Gossage: a man ahead of his time

Steve Harrison remembers the maverick who pioneered interactive ads way back in the 60s.

Steve Harrison's book
Steve Harrison's book

On 12 October 1962, Time magazine's cover featured 12 white, middle-aged men. Look at them today and you'd think they were 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 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 JK 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 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 was refusing to raise his glass. This man 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 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.

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. According to his colleague Jerry Mander, what riled him was "the one speaking to the many. The way advertising talked at people and pushed them around."

Ideas beyond advertising

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

Foremost among his mentors was the MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener. If you don't know who he is, then think of Wiener next time you ask your boss 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 US 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."

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 new style of advertising.

As Mander recalls: "He had a term for it: he called it 'interactive'."

Interactive in the analogue age

But how did he do interactive in the analogue age? Well, as Jeff Goodby explains: "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 ...'"

Goodby was a convert in the early 80s and founded Goodby, Berlin and Silverstein on Gossage's principles. 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."

What Gossage actually did was to start building communities. Every campaign was aimed at generating participation and a sense of belonging. Indeed, so confident was Gossage of his following that he ended one ad for the Irish Whiskey Distillers halfway through a sentence and started where he'd left off in his next ad the following week.

The fact that his ads appeared almost exclusively in The New Yorker helped reinforce the camaraderie. Or should we call it friendship? 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."

Guru hunting

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 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 Wiener and cybernetics. And it was the quest for the big idea that brought him to the Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan.

Gossage invested $6,000 of his own money to turn that obscure English professor into the 60s' most celebrated "thinker". Those who understand digital will tell you it was McLuhan who predicted Facebook and Twitter back in the 60s; 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 issue.

Ultimately, it 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.

This new adventure began the day a man called David Brower called at Gossage's ...

It's unlikely Campaign will give me a page in next week's issue so I can continue this piece where I've just left off, but you can find out more by e-mailing me at harrisosteve@googlemail.com. Go on, Gossage would want you to.

Steve Harrison is the author of Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man, a new book on Howard Luck Gossage published this week.