An Interview with Steve Harrison

Steve Harrison-revised.final
Steve Harrison, author of the Howard Gossage biography
“Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man”

Although Steve Harrison contends that his training as a historian (and subsequent doctoral thesis American Society, Cinema and Television:1950-1960) rendered him unemployable, it all turned out right in the end. Starting as a trainee writer at O&M Direct in London, he eventually became European Creative Director before leaving to start his own shop, HTW. From 2002 to 2007 (when he left agency life) he won more Cannes Direct Lions than any other CD in the world. How? Pick up the book he wrote in 2009 How to do Better Creative Work (currently retailing on amazon.co.uk for a reasonable £1,800). In March of 2012 he published his terrific biography of Howard Gossage Changing the World is the Only Fit Work For a Grown Man (which we reviewed here) and recently he sat down with us to illuminate and expand on Gossage, advertising, the future and the past.

the legacy

Agency Review:

In the review, I theorize a couple of reasons why Gossage isn’t as well known in advertising as Ogilvy, Bernbach and the rest of the heads on Rushmore. But why do you think he remains largely unknown? Do you think that’s changing – or do you think that there’s a possibility for change, and for his reputation to increase – now?

Harrison:

In the book I suggested it was because Gossage’s departure coincided with the arrival of the Creative Revolution.

Like its contemporary counterpart, the Maoist Cultural Revolution that sought to erase vast tracts of Chinese history, the Creative Revolution that transformed the US ad industry in the 1960s had its own unchallengeable leader, Chairman Bill Bernbach, and a similar scorn for the past.

With a self-assured ignorance that remains uncorrected to this day, young creatives figured they had nothing to learn from anyone except Bernbach.  Their elders stayed silent and followed fashion for fear of being denounced as reactionary or, that most unforgivable sin in the advertising business, old.

It didn’t help that Gossage never did any TV work – I suppose that in the ‘sixties that was a bit like a guy nowadays having nothing using social media or a mobile app in his book.

To make matters worse, Gossage’s ads were long copy and had coupons, which meant they looked and read very differently to the work coming out of DDB and the hot shops – all of whom modeled themselves on Chairman Bill’s style.

Agency Review:

I think there’s some truth in there, though really the “Creative Revolution” began in 1959, long before Gossage left. And you could even make the case that his work – long form copy and coupons and all – is as much a part of the Creative Revolution as George Lois’s Maypo and Mary Wells’ Branniff planes.

But more importantly, my experience, especially with people in advertising under the age of 40, is that they are woefully ignorant of any advertising legacy – Gossage, certainly, but Lois and Wells and even Ogilvy and Burnett and Bernbach. Hell, they don’t even know Apple’s “1984” ad, let alone “Think Small”. So I don’t know that you can blame his current invisibility on “Chairman Bill”, unless it’s simply some form of inertia. That said, I do think, as you point out in the book, that his sensibility is more in tune with today’s bottom-up/social/grassroots than Bill’s, David’s or Leo’s and I wonder if, like others in Communist China, we can expect his rehabilitation.

Harrison:

You make a good but depressing point about nobody knowing or caring about anything that happened further back than last year’s Cannes Lions Awards.  But there are grounds for some optimism about interest in Gossage.  For example, if you search for Howard Gossage on Twitter you’ll see that every day there’s someone from Turkey, Brazil or Australia recommending or quoting him.  Actually, they are usually misquoting him (“If you have a lemon” and opposed to being “stuck” with one).  When I was researching the book, there was not a tweet to be read.  So, in a couple of years, this worldwide following has emerged.

Also, the followers seem to come from a digital background. While advertising people never really see beyond the long copy and, aaagh, a coupon; the digital folk see what Gossage was trying to do together with his audience.  In London I’ve been invited to talk about Gossage by such agencies as Work Club, LBi, and Lean Mean Fighting Machine who, for those of our overseas readers who haven’t heard of them, are the best digital shops in town.  It’s good to know that the best and the brightest feel this kinship with a guy who died 44 years ago.  And that must augur well for the future.

the mind of Gossage

Agency Review:

You talk at length about how Gossage was in many ways, years ahead of his contemporaries and ahead of his time – but why do you think he was? I don’t mean this in terms of his accomplishments, but rather in terms of his thinking. For example, I can figure out how Ogilvy got to his ideas and even Burnett to a certain extent, but Gossage feels like he comes out of left field a bit. What’s his frame of reference?

