would spring off of things that people wrote in and write another ad that said ‘Bob from Dallas just wrote us.’ He would make an ad out of the last thing that happened. It was very interactive and very much like what happens on the internet.”

Goodby was a convert in the early 1980s and founded Goodby, Berlin and Silverstein on Gossage’s principles. Over at Crispin Porter, Alex Bogusky, was another early devotee: “The ads were different from anything I’d seen in that they lived at a level just above advertising. They were conversations with an audience and often designed to let the audience speak back. …. You can’t overstate the influence Gossage had on the early work of CP+B. As our own work moved online we used to sit around and wonder, what would Gossage do?”

Social media in the sixties

What Gossage actually did was to start building communities. Every campaign was aimed at generating participation and a sense of belonging. He built this camaraderie by getting people to fit pink petrol caps to their cars … wear Beethoven sweatshirts … drive with their car lights on in daytime….

He was so confident of his following that he ended one ad for the Irish Whiskey Distillers half way through a sentence and started where he’d left off in his next ad the following week.



Gossage built up such a following with this campaign that he finished one ad half-way through a sentence and ran this ad the following week, taking up the story where he’d left off. In another ad in the campaign, he got 2,000 responses even though there was no offer and nothing on sale. They just wanted to get in touch.

As Gossage said in an internal memo in 1959: “Let the audience in on the gag. Better still let them know you know that they know. This makes it cosier and much more involving. You see, the objective is not fun and games but warmth and community of interest.”

The fact that his ads appeared almost exclusively in the The New Yorker helped reinforce the sense of community. Or should we call it “friendship”? Jeff Goodby thinks so: “He was friending people long before anyone friended anything…. It’s like he was communicating to the world through The New Yorker as your Facebook page.”

Discovering Wired’s “Patron saint of the digital age”

Successful as it was, building commercial communities didn’t satisfy him. A hard drinking, smoking and swearing intellectual, his definition of a big idea was more ambitious than that of his advertising peers. He wasn’t interested in solving clients’ marketing problems, he was concerned with righting society’s wrongs.

It was his search for a guru who could provide a unified theory of everything that led him to Norbert Wiener and cybernetics. And it was the quest for the big idea that brought him to another Wiener acolyte, the Canadian academic, Marshall McLuhan.

Gossage invested $6,000 of his own money to turn that obscure English professor into the 1960’s most celebrated “thinker”. You may know McLuhan through such aphorisms as “The medium is the message” and “the Global Village”. Those who understand digital, will tell you that it was McLuhan who inspired the electro-hippies, hobbyists and hackers who became the internet’s most influential innovators; and who was anointed “Patron Saint of the Digital Age” in Wired’s first ever issue.



As James Harkin says: “Without Howard Gossage, no Marshall McLuhan and without Marshall McLuhan, no social media the way we think about it today.” Here’s Gossage (at the front between branding/design guru Walter Landor (left) and journalist/novelist Tom Wolfe (right), and Mr. and Mrs. McLuhan (back right.)

It was also McLuhan who predicted Twitter, Facebook et al. As James Harkin, the author of Cyburbia says, “Without Howard Gossage, no Marshall McLuhan, and without Marshall McLuhan, no social media the way we think about it today.”

Ultimately, all this wasn’t a bad return on Gossage’s $6,000 investment. Not that Gossage saw any money. He had his fun launching McLuhan in 1965, and then moved on.

And what he moved on to was a project commensurate with his view that “Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man.” For it enabled him to use his interactive advertising not for commercial gain but to help start a community that has now become so vast that it is one of the most important social, political and economic phenomena of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Saving the Grand Canyon

This new adventure began the day a man called David Brower called at Gossage’s agency. Brower is today considered the father of modern environmentalism. But in May 1966, he had the mother of all problems.

As Executive Director of the conservationist organization, the Sierra Club, he’d been unsuccessful in his efforts to stop the damming of the USA’s most visually breathtaking and geologically important national monument, the Grand Canyon.

His last hope lay in a full page ad in the New York Times; and Howard Gossage’s ability to get response.

