Although he was a contemporary of David Ogilvy, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, he is not nearly as famous, which is tragic.

Howard Luck Gossage was an adman who practiced his craft in San Francisco in the Mad Men era, but he was no Don Draper. In fact, he threw rocks at his industry and said things like, “Advertising is a multi-million dollar sledgehammer driving a 49-cent, economy-size thumbtack” and “To explain responsibility to advertising men is like trying to convince an eight-year-old that sexual intercourse is more fun than a chocolate ice cream cone” and “I long for the day when advertising will become a business for a grown man.”

He became known as “The Socrates of San Francisco”.

Gossage was a philosopher king and patron saint of bay area advertising creatives. Jeff Goodby, Rich Silverstein and Andy Berlin were Gossage disciples who paid tribute to their hero when they launched Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein in 1982 with an ad proclaiming, “Introducing a new ad agency founded by a guy who died 14 years ago.” They had Howard’s picture in their lobby for inspiration. Jeff Goodby said, “The best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done.” No argument here.

Although Gossage’s own agency existed for only twelve years and never grew to more than thirteen people, the work it created stands as inspiration for generations. Housed in an old firehouse in North Beach, the place became a salon for artists, freethinkers and gadflies. John Steinbeck, Ken Kesey, Marshall McLuhan, Stan Freberg, Buckminster Fuller, John Huston, Joan Rivers and Tom Wolfe were some of the regulars stopping by for lunch, cocktails and spirited conversations.

Howard Gossage did not create traditional ad campaigns. Rather, he painstakingly wrote an ad and included a way for readers to react to it. Then, he measured the results, the feedback–– and wrote the next ad.

Welcome to early interactive advertising and social media. Gossage created PR-generating campaigns, and foretold radical ideas like media buying specialists agencies and Pay-per-View. He also ignited cause-related marketing and the green movement.

I won’t geek-out more on Gossage. Suffice to say, he was an ad god and if you’re not familiar with him and his work, do yourself a favor and get to know both. Two essential books to read are “The Book of Gossage” and “Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man”.

So, what was the pearl of wisdom Gossage said that was the smartest marketing quote ever? This:
“Nobody reads advertising. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

This quote encompasses everything any marketer needs to know. You must start with an understanding and empathy for your audience, and create something that will be interesting to it (with relevance to your product or service). Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Then why is so much advertising so bad?


It’s harder and harder to make an impression these days.

We live in an ever-present culture of bombastic messaging.

You can’t escape it. Not in home, at work, or, sequestered in the bathroom. Someone’s always got something to say, and they’re going to say it.

Because it’s so hard to get attention, it’s natural for marketers to get desperate, allowing their flop sweat to fuel their insatiable desire to get noticed.

So, you get seduced by pranks and stunts and gimmicks to grab attention, mistaking attention for persuasion and brand-building.

Silly marketer. Attention isn’t enough. In fact, grabbing attention only for the sake of getting attention could be detrimental to your brand’s health.

Mean-spirited pranks, phony gags and stunts, shrill blasts into the pop culture abyss–– they’re all desperation in search of direction and meaning.

A friendly reminder: before you use your voice, use your brains.

As Bill Bernbach said: “Be provocative. But be sure your provocativeness stems from your product. You are NOT right if in your ad you stand a man on his head JUST to get attention. You ARE right if you have him on his head to show how your product keeps things from falling out of his pockets.”


Social media’s all the rage these days, and why not? Who doesn’t like to believe people are passionate about their brand and want to “join the conversation.”

It’s like believing you’re the life of the party– who doesn’t think that (especially after a couple drinks)?

But social media isn’t a marketing panacea. Many believe it’s just a placebo.

The one thing that will ensure its demise is trying to control the conversation. Seeding the dialogue with bogus shills and glowing commentary. Once people suspect the legitimacy of rave reviews, they’ll lose trust. And that’s happening right now. You may believe Aunt Sally who tells you something about a brand at a family reunion, but what about Sally Creemcheck from Muncie who praises specific model numbers and limited time offers on the brand’s FB page?

