Howard Gossage

CA maga­zine 1970 V12 No.3

Photo by Jack Allen

We have two coun­tries in Cali­fornia. I have good friends in southern Cali­fornia, but I don’t think I’d like to live there. It’s like women. There’s some­thing here that keeps me sensu­ally stim­u­lated. L.A. is not my kind of chick:’New York offers a tremen­dous creative stim­u­la­tion. Do you miss that here?

Creativity does have a lot to do with coun­ter­ac­tion. Like you need a wall you can push against so you can make state­ments. Most East­erners would feel that we don’t have that wall. A New Yorker needs much more daily conflict than a creative person needs here. There’s another kind of element that exists here. Maybe it’s geographic. Most of the people here have come in the past twenty years. There’s the ocean, it’s as far as you can go. Some­thing unique has happened. Just look at the influ­ence we’ve had on the rest of the country, in living style, in the arts, in technology.”

San Fran­cisco may be a great place to live, but it is not the land of oppor­tu­nity for talent in design and adver­tising. The clients with the big bread are not here. Jobs are scarce and job seekers are plen­tiful, many with expe­ri­enced port­fo­lios. Many of the people I talked to have had to set up defen­sive systems, time periods or screening systems to protect their own time.

But there is a lot of ability and talent here. We have featured a few of these creative people in this issue, I wish that space permitted the inclu­sion of more.

Many of the best firms and indi­vid­uals attract a major portion of their work from other parts of the country. Many have devel­oped new direc­tions and needs for their talents. Nick Sidjakov offered this comment: “Designers are not working in the city, they’re working on the city. They are doing more bars and great old build­ings. The graphics on the build­ings here are terrific. You don’t see that in Chicago or other cities. That’s really what’s happening here, the talent is chan­neled into these things.

Barbara Stauf­facher and Marget Larsen deserve much of the credit for giving this an impetus. They made the building owners, and bar and restau­rant owners aware of what designers could do for them.”

You can’t talk about San Fran­cisco, or adver­tising, without bringing up the name of Howard Gossage. He was very much in mind as I inter­viewed Marget Larsen and we looked at and talked about many of his great ads. Witty, persua­sive ads.

Howard also gave great speeches. These, too, utilized wit and humor to sell ideas. Percep­tive, imag­i­na­tive ideas. He explained the process of problem solving with an example of “how to keep dogs from pissing on fire­plugs :’ I wonder if anyone ever real­ized how much of himself he gave to these speeches. He esti­mated that each one took two weeks of his time.

It was a real belt to the gut when he told me he had leukemia.

Herb Caen, colum­nist for the San Fran­cisco Chron­icle, wrote a beau­tiful thing when Howard died. With his permis­sion, we reprint it here:

A Singular Man

YESTERDAY I mentioned that Howard Gossage’s middle name was Luck, and that he’d need all of it he could get. Well, it ran out for him at 4 :30 a.m. yesterday in Pres­by­terian Hospital. He died of leukemia, a kidney infec­tion and other compli­ca­tions, but mainly, I think, he died because he didn’t want to live as a vegetable, never having had any expe­ri­ence at it.

If there were any justice, the flags would be at half­staff all over town, for he was one of the most valu­able of San Fran­cis­cans. He would have under­stood why they aren’t, though. As he once said in that wild Irish way of his : “Of course there isn’t any justice, buddy, and isn’t that wonderful? We’ll never run out of things to be angry about.”

Only, the buddy would have come out “b‑b-buddf’ He had an ingra­ti­ating stammer, along with a dramatic appear­ance that made him an unfor­get­table figure around town: flowing white hair, a perpet­u­ally gaunt, drawn and hand­some face, the sad-sweet smile that seems to be the signa­ture of so many Irish philosophers.