Harrison:

Both Ogilvy and Bernbach were heavily influenced by earlier admen. In Bernbach’s case it was Rubicam.  In Ogilvy’s, well, just look at the back of Ogilvy on Advertising and you’ll see the six “giants upon whose shoulders I stood.”

Gossage, however, took his inspiration from other disciplines.  That’s not to say he didn’t study advertising.  When he enrolled at the Golden Gate College in San Francisco in the late ‘forties he was heavily influenced by the intelligent, “soft sell” of a copywriter called Herb Reynolds.

He also, and this is vital, did all the things that James Webb Young says you’ve got to do in his great work How to be an Advertising Man.  By working as a media buyer, a promotions guy, an account man, an art director and a writer, he developed Young’s requisite knowledge of propositions, channels, markets etc which transformed him into the complete adman.

Then in Alice Lowe’s words: “Gossage’s restless mind was in continual ferment about advertising. He studied it with tireless energy … to try to understand how it came to be what it is and how it might be changed.”

And to achieve the latter, he looked beyond advertising and drew upon the work of philosophers, theologians and communications theorists.  In my book, I point out that he got to his unique interactive style via the cybernetic theories of MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. Moreover, his brilliant “ad platform technique” reflects much of what Daniel J Boorstin had to say about “pseudo-events” in his controversial best-seller The Image.

In short, he purposefully stepped out of advertising in order to better see how it could be improved.  As he said, you need to be outside your environment (extra-environmental) in order to be fully aware of it. And I think this need to remain separate explains why he stayed outside of Madison Avenue in that advertising backwater, San Francisco.

Agency Review:

Yes, but lots of people read James Webb Young, and there were lots of advertising folks in San Francisco, and none of them came close to the kinds of things Gossage was trying – all of which seem to spring out of a way of his unique way of thinking about things. Part of that could be genius, but even genius, I think, can be traced back to antecedents. I mean, is there some through line (without turning this into an absurd, Borgesian exercise) that connects growing up in Vaudeville, World War 2 bomber pilot hero, and the kind of creativity and imagination that creates the Fina campaign? I’m not ready to believe that they’re just arbitrary dots on graph, but rather a path that points in a direction. Though I’ve been wrong about this stuff before…

Harrison:

If we’re looking for deep-seated reasons for Gossage’s thinking and his behaviour then there’s a great book yet to be written on the impact of the war on the creative output of a generation of young men whose lives were altered beyond all recognition by their experiences in the Pacific and Europe.  Some made it through apparently unscathed.  And those who didn’t rarely spoke of it (Gossage’s great friend John Steinbeck was one of them).  Gossage wasn’t traumatised but, I suspect, his restlessness, his drinking, his unhappiness with the status quo and his desire to change things could all, in some way, be attributed to his experience of  WWII.

But to be honest with you, I consciously avoided these kind of psychological excavations.  I’m neither qualified nor competent enough to draw anything but the most subjective of conclusions.  And I’m also dubious about reducing the work of genius to cause and effect.  By example I’ll cite one of Gossage’s heroes: Ludwig van Beethoven.  In 1802 he was, according to an unsent letter he wrote to his brothers (his Heiligenstadt Testament) so consumed by despair that he was about to top himself.  Yet the music that emanated from the slough of despond was that hymn to hope and optimism, the Second Symphony.  Genius is genius; who the hell knows where it comes from.

the future

Agency Review:

Over the course of his life (and your narrative) it feels like Gossage drifts further and further away from advertising. In fact, it’s not just advertising. He “discovers” McLuhan and then moves on. He gets involved with the Sierra club, and moves on. Had he lived into the 1970s and 1980s, what do you think he would have been involved in?

Harrison:

I asked Jerry Mander this very question and he had no answer for me. I think that’s the smart response. Gossage was such an intellectual – and a contrarian – that it is almost impossible for a guy with an average IQ like me to second guess his next move.

Most assume it would have been something to do with liberal or progressive politics or causes, but I’m not too sure.

What we do know is that he clearly said in his letters to Barrows Mussey that his first aim after leaving advertising was to make a lot of money. He talked about developing the Shade Tree holding company that included his agency interests to expand to become a diversified portfolio of businesses. Interestingly, he spoke of adding Ramparts the radical magazine to the mix not as an outlet for his own liberal political interests but because he could write off its losses on his tax return.

