The Book of Gossage

We learn what we do, then what we can’t, then if we’re lucky, we learn what we can do that others can’t. And then we try not to die before we can accomplish something special.

And that, in a sense, is the career of Howard Gossage which his friends and admirers sort of capture in The Book of Gossage, a big box into which they have poured all manner of tribute, some exquisite, some less so.

But let us back up.

We start out trying to figure out where our talent lies and where to ply it. For Gossage, he was 35 before he hit his stride as a copywriter, and then, either at an agency of his own or elsewhere, he banged out creative that changed anyone who saw it. Long form that was long even in a long-form world. But long form copy that took you on a journey you couldn’t go on with anyone else and that once you knew he’d written it, you gladly signed up for. An obscure Texas gasoline company? I’m in. Irish Whiskey? By all means. A shirt company? Let’s go.

And all of those ads – or at least enough of them to make you wish there were more – are here. And they are glorious and worth the price of admission. Indeed, the FINA pink air campaign alone is worth it.

And then Gossage learned what he couldn’t do, which was build an agency. Like Bill Bernbach was, or like David Ogilvy was, or especially (God forbid) like Rosser Reeves was. For even when his shops in San Francisco were at their peak, he employed fewer than 15 people – and that was when he was placing the most ads in The New Yorker (that non plus ultra of 1950s and 60s Eastern media elitism) of any agency anywhere.

Of course, he would say he didn’t want to grow and to a certain extent, that’s likely true. Because even as he was having his great success and mystifying his contemporaries, he was beginning to understand what he could do that no one else could. For which his ads with their brilliant copy were really just one tactic.

He could engage people.

It doesn’t sound like much, and in fact, sounds like what Advertising is supposed to do (and yeah, it is …). But it is rare and powerful. Gossage was a genius at learning what the real problem is and figuring out how to mobilize large squads of people to solve it. And when he realized this, realized how good he was and how terrible everyone else was, he realized that writing ads was really the least he could or should be doing with this skill. A skill that single-handedly made Marshall McLuhan a household name in the United States – thus changing intellectual discourse in America and the world. That helped the island of Anguilla breakaway from the English commonwealth. That campaigned against the Defense Department’s mania for anti-ballistic missiles. That saved the Grand Canyon. That tried to save the entire publishing industry.

Because once he realized that that was what he was good at – because of his ability to think “extra-environmentally” and non-teleologically, because of his sheer relentless curiousity, intelligence and imagination, because of his talent for listening and observing carefully – once he discovered that this is what he really enjoyed doing, well then doing anything less was undignified, frankly.

And then, you know, he died. Just as he was getting rolling.

That abrupt ending, combined with his unusual path, and the “everything including the kitchen sink” approach to the content, makes this book hard to recommend to the neophyte – despite the fact that it remains our best museum of one of the most important minds ever to draft a copy deck or answer a brief.

Yes, there are the ads which we mentioned above and which are hard to find anywhere else. And yes, there is the complete text of Is Advertising Worth Saving – the book Gossage wrote about advertising, publishing, politics, thinking, McLuhan and well, everything – but that was only available in his lifetime in German (because, well, Howard). So yes, right there, two great reasons to buy. And there’s Jeff Goodby’s terrific scene-setting introduction. Okay, that’s three.

But there are also the excerpts from unpublished memoirs of co-workers and friends that are about as unpolished and awkward as you’d think they’d be. Though even these pieces, tedious as they are at times, contribute in their way. For they are nothing so much as the testimony of disciples, gospel-like, bringing the man to life in a weird, hagiographic way amidst his own words that simple biography can’t. So maybe that’s a fourth reason to read.

And then there are the words themselves. That leap out at you – especially if you’ve spent any part of your life in advertising – so you find yourself shouting “yes, god-dammit! Why didn’t someone tell me this thirty years ago?”. Lines like:

“Advertising is not a right, it’s a privilege. Our first responsibility is not to the product but to the public.”

“Advertising is by nature a very limited art form. But like any other form, it requires superlative talent if the results are to be superlative. The upshot is, that a large talent will have to settle for a small, if precise outlet. It is like making Steinways which will only be used for playing Chopsticks.”

“I don’t know how to speak to everybody, only to somebody.”

“If you have something pertinent to say you neither have to say it to very many people – only to those who you think will be interested – nor do you have to say it very often. How many times do you have to be told that your house is on fire?”

“Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them; and sometimes it’s an ad.”

Ultimately, however, these aren’t insights about advertising. They’re insights about life. Understanding that is what made Gossage better.

And they can make you better too.

The Book of Gossage, 2nd Edition by Howard Gossage, Bruce Bendinger et al, was published by Copy Workshop on 09/30/2006 – order it from Amazon here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

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