Peripheral visionaries who can inspire your marketing strategy

The work of a long-dead ad genius is a reminder that radical innovation rarely comes from workshops and away-days.

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What makes a great marketing strategist, beyond a certain facility with PowerPoint? I’m pretty sure that most commentators would list virtues such as strong analytical skills, lucid reasoning and the ability to reduce a range of possibilities to a single-minded course of action.

However, based on my envious observation of the handful of spine-tinglingly great strategic thinkers it’s been my pleasure to encounter over the years, I think there’s another defining characteristic.

Most of us go through