Confessions Of A Mad Man: Gossage Did It Already

In his tell-all memoir, author George Parker holds forth about what it’s really like to work in the steamy ad world, as popularized by AMC’s Mad Men. All it’s cracked up to be? Read to find out.

The latest installment in our series of extracts from George Parker’s new book, ‘Confessions of a Mad Man.’ One of the few surviving ‘Mad Men,’ George Parker has lived through more than forty decadent years in the world’s second oldest profession. He’s seen it all and done it all. And a great deal of what he’s done would make the TV show, ‘Mad Men,’ look like Sesame Street. Unless Kermit is caught in flagrante with Miss Piggy on the PBS boardroom table. Ah, the good old days… Sex, drugs, rock & roll… It’s advertising as you always imagined it.

Anyone with enough fortitude to endure my ramblings (This is the nineteenth bloody episode of “Confessions of a Mad Man” for crying out loud) will know that I love to quote famous dead people, particularly famous dead ad people. And, as I have said before, that’s probably because, I’ll be joining them soon enough. And yes, I know I sometimes repeat myself, in a somewhat repetitious manner. Which I believe I have just demonstrated, but what the hell, my excuse is that this condition is brought about by a lethal combination of encroaching old age, a surfeit of alcohol and too much time spent hanging out with naked Kate Moss. (Readers of AdScam will know that this has a particular relevance on Friday’s!) However, I would like to believe, and this is my book God damn it, the plus side of all this bullshit is that the alcohol works as a preservative, just like the putrefying and stinking formaldehyde in a Damian Hurst, floating shark/sheep/douchenozzle, objet d’art.

Question: Does this mean that one day I shall reside in an oversized fish tank in Charlie Saatchi’s outrageously expensive collection of modern art tchotchkes at his “Everyfink orwight darlin” art gallery, located somewhere in South London?

Answer: I doubt it. But, I may end up floating around with a bunch of nubile mermaids behind the bar at the Sip-n-Dip Tiki Bar in Great Falls, Montana! See Chapter Nine, Grub & Grog! for a review of this amazing establishment. It will be coming up in the next couple of excerpts, right here on psfk. And if that isn’t worth your perseverance, what the hell is?

Anyway, on to Howard Gossage… I probably quote him more than anyone, because he is so often, so fucking damn right. And when you consider that he died more than forty years ago, it’s pretty amazing that virtually everything he said all those years ago, could apply in spades, to the abysmally screwed up ad business today.

The first thing to understand about Gossage is that he was convinced that most of the advertising of his time was a giant crock of shit. And he made it quite clear that he did not like much of what he saw. When asked if advertising is worth saving, he answered that “from an economic point of view I don’t think that most of it is. From an aesthetic point of view I’m damn sure it’s not; it is thoughtless, boring, and there is simply too much of it.” Ha, can you imagine any practitioner of the dark arts having the balls to say that today?

It’s also worth remembering that when Gossage was in the agency business, as I pointed out in The Ubiquitous Persuaders, you could reach eighty five percent of America with three TV networks and four national publications. Yet, as he put it so well, too much advertising was produced on the principle that it was like shooting fish in a barrel, unfortunately, the fish are learning to swim faster and developing armor plate. We should consider how that applies even more so to today’s overload of communication choices.

When he entered the business in the nineteen fifties at the rather late age of 37, he was smart enough to realize there had to be a better way to communicate with the public than via the soporific crap they were exposed to, by the ad agencies of that era on behalf of their clients. So, in 1957 he founded a new kind of agency, Freeman, & Gossage. The simple, yet original operating principle of the agency was that, unlike the vast majority of others in those days, it would recognize that the consumer should perhaps be treated with a modicum of respect, while acknowledging they were endowed with a certain level of intelligence. To be fair, as I have pointed out in earlier chapters, this was not a totally unique opinion at the time, as it was also shared with one other agency pioneer, David Ogilvy, which he expressed in his famous line… “The consumer isn’t an idiot, she is your wife.” However, in terms of the execution of this unusual, for its time, realization that the American public was not comprised of performing chimpanzees ready to jump through flaming hoops, the approach Howard and David took to address the public were, in their own ways, completely different. David was a great believer in following certain iron-clad rules when it came to the creation of advertising. And, unsurprisingly, virtually all the rules had been created by David himself. In fact, they were enshrined in a little red book all new employees of Ogilvy & Mather were presented with on their first day at work. A very Chairman Mao-ish touch indeed! Most of these rules were rigid… Always put the headline under the main visual – The client or product name must be in bold type, preferably within a case letter box, in the headline – Coupons must go in the bottom right hand corner… And so on. Howard’s approach was quite the opposite, particularly when it came to David’s rule number twenty two… Never use humor in advertising, humor is for clowns! Which is somewhat of a contradiction when you consider David actually used an aging Eleanor Roosevelt in a TV ad for Imperial Margarine. One that required a rather grotesque, (this was long before the days of computer graphics) diamond encrusted crown to pop on the head of the First Lady as she delivered her stultifying sales pitch. Even more intriguing is the question… Exactly how the fuck did he talk F.D.R’s wife into appearing in a commercial, let alone one pimping a rancid spread?