As ever Gossage aimed to stimulate feedback. But this time the closed system he was creating would expand to allow his readers to get in the loop with those who occupied the highest offices in the land.

The idea was simple, tell the American people about the plans to dam and flood the 140 mile gorge of the Grand Canyon and then invite them to interact via a series of coupons that ran down the side of the page. Each coupon carried the message to and return address of respectively the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Interior, the Head of the Interior Committee of the House of Representatives and the reader’s Congressman and two Senators.

INSERT 26 GOSSAGE GRAND CANYON - Now only you can save the Grand Canyon from being flooded… for profit


Gossage got thousands of people to write to the President and the power-brokers by running those coupons down the side of the page. As Jerry Mander says: “They were very, very important because in those days people used coupons; they were their internet. That had never been done before”

While it was Jerry Mander who wrote the copy, he freely admits the crucial element was the coupons: “Gossage did the important, brilliant thing with those multiple coupons. That had never been done before. They were very important because in those days people used coupons; they were their internet.”

Kick-starting modern environmentalism

The response was immense. Suddenly, the American people felt that they had a direct link to decision makers, and that they could use those links to influence the big issues of the day.

More ads followed – all of which had the same interactive coupons - and the same gigantic response. And by December 1966, the plans to dam the Grand Canyon were abandoned.

Once released, the genie of public protest wouldn’t go back in the bottle and the Sierra Club changed from being a passive collective of outdoor enthusiasts to being an activist organization with real political clout. As David Brower’s son, Kenneth says, Gossage’s ads helped save the Grand Canyon; and the campaign to kill the dams signalled the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

It also marked the beginning of the end for David Brower at the Sierra Club. It’s politicisation angered many of the former members and within three years Brower was forced out.

On the day of his departure, he visited Gossage and explained that he was starting a new activist organisation with global ambitions. At that moment he still hadn’t decided on a name so, according to Gossage’s wife Sally, the adman thought about it for a few seconds and said: “Why don’t you call it Friends of the Earth?”

If he gave Friends of the Earth a name then he also gave it a home. As Jerry Mander explains, “Howard immediately said ‘just move in, bring your people and we’ll set you up downstairs.’ He loaned him furniture and he was off and running, rent free.”

His other big Cannes Lions winning discovery

Of all his campaigns, Gossage probably derived most satisfaction from his work with David Brower. He’d taken the lessons he’d learned about feedback and interactivity and used them to launch a movement and build a community aimed at making the world a better place.

That alone should have guaranteed him lasting recognition. But there are other ideas that are even more relevant today than they were forty years ago.

To those who’d listen, he was bandying around ideas about Pay-per-View and stand-alone specialist media buying agencies decades before the former revolutionised TV broadcasting and the latter transformed the advertising industry.

He also founded Generalists, Inc., which introduced the now fashionable notion that an agency should abandon all pretence at in-house specialism and simply provide solutions to clients’ problems. At Generalists, Inc., the solutions Gossage proposed were early expressions of what we now call “behavioural economics”.

From these and others of his big ideas, it is clear that Gossage was the most innovative and influential advertising genius of the 1960s.

However, if you’re reading The Directory for the inspiration you need to come up with award winning work, then there’s one piece of Gossage brilliance that you really must take on board.

It’s an idea he had back in the early ‘sixties that has since underpinned pretty much every Cannes Lions Direct and Cyber Grand Prix you’ve ever wished you’d done. Again it was something that he pioneered for, as Rich Silverstein says, “he was the father of this whole idea

It’s unlikely that Patrick Collister will give me a page in the next issue of The Directory so I can continue this piece where I‘ve just left off, but you can find out more by emailing me at [email protected]. Go on, Gossage would have wanted you to. 


“Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man” is written by Steve Harrison and published by Adworld Press.

It is available on Amazon or from the author himself if you email him.

The legendary Drayton Bird has written of this book: “I cannot recall anything as well researched or written about any subject or person in the advertising business. Not a duff sentence. I knew of him (Gossage) and some of his advertising. But I didn't realise what a trailblazer he was. What a fool! I could have learned so much.”


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