NOMINALLY he was in advertising-he hated the busi­ness, incidentally-but real­is­ti­cally, he was the arche­typ­ical San Fran­cisco Renais­sance man. Like most of the best men I’ve met, he never haggled over a bill and over­tipped reck­lessly. Money meant nothing to him and he prob­ably died broke . But he knew more about clas­sical music than most musi­cians, he was better-read than most critics and he composed more graceful prose than most writers. I never met a more unbig­oted man, even about bigots ; the worst he would say about anybody was “Wen, I can H ake him or 1‑leave him-not n‑necessarily in that order.”

WHAT WAS impor­tant about Howard Gossage? It’s a matter of style. There was nothing cheap or shoddy there, and his everyday pres­ence made you feel that just being a San Fran­ciscan was impor­tant. If a guy like Gossage picked this place over all others-in the face of constant offers from New York and Europe-then San Fran­cisco had to be okay, b‑b-buddy. Editors, authors, tycoons and adver­tising men were forever seeking his advice, and he’d say, “If they want to see me all that much, they’ll just have to come HERE

And come here they did, to his fire­house on Pacific. Talk about style : he was the first to buy an aban­doned old fire­house and convert it into offices that were the last word in cool modern elegance. His lunches there were legendary. He’d call up David’s Deli, order a ton of every­thing, ask you to drop in at the last minute, and you’d drop every­thing to be there.

You’d find your­self building a pastrami sand­wich next to Dr. Benjamin Spock. Or pouring a beer for John Stein­beck. Or listening to Buck­min­ster Fuller. Or laughing at the bad jokes of Marshall McLuhan. (Gossage, more than any other person, was respon­sible for the launching of McLuhan as a house­hold name‑a job he took on, like so many others, just for the hell of it, “let’s see if it works:’) Robert Manning, editor of Atlantic Monthly, was a Gossage luncheon regular. And writer Tom Wolfe, who invented a new style of reportage.

ALONG WITH Ogilvy and Doyle Dane Bern­bach, Gossage was respon­sible for changing the whole concept of Amer­ican adver­tising. Before they came along in the ‘50s. the approach was serious, heavy, bombastic. Gossage was the first to inject sophis­ti­cated humor and even-amid cries of “Sacrilege!”-the poking of fun at one’s own product. His first ads for Qantas, long ago, are still clas­sics. For the then unknown airline, he devised a contest he headed : “Be the First Kid On Your Block to Own a Kangaroo!” And when a winner was finally selected, his head­line read “Bronx Girl Wins Her First Kangaroo:’ The style” won the acco­lade of instant imitation.

DIDSAY he had no interest in money? In ‘53, Volk­swagen was ready to begin adver­tising heavily in the U.S., and narrowed the compe­ti­tion to Gossage and Doyle Dane. Howard’s final presen­ta­tion to VW’s direc­tors lost him the million-dollar job: “I’ve been driving your car for years, and it’s a great little product. I don’t think you NEED any adver­tising:’ Later he confided wryly : “ I’ve always hated auto­mo­bile accounts-but wow, I had no idea they were going to adver­tise THAT much!”

I SAW Howard for the last time on Tuesday after­noon. He looked worn and dazed, but he was trying bravely to keep up the old style. Marshall McLuhan had phoned him long distance to say “I can’t send you flowers, you’ve read all the books, so I’ll give you a joke.” Then followed a typical McLuhan pun that made no sense. “For a genius, he sure tells lousy jokes,” Howard mumbled. A couple of hospital tech­ni­cians wheeled in a compli­cated kidney gadget. “That’s okay, boys, you can have the machine tonight,” he grinned weakly. As I started to leave, I said “I’ll be back to see you tomorrow,” and he sighed “W‑why would you w‑want to do that?” And when I reached the door he called out “Hey, b‑buddy, you’re not going to be m‑mad at me, are you?”

IT JUST dawned on me that I don’t even know Howard’s age. I guess he was 50-something, but he never talked about it, as he never talked about his years as a Navy combat pilot in the South Pacific and a lot of other matters he consid­ered trilling. But to answer his last ques­tion, yes, I’m mad that he died. Damn mad.