People are too smart today, their B.S. detectors too finely-tuned thanks to our incessant blasting of promotional messaging and chest thump-ry.

We are all skeptical. Many are cynical, to boot. So naturally, we’re naturally suspicious. When people can’t or won’t trust people, look out. As more brands delude themselves that social media is the game changer, they’ll see consumers often don’t care that much–– certainly not as much as the anxious CMO will ambitious growth plans.

Don’t foolishly think modern marketing is as simple as playing the social media game. Don’t turn your brand over to consumers and let them determine your fate, or, try leading them down your primrose path of shiny propaganda and bogus praise in social channels. Don’t turn all your attention on earning likes. The value is quicksilver, marketing fool’s gold.

Social media is part of the puzzle, but it’s not the Rosetta Stone of marcom.

Listening to radio doesn't have to hurt.

Listening to radio doesn’t have to hurt.

I’ve judged many ad award shows, and judging the radio category is an experience as pleasant as slowly driving knitting needles into your ears.

Why is radio advertising so awful? Because most agencies treat it as an afterthought. The typical hierarchy of attention-paid-to-medium is as follows: TV, video, digital, print, social, flag semaphore, smoke signals, windshield flyers and finally… radio.

It comes down like this: everyone is working on the new campaign when suddenly someone says, “Hey, apparently there’s some radio in the media buy, so I guess we’ll need some spots. Quick.”

Off the assignment goes–– to the most junior writer (because the senior ones are off on shoots or in edit suites). Giving a radio job to a junior is like placing a loaded gun in a playpen. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen.

Radio is the ultimate writer’s medium; there’s no place to hide in creating theatre of the mind. Poor writing is enunciated, stupid gimmicks are amplified, and bad jokes fall on deaf ears crashing to the floor and causing fingers to dart in a frantic scramble to change channels.

But when radio is well-executed, when the concept, writing and production all work toward being interesting and entertaining, well, that’s a slice of heaven. Ear candy. A spot that entices, intrigues, entertains and commands attention and engagement.

Those spots are rare, which is a pity. Great radio is magical, it plays differently, perfectly on every listener’s stage. That’s the thing about radio, the listener is an active participant. She/he does the work of visualizing the entire spot, which is why the creation of a radio commercial is so critical.

Please, marketers, give radio spots the attention and respect they deserve. If not for your brand’s sake, then for the sake of humanity. (Or, at least, award show judges.)

We all crave that sweet, hot limelight shining on us.

L.A. used to be the butt of jokes because everyone there was perceived as being obsessed with the pursuit of fame. The narrative was that people on the left coast would do anything to grab some precious spotlight.

Now that fame culture and mindset is everywhere, with everyone. How else do you explain selfie sticks?

Today, anyone can be a star, and everyone wants to be one. Each of us is just a YouTube video away from immortality. We’re pathetic junkies looking to score some FaceBook “Likes”, broadcasting into the Twittersphere in search of amplification, posting to Pinterest and getting LinkedIn as if connections were life support systems.

We’re social media junkies, looking for that next hit of sweet, sweet social media love.

If Abraham Manslow was creating his “Hierarchy of Needs” today, he’d have to layer in a new level called “FAME” (sandwiched between love/belonging and esteem).

Each of us is a brand, and we’re all looking to build that brand. So what’s that mean for products and services trying to build their brands?

Trouble. Big, frickin’ hairy trouble.

Marketers face distracted audiences using screens as mirrors reflecting on themselves–– weary of chest-thumping transmissions from marketers interrupting valuable “me-time.” So, CMO, you’d better bring something of value. Critical, helpful information, relevant entertainment, meaningful emotional engagement. Something!

Because without taking into account the mindset of your audience and their craving for fame, you’ll never make your brand famous.

It's too easy to talk ourselves into talking to ourselves.

You’re working on a strategy or creative execution and you’re crushing it!

You’ve clearly created a brilliant battle plan that will succeed in achieving your business objectives. You know EXACTLY what you want people to do after they’ve been exposed to your genius.

