George Parker: veteran US adman Fred Goldberg lifts the lid on ‘The Insanity of Advertising’

I’ve just finished reading Fred Goldberg’s recently published book… The Insanity of Advertising. Hopefully anyone who knows anything about the ad biz will know of Fred and be familiar with his long and illustrious career at Y&R, New York, Chiat Day, San Francisco and as a founding partner of Goldberg, Moser, O’Neil, also of San Francisco.
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Fred has been involved in some of the most memorable campaigns of the last thirty years, long before “Math Men” replaced “Mad Men” and spreadsheets replaced layout pads. Obviously the most famous of these would be Apple’s launch of the Mac via the iconic Ridley Scott, “1984” spot, which changed the Super Bowl of football, an American game played without the use of feet, from being a 60 minute game that lasted for hours and fucking hours and was interrupted by boringly shitasmic commercials, into the “Super Bowl of Advertising.”

Fred Goldberg is one of a small number of hyper piss & vinegar players out of Chiat/Day who made this transformation possible. And, even though the creation and selling of this famous campaign has been much written about in the past, Fred delivers the undeniably, nitty-gritty, sweat soaked, and often hilarious details about how it very nearly didn’t happen. This chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

As you would expect, the book is chock full of war stories of how the ad biz can fill you with excitement and a sense of fulfillment one moment, then throw you into the shitter of despair the next. Lots of great stuff about dealing with the medievally insane Gallo brothers, makers of the world’s most abysmally awful wine that is produced on the same scale as Mobil makes gasoline, and with little to choose between them when it comes to a taste test.

Even worse, dealing with the world’s evilest billionaire, Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle and collector of battleship sized yachts… Who besides dressing up as a Samurai warrior and playing with his Katana swords in the grounds of his multi-million dollar reproduction of a 16th century Shogun palace, is also notorious for designing and writing all his own stupendously awful ads… ‘Cos he’s a fucking genius… And the account is worth millions, so you put up with it until you come to the realization you’d rather kill yourself than kiss his arse one more time.

The funny thing about Ninja Ellison that I never completely understood was why his best mate was Steve Jobs, a man of impeccable taste. Perhaps Larry thought some of it might rub off. Hey… It didn’t.

images-6But perhaps what should be required reading for every young whippersnapper just getting into the business would be the way Fred took Dell Computers, from the tiny start-up of a guy (Michael Dell, left) barely out of his teens who flogged PCs out of the boot of his car whilst still a student at the University of Texas, and built it into the world’s biggest computer company.

And, listen up and fucking pay attention; it was done solely through the advertising, because Dell sold its computers direct, not through resellers or retail outlets. Meaning that if the ads didn’t work, Dell didn’t sell computers. And that is the acid test of any direct marketing program. Shit, it’s the acid test of any ad program. Not clicks, likes, friends or conversations, just shifting shit off shelves.

OK time for full disclosure: I freelanced for GMO through the 80’s and 90’s, particularly on the Dell account, writing ads that kicked the shit out of Compaq, before I was poached away by Ogilvy for humungous amounts of money to work on the Compaq account writing ads that kicked the shit out of Dell. And yes, as is well known, I am an AdHo.

However, back to the book, a couple of caveats. Anyone who worked with Fred knew that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, but I didn’t realize until reading The Insanity of Advertising just how many fools Fred considered he was forced to suffer throughout his career. It was no secret that he and Jay Chiat did not get along towards the end of their relationship, which is why on the day GMO bought themselves out from Chiat, Fred flew flags featuring a clown face with a red bar through it, because he had always referred to Jay as “The Bozo.”

images-4In the book Fred claims this is because he didn’t want to hire clowns… Yeah, maybe so, but I think not! Fred also has particularly harsh things to say about Frank Lowe (left), and the way he and his cohorts conducted their business. Like drinking, smoking, swearing and all those other evil things Brits do. This, obviously, includes me. Plus, he seemed to be really pissed off about Frank’s sartorial habits, like wearing yellow capes and scarves in the summer. Anyone who knows Frank knows he’s capable of much more exciting wardrobe combinations than that.

On a final note, for some reason, Fred seems to have thrown nothing away; the book is full of pictures of old memos, inter-office correspondence, charts, slides and hand written notes. I don’t know who edited the book, but it is very, very long and goes into the kind of superfluous detail that gets in the way of the important stuff, which is a pity, because ‘The Insanity of Advertising’ is chock full of the important stuff.

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About George Parker

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George Parker has spent 40 years on Madison Avenue. He’s won Lions, CLIOs, EFFIES, and the David Ogilvy Award. His blog is adscam.typepad.com, which is required reading for those looking for a gnarly view of the world’s second oldest profession.” His latest book, Confessions of a Mad Man, makes the TV show Mad Men look like Sesame Street.