Amazingly, in contrast to Ogilvy, Gossage’s brief, but incandescent and inspiring career did not include the creation of a single TV commercial. Today, even with the emphasis on “New media” this lack of creative “chops,” demonstrated by the lack of a “show reel,” would have relegated him to a job in the mail room. And particularly heretical was his opinion that most advertising was a waste of money and aesthetically insulting. Which is why he never stopped complaining that it was inane, terribly boring, and there was far too much of it. In fact, as far as I can determine, he is the only agency principal in the history of the ad biz that actually had the balls to recommend to his clients they were spending too much and should reduce their budget.

HELLO… Are you paying fucking attention here? Yes… Howard Gossage actually told some of his clients that they were spending too much and should reduce their ad budgets… Can you imagine how supremely insane that would sound to the evil, snot gobbling, avaricious pigs tasked with running today’s BDA’s and BDHC’s!

He believed that those responsible for producing advertising were hobbled, not only by the use of traditional methods relying on the repetition of simplistic, mind numbing messages to make an impression on the consumer. But, even more importantly, by a lack of information from the client that would enable the agency to create relevant messages to the audience which would give them reasons to consider purchasing their product. Or, as he put it so well… “Not everyone reads advertising; they read what they are interested in, and sometimes, that’s advertising.” God, I love those fucking dead ad guy quotes! Sorry – However, this serves to reinforce my contention that you need just three things to produce great advertising: Time, information and money. Surprisingly, the least important of the three is money, and the most important is information. Let me give you an illustration. If you have stuck with me so far, you might remember that back in Chapter Two, You Have to Make the Bastards Pay, I talked about my experiences on the Heublein account at Benton & Bowles. Apart from the number one selling brand of vodka, Smirnoff, they had numerous other products aimed at the alcohol swilling masses of America, one of which was Arrow liqueurs or cordials as they are referred to in the US. Unlike the Chartreuse and Benedictines of the world that originated hundreds of years ago  in the cloistered abbeys of Europe, and are supposedly still created from secret medieval recipes, the unabashedly more, down-to-earth, Arrow Cordials were created in what looked like a’ beat to shit’ oil refinery in the suburbs of Detroit. Not much of a heritage there, and a tough sell when compared to the exotic, crenellated, excrement coated walls of the various Abbey’s the more expensive, and exotic brews are supposedly still created in. However, on a trip to the Detroit distillery, I was introduced to Dr. Ludwig Von Dochterman, Arrow’s chief chemist and taste master. It turned out that as the “Taste Master,” his palette was his greatest asset. This required him to refrain from eating or drinking anything that could adversely affect his taste buds. No condiments, no spices, no coffee, no tea, no Cocaine, no Crack, (just kidding on the last two) no anything. Total blandness. So, I built a whole campaign around this really freaky guy. (It helped that he also looked like Goebbels.) One ad dealt with the time he was at a party, and rather than offend the hostess he took a bite out of one of her world famous pickles. Disaster struck and production at Arrow stopped for two fucking days! The campaign, which in true Gossage style, offered through the use of coupons in every ad, exotic cocktail recipes, booklets, swizzle sticks etc., was a great success and ran for two years. Then suddenly, Herr Doctor dropped dead. (Maybe it was the belated effects of the pickle, or something else he ate, drank, or ingested.) So, we ran an ad with a black border and a big R.I.P. in the headline! Anyway, the point is, I’m with Gossage here. The more information you can get your fingers on before you start creating the advertising, the more meaningful you will be to the audience you are addressing, and ultimately, the more impact you will make on that audience.

Perhaps because he came in to it much later than most, Gossage looked at advertising in a way that was considered bizarre at the time. He believed it should be a two way conversation between equals. Not the strident and repetitious one-way bludgeoning of ads featuring fiery stomachs and anvils in the head which were so prevalent at the time. Howard’s idea was to get readers involved enough that they would be willing to actually participate in the ad. This way he believed a rapport would be established with the reader and a connection could take place between the advertiser and the person being advertised to. This way they’ll be more likely to remember what you are saying. Or, as he put it so well, “An ad should ideally be like one end of an interesting conversation.” Does this sound familiar? Isn’t this what every social networking devotee has been screaming about for the last few years?

Well, hey you guys, Gossage was actually doing it fifty years ago.

Stay tuned for more on Gossage next week. Or, if you can’t wait, buy the bloody book!

Purchase ‘Confessions of a Mad Man’ on Amazon.

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