On paper, you’ve solved the problem. In discussions, you’ve won the war.

It’s all over but planting a flag and leading an army of dedicated loyalists and new customers. 

Bam! Victory–– glorious victory!

Not so fast…

I used to work with a client who at these planning moments would sound a bullhorn of reality with one simple statement: “I think we’re smelling our own breath here.”

That was his way of saying we were too close to it. We were talking to ourselves, getting ‘too insider’ and blowing smoke.

Why do so many marketers spend so much time, energy and money talking to themselves?

Because it’s easy.

Marketers have a clear vision of the results we want, but we don’t have an honest assessment of what people are really thinking, feeling, believing, doing.

We know what we want, but do we have any idea of what they want? Are we giving them a compelling and believable enticement for believing us?

If we don’t gut check ourselves, we’ll talk to ourselves and waste marketing dollars.


Don’t be afraid to call “bullshit” when you’re discussing strategies, creative briefs, and action plans. Embrace vigorous and honest debates. Ask for substantiation and research that illuminates consumer beliefs and behaviors.

If you don’t have it, why not? Isn’t what your audience thinks kind of important?

Also, know that people are unpredictable and that the stimulus we create may or may not entice the behavior we want.

That, my friend, is why marketing is more art than science.

Be brave, be empathetic, be human.

And always remember it’s not about us, it’s about them–– and if we leave them out of the process, we’ll only be talking to ourselves.

When that happens, we don’t usually have minty fresh breath.

Relax, visualize success, contemplate the journey.

Society has attention deficit disorder. Attention spans are shorter than… hey, what’s that?!

Unfortunately, short attention span disease has also spread to the business world.

Once, great businesses had foresight, a purpose, mission, strategy and patience. Today businesses are obsessed with quarterly performance. Everything is short-term thinking in service of Wall Street.

“We’ve got to increase sales three percent to make the quarter.”
“We missed the quarterly projections. Next quarter, we need to put up some really big numbers.”
“Our marcom budget was slashed to help the quarter.”

American business operates in clips of ninety-one and ninety-two-days-at-a-time. It’s like the life cycle of an insect–– we’ve become financial fruit flies. What’s the result of this obsession with quarterly performance? Panic and short-sighted decision-making.

Which can lead to a short tenure for the Chief Marketing Officer.

In an effort to put results on the board quickly, marketers often fall prey to discounting, couponing, social media giveaways or doing whatever it takes to make short-term sales, not taking into account their long-term effects. Creating bargain hunters isn’t building brand loyalists.

Short-term tactics are fool’s gold. It’s impossible to establish a clear brand purpose and positioning without a smart strategy and long-term growth plan.

Great battles are rarely waged and won in three-month increments, and quick fixes can lead to dangerous discounting spirals or brand confusion.

Breathe deeply, marketers. It’ll be all right.

Let’s be smart. Let’s answer the big question: how can we benefit human beings first and foremost? Do that well, and the numbers will follow.

Let’s think things through, talk it out, make plans, consider options, explore approaches and take steps toward achieving our goals.

Yes, it may take longer than a quarter. Or two. Or ten. But if you’re looking to play the long game, it’s the only way to enjoy a long, prosperous career.

Death, doom and destruction–– but will it move you?

Summer Blockbusterpalooza is upon us. Yawn.

Hollywood is about to assault your senses with sequels, franchise films, tent pole properties and comic books brought from panels to screens, and, well, you remember last Summer’s cinema fare, don’t you?

An endless parade of computer-generated junk food.

Come see famous landmarks blown up, cityscapes wiped into oblivion and entire populations decimated by horrific stuff.

Popcorn flicks today are less about human stories and more about visual spectacles. Usually in 3-D versions. And frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. In an effort to turn the movie theatre into an amusement park, we’ve lost humanity.

What was the last film that actually moved you, on an emotional level? Did it involve a comic book super hero, or a human being you could relate to? One who surmounted challenges and achieved victory on her/his terms?

It was probably the human story, not some computer-generated spectacular.

Why is that?