This might antagonise the more uncritical followers of the cult of St Howard but I’m not totally certain he was that committed to the left. He was an enigma. For example, when I told Dagmar Mussey (the German wife of Barrows Mussey) about his work with Ramparts she was amazed that he might have left wing sympathies. She assumed that, like she and her husband, Gossage was conservative. The letters that Gossage wrote to Barrows Mussey certainly do nothing to indicate that he had progressive leanings.

Similarly, one of his wife, Sally Kemp’s, actress friends was convinced that Gossage was a CIA operative!

One thing is for sure, he was a highly intellectual man who, by his own admission, was terrified of boredom. He also craved the spotlight. So whatever he’d have done would have been pretty high risk and definitely high profile.

Agency Review:

I like the CIA operative idea, and think there’s probably a series of espionage thrillers waiting to be written that feature a dashing and mercurial ad guy based out of the Bay area.

I agree with you that I think he would have left advertising – it was just a way to make a living off of his curiousity – but I like to think he might have stumbled down the coast a bit and wound up in Silicon Valley.

And I also agree with you that he doesn’t appear to be a leftie as you put it – but rather that the left were just doing more interesting things that piqued his curiousity. Had the right been as diverse and daring and creative, perhaps he’d have gone in that direction too – though in the Nixon-Goldwater-Nixon years that make up the last decade of his life, I confess it hard to find interesting ideas on that side of the aisle.

But I wonder about your comment that he craved the spotlight – because while that comes through in your book, you would also think that someone who was really addicted to it would find a way to make his mark in Manhattan – because certainly at that time (somewhat less so now), that’s where the spotlight in so many ways was. So I wonder why he never did – and wonder if he’d have figured out a way to do that in the 70s had he lived. What do you think?

Harrison:

I don’t know where his pursuit of the spotlight (and money) would have taken him.  But if it is true that there are no second acts in American lives then, you know something, I suspect he’d have returned to advertising.  It suited his weaknesses and his strengths.  He was a curious man whose enthusiasms were short lived.  And advertising is the perfect outlet for a creative with those characteristics.  So, yes, I think he might have returned to advertising and used it as a shallow water harbour from which to embark on his buccaneering adventures.

the challenges

Agency Review:

The good news about writing a biography of someone like Gossage, is that you’re breaking new ground, you’re not just trying to find a new spin to old facts that others have reported (by comparison, how difficult it must be to write about Abraham Lincoln, for example). The challenge, however, is that none of the info exists. And that must be compounded by the fact that you’re not a biographer by trade – you’re an ad guy. How difficult was it to overcome these challenges?

Harrison:

Well, the info does exist, you just have to search for it. And that’s what made the whole project so interesting. Of course, to begin with there were Gossage’s speeches and articles as found in Is there any hope for advertising? and repackaged in The Book of Gossage.  But what you have to remember is these presented the corporate voice of Howard Gossage. They were written as PR for the man and his agency, and the picture he reveals is precisely the one he wants you to see. As such, those books provide an interesting but intrinsically superficial portrait.

Fortunately I was able to build my story on historically firmer foundations: 1) The dozens of letters that Howard Gossage exchanged with his friend in Germany, Barrows Mussey from 1965 – 1969. These allowed me to hear the authentic voice of Howard Gossage. 2) The unpublished biography of Howard Gossage which Alice Lowe wrote in the immediate aftermath of his death and which provided the most detailed, intimate and honest appraisal of Gossage’s life. 3) The many hours of interviews that I conducted with everyone I could find who knew and worked with Howard Gossage.

It is true that I’m not a biographer but I am trained as a historian. I have my MA in American Foreign Policy and a PhD in American Society, Cinema and Television 1950-1960. I also have over 20 years training as a copywriter, which I found quite helpful.

Agency Review:

I certainly wasn’t implying that you weren’t capable, or that the book was anything less than well-researched and well-written. I guess I was thinking about past biographies that I’ve read that seem to fall into two camps; 1) the “how do I put a new spin on this topic that everyone and their father has covered” (my Lincoln example), and 2) the “nobody really knows who this is, so if I just lay out the facts I’ll have accomplished a huge task “ (I’m thinking specifically of a biography of the jazz pianist Bill Evans that I read recently). Each has its own challenges and I was just curious about how your work fit into that thinking. For example, when you started, did you know about Alice Lowe’s biography? Did you know about the Barrows Mussey letters? If so, how did those connections come about? And if not, what was your plan – to simply keep poking the world until things like the Alice Lowe bio and Mussey letters fell out?

Harrison:

To be honest, I didn’t intend writing a book when the project started.  I was helping a guy who used to work for me make a documentary about Gossage. I’d turned him on to Gossage, and for years he’d been telling me he was going to make this film.  So eventually I wrote a treatment (which turned out to be the basis of the book) and said “OK, I’ll contact all the key players and we’ll go out to San Francisco and interview them”.  Sure enough, we came back with 25 hours of excellent footage of people like Howard’s widow, Sally, Alice Lowe, Jerry Mander, Ken Brower, Dugald Stermer and Rich Silverstein.  Only thing was, it quickly became apparent that the documentary guy was in no hurry to complete this film (it still isn’t done) and I’d made a promise to all the people who’d shared their memories with us that our homage to Howard would soon be completed.

So I set about writing down the interviews in what I figured would be a sixty page booklet.  My research, however, led me down other avenues and it was an immense boon when Alice Lowe offered me access to her wonderful unpublished biography.  New leads also emerged.  For example, Dagmar Mussey.  I knew that her husband Barrows was long gone but somehow I got her address in Dusseldorf and asked if she’d see me.  She was wonderful.  It was she who put me on to Hubert Burda, the German media magnate who’d been so influenced by Gossage as a young man.  Anyway, I visited Dagmar six times and on the penultimate occasion she paid me the supreme compliment; she said she was dying and that she wanted me to be the custodian of the letters that Gossage and Mussey has exchanged from 1965-1969.

When the book was published in March last year, I made sure that the most important audience, those who’d known and loved Howard, and shared their stories with me were the first people to get a copy.  I took Dagmar’s on Friday, 9th March and she had a bottle of Prosecco and a photographer waiting for me.  She died three days later, God bless her.

the next generation

Agency Review:

As I said, you’re an ad man. So, looking around advertising, is there anyone in your mind who really inherits the mantle of Gossage? Or, because of the multifariousness of Gossage’s interests as well as the state of the industry today, is there someone outside of advertising who really is his heir? And I ask this question fully aware that I would be hard pressed to identify this year’s Ogilvy, Bernbach or Burnett…

Harrison:

I’m hard pressed, too. Even more so because I’ve been out of the industry since 2007.

My only observation would be that the heirs to Gossage are not those who are advocating such things as co-creation in say the Victors & Spoils model. I think that theirs is a solution that’s typical of those who are inside the industry trying to fix a broken agency model.

Gossage looked at the industry from outside. He sought his inspiration from intellectuals like Norbert Wiener and Daniel J. Boorstin, and then applied what they were saying to advertising problems. He was himself an intellectual first and an adman second – and there are very few such individuals working in the industry today.

Agency Review:

Okay, so let’s take his intellectual style if not his industry choice as a leaping off point. Do you think someone like Richard Branson, or Elon Musk or even someone like James Franco would be treading down Gossage’s path – people who aren’t confined by one particular industry or area of expertise, but who follow their curiosity. And further, do you think that, because of the internet and social media, Gossage’s way of thinking may be on the rise?

Harrison:

People like Franco and Musk have that renaissance-man like quality, and are splendid examples to us all.  But when it comes to changing the world, the difference is that, like the Carnegies of old, they’re taking the altruistic route after they have made their pile.  Gossage funded the launch of McLuhan and the Anguila adventure to promote Leopold Kohr’s ideas out of his own pocket while he was a jobbing adman.  It was only after he’d been reminded of his own mortality with the diagnosis of leukemia, that he decided he’d better start making some dough.  And even then I doubt if the pursuit of a few extra bucks would’ve stopped his search for the big unifying idea that’d make sense of the world.

So, if there aren’t too many individuals ready to take on the Gossage mantle, does the answer lie in the wisdom of crowds?  In this connected, co-creating world, is that where the game-changing action is?

Well, not if the folks at Occupy are anything to go by.  It’s been said that Gossage would have been at home with that crowd.  On the contrary.  He was an old school believer in the importance of the individual as thinker and doer.  And he’d have been appalled by Occupy’s collective’s lack of ideas, and their refusal/inability to engage in any kind of intelligent debate about an alternative to what is by far the least-worst socio-economic system currently on offer.

You can read our review of Steve’s book here, or order it from Amazon here or from Barnes & Noble here – or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here). Or you can reach out directly to Steve here.

Illustration of Steve Harrison by the brilliant Mike Caplanis

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