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January 5, 2017

Book review: Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man

The next stop on my Christmas reading book review is Steve Harrison’s biography of Howard Gossage. According to Harrison, Gossage was ‘1960s America’s most innovative, influential and irreverent advertising man’.

Changing the world is the only work fit for a grown man

I’ve mentioned Howard Gossage before in these posts. For anyone trying to blaze their own trail or swim against the tide of conventional marketing ‘wisdom’, he’s essential reading.

Re-reading this book highlighted a number of things to me.

Howard Gossage was famous for running one ad at a time, and measuring the feedback from each ad using coupons. Each ad would look to stimulate a conversation with the reader, and subsequent ads would be based on the responses to previous ads that had been mailed in.

To Gossage, good advertising should create issues and cause discussion, not endlessly hammer people over the head with banal messages.

I believe this has a modern email marketing parallel. I see a lot of people trying to automate their email follow-up sequences, months and years into the future. The problem with doing this is you allow no room for conversation and feedback.

What would Howard Gossage do if he had a tool like Infusionsoft? I imagine he’d send one email at a time, and build up a dialogue. It’s more work that way, but it’s also more engaging. You learn a thing or two along the way.

Gossage also made extensive use of parody. He famously parodied David Ogilvy’s ad for Rolls Royce, ‘At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise in the new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock’.

Gossage ran a parody version for his client Land Rover, with the headline ‘At 60 miles per hour, the loudest noise in the new Land Rover comes from the roar of the engine’.

What’s the modern equivalent? I see a modern equivalent in Facebook advertising. The best way to get traction with Facebook ads is to start by raising a smile. Poking fun at things people are tired of is one available tactic.

Howard Gossage believed in keeping his agency small. His agency never employed more than 12 people, and he refused to be bought out by larger competitors. Unlike the big Madison Avenue agencies at the time, they charged high retainer fees for their creative work, passing on media spend savings to the client.

At the time the idea of charging for creative work was groundbreaking. Agencies earned their keep by being big, encouraging clients to spend more on ads, and skimming off a percentage of media spend.

By charging high creative and consultancy fees, Gossage was able to advise a client not to spend money on advertising at all, if he felt it wasn’t necessary. He famously turned down Volkswagen account, because he thought the Beetle would sell itself.

For a modern equivalent you don’t have to look further than pay per click. Most large PPC agencies still charge based on a percentage of ad spend, despite the fact that percentage of spend has no correlation to value delivered.

Gossage was also a master of PR, and loved to run competitions. When Scientific American wanted to encourage big airlines to advertise in their publication, Gossage created a worldwide paper aeroplane competition, judged by a panel of celebrity experts. The event was a big success, with 11,000 entries from 28 countries. The media picked up on this, and Eastern Airlines and American Airlines both placed adverts in the magazine.

The modern equivalent? Competitions work as well as they’ve ever done. Very few companies do them, let alone whip up a media frenzy.

Eventually, Howard Gossage tired of advertising. His late agency work promoted environmental or social causes. Perhaps most famously, Gossage created the advertising campaign for the Sierra Club which helped save the Grand Canyon from damming. As with all of Gossage’s ads, the Sierra Club ads included coupons which could be cut out and sent directly to local senators.

Every time I read about Howard Gossage, I discover more about someone I regard as a kindred spirit. A rebel who stuck to his guns, and did things his own way.

Despite the lengthy title, Changing the world is the only fit work for a grown man is an inspiring and practical read if you keep your eyes open for modern applications.

Rob Drummond

Rob Drummond runs the Maze Marketing Podcast and Maze Mastery. Rob specialises in content production, ad creation, storytelling and CRM systems. He has two published books, Magnetic Expertise and Simple Story Selling, affordable on Amazon.