Because we’re wired for it. We want to empathize with a hero’s journey. Sure, make believe and spectacle is fun, but it doesn’t usually have much sticking power. The thrill (if there even was one) is only in the moment. True human emotional connections made in movies last long after the house lights come on.

Don’t get me wrong, billion dollar escapism movies prove there’s demand, but marketers should keep in mind that if you want to move people in meaningful ways, you’ve got to create stories your audience can relate to and empathize with. That’s how demand is created.

Because despite all the technological advancements, we’re still humans.

After much suffering, Don finds himself.

It’s over. Mad Men has ridden into the sunset, and what a glorious ending it was: on a sun-drenched hilltop as people of all nationalities connect with ice cold bottles of Coca-Cola and sing joyfully. The story ends with this iconic commercial, created by Don Draper, a mad man born as Dick Whitman, who had a backstory not even Dickens would wish on a character.

Dick (Don) was born to a prostitute mother who died bringing him into the world. His father, her john, beat him regularly–– until the old man was taken out by a horse with a kick to his head. Little Dickie was raised by his stepmother in a brothel. She prostituted herself to a brother-in-law to help pay the rent as the teenage Dick watched through a keyhole. Prepare the analyst’s couch.

Adult Dick goes to fight in Korea, accidentally blows up his commanding officer, Lt. Don Draper, who was soon to end his tour of duty. Dick switches dog tags with the dead Draper, assumes his identity, returns to the States and becomes a fur salesman. Eventually, he works his way into advertising through pluck, persistence and innate talent.

Whew. Don Draper is a deeply flawed character (how could he not be, given his past?). He’s a deserter, womanizer, liar, booze hound and absentee father. He has trouble with relationships. He’s a lost soul, always in search of the next thing. So what accounts for his meteoric success in the advertising business?


Don is seriously flawed, but he recognizes the need for connection in all of us. He understands that we all have unmet wants and unfulfilled desires. “Itches,” he calls them. He sees his job as finding ways of framing a product’s features in fulfillment of human needs. Don Drapers uses advertising to scratch itches.

And he does so brilliantly.

Mad Men explored the human condition through the prism of this troubled character. Don and his supporting cast were complex individuals, like real human beings. They are interesting people living in interesting times as society is changing, conventions and mores are questioned. Authority itself is questioned.

Don Draper, ad man/mad man, is able to do his voodoo because he understands human frailties. He knows we all seek love and connection and we all crave attention.

Through the many years of trouble and turmoil in his own life, he finally comes at peace with himself and his purpose in the world. He buys the world a Coke.

Thanks, Don/Dick.

Marketers, how will your product or service satisfy a human itch?

Be prepared before barging in.

The problem with modern marketing isn’t shrinking budgets, rapidly changing technologies or ever-evolving media channels.

No. The problem is people–– they just won’t do what we want them to.

It’s crazy! Don’t they know about our brilliant strategies? Our innovative use of media chasing and finding them? Don’t they appreciate our clever messages?

No. The ingrates.

Apparently, people are too busy living their lives to care about our professional lives trying to sell them stuff and points of view.

So before you do anything, marketer, ask yourself a couple simple questions (answer them truthfully, or prepare to fail):

  1. Who are you are trying to influence? Describe the person, not a demographic.
  2. That person is currently doing something that makes her/him happy (or at least satisfied)–– why should she/he care about what you have to say?
  3. How is your product or service going to make her/his life better, more emotionally enriching?
  4. Why should he/she believe you? Be honest, their B.S. detectors are always set to HIGH.
  5. Now, what do you want that person to do–– providing you’ve piqued some interest.

There. Five black and white questions that must be answered before you get to the really hard part–– how to pique interest with your message in a meaningful way, and where to engage her/him.

Forget the shortcuts, fool’s gold fads and idealistic dreams that people will do what you want just so the company can make its quarterly numbers. Everyone is the hero in her/his movie, and you, well, you’re just an interruption. Sorry.

So what are you going to do to make your disruption into their lives worthwhile?

Because here’s the ugly truth about marketing in the 21st century: humanity trumps technology, every time.

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