5.0 out of 5 stars
A compelling tribute to the man who rewrote the admen's rules, 26 Jun 2012
You have to wonder what Howard Luck Gossage would have made of the "Friend of Gossage" t-shirts now on sale with his iconic ads and charismatic face emblazoned across them. But then he started that, more than 50 years ago, with just one of his many mould-breaking, rule-changing campaigns.
I had no idea who Gossage was, what he had done, or the astonishing extent of his influence until -- by pure chance -- I came upon Steve Harrison's eloquent book. Part biography, part eulogy, carefully crafted and beautifully written, it pays fitting tribute to a man well overdue some serious recognition.
My background isn't advertising; I arrived here from a career in journalism and PR, so have no hard-wired grounding in the minutiae of this most complex of industries. Perhaps that explains why the Gossage I found in Harrison's book is barely an ad man at all. Or it could equally be down to how Harrison has approached his task.
It would have been beguilingly easy for one man of advertising -- and a master at that -- to write a straightforward and accomplished account of another man of advertising. But Harrison hasn't done that. In Changing the World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man: An Eyewitness Account of the Life and Times of Howard Luck Gossage: 'Sixties America's Most ... Influential and Irreverent Advertising Genius
, he does exactly what he promises in his sub-title: he gives an eyewitness account of Gossage's life and times, teasing out from those who knew him best and worked most closely with him what actually made this most remarkable man tick. And yes, of course Gossage was an ad man because advertising was the obvious -- arguably only -- channel for his talents in mid-20th century America. But would he be if he were with us now? As Harrison's meticulous research shows, Gossage always saw the bigger picture, always understood how what we now call integrated communications could be harnessed to deliver so much more than the sum of its parts.
Gossage's roll call of achievements has been well rehearsed elsewhere: first off, those print ads (for me, the Fina set in particular) with their timeless content and design that could pretty much run right now with barely a tweak; second, his inspired use of coupons to play the tribe building game half a century before Seth Godin gave it a name; third, his sophisticated harnessing of Edward Bernays' PR principles to achieve astonishing results, most notably in making Marshall McLuhan a household name. And the politics, let's not forget the politics: Gossage would have made the most daunting of spin doctors had his high integrity not ruled him out of that role.
For me, though, all of this is eclipsed by the man himself, and I finished Harrison's book yearning to have met Howard Luck Gossage, even if just the once. Here was one of those rare individuals who -- with seemingly little effort -- operate on a slightly different plane from the rest of us to profound effect, genuinely able to redirect and lift the lives of those they touch. Everything he did challenged the status quo, placing him years, decades, ahead of his time: his agency's ethos and structure, his way of working, the clients he chose and discarded, his nurturing of his San Francisco Firehouse base as a creative hub for the most eclectic mix of visitors.
What emerges too is that Gossage was physically an unusually magnetic man -- his third wife, actress Sally Kemp, chose him over Richard Burton -- a showman who used that to great effect, constantly craving centre stage, his energy and laughter filling the room. And a man also who -- let's face it -- can't always have been easy either to live or work with.
But even allowing for hindsight mellowing the edges, he rises from Harrison's pages as a man much loved, much admired, owed much, and much missed -- even now, more than 40 years after his death. And in case Harrison should stand accused of painting too rosy a picture in his account, let Sally Kemp Gossage have the last word: "Reading it, I felt I had been hit by a tsunami... Our whole life came back to me with the most immediate clarity. I had forgotten nothing, and the writer had found his way into Howard's life."
And she adds: "The only other writer who has really captured Howard was Tom Wolfe."
You don't have to be in advertising, or marketing, or PR, or even on the outer edges of the media, to emerge much the richer for reading this book. Highly recommended.