Giles Keeble: Howard Gossage was right all those years ago, we need more generalists

I recently came across a D&AD discussion in which Naresh Ramchandani argued the case for generalists. It reminded me of Howard Gossage, who — apart from being a wonderful copywriter — once set up Generalists Inc. as a sideline. Inspired perhaps by Marshall McLuhan (who he introduced to the wider business world) Gossage talked about the need for ‘extra-environmentalists.’ These are people who are not hampered by the established rules and ways of doing things, and who can look at a problem from the outside. Only when and if you can manage to get outside of your environment do you become aware of it.

This is not to decry the need for specialists. It’s just that specialists tend to see things in the light of their own experience. If you’re an ad agency, the solution is advertising, or it’s PR if that’s what you do, or direct marketing, and so on. Gossage tells the story of a tailor who went to Rome and when he was there managed to get an audience with the Pope. On his return, a friend asked him what the Pope looked like. The tailor answered: ‘A 42 Regular.’

The ‘generalist’ process of looking at a problem ‘from outside its environment’ might well lead to a solution that isn’t your speciality. Many years ago, I wrote an ad for Leo Burnett – ‘Is your agency jumping on the brandwagon?’- in which I argued that an agency should be prepared to give advice that might not involve advertising, at least initially, but also that the client should pay them for that advice — an obvious stumbling block in those days.

Gossage, brilliant and influential as he was, was a critic of advertising. He felt that if an agency did its job well, the client would have to spend less not more money on advertising. He suggested that “if advertising is ever to shape up as a prideful business or profession..we must look at ourselves and our audiences differently. And then the audience will look at advertising differently: as a public service.” He also wrote that there isn’t enough honest, forthright opinion in ads. He felt that people don’t mind that as long as you treat them as human beings not consumers. (The view that you might do an ad that someone might not like is not an easy one in these PC days.)

“The audience is our first responsibility, even before the client: for if we cannot involve them, what good will it do the client?” Gossage felt we should ask the client what his biggest problem is, then write an ad that asks the readers to help solve it.

I have written before about how agencies need to use the talent they have to solve problems, not just for brands but also for social and cultural issues. The advertising agencies of the future should be ideas agencies. Gossage died too young, in 1969. But what he wrote and said is worth reviewing, not just about the need for generalists as well as specialists, but about what is still needed to make advertising worth saving. As he maintained, it is a technique for solving problems.

To this end, we should apply our talents wherever we can. As Jeff Goodby puts it in his Introduction to ‘The Book of Gossage’: “if you’re in advertising, we hope it inspires you to use your talents to enrich other people’s lives — instead of just trying to sell them something.”

The Book of Gossage is published by The Copy Workshop.

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About Giles Keeble

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Giles Keeble started as a rep (account man) at JWT before moving to BMP. There Stanley Pollitt told him that JWT’s Stephen King had wanted him to become a planner. John Webster encouraged him to become a writer but after a number of years Giles moved to French Gold Abbott and, for a while, did become a planner of sorts. Returning to writing he went to David Abbott’s new agency AMV followed by WCRS and was then ECD of Leo Burnett for six years. He then returned to AMV before moving to Publicis and then Lowe in Hong Kong at the inception of the ‘World’s Local Bank’ campaign for HSBC. He now works as a writer and strategist as well as running advertising courses for senior clients.

3 comments

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    Enjoyed your comments on Howard. I would like to send you a PowerPoint and a pdf – a book we’ve been working on for a while – slightly extra-environmental. It’s written in American – might need a translation.
    Bruce Bendinger (I was at Leo from 70-74 – details on request.)

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    “A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.”

    – Steve Jobs

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    Please do Bruce will also forward to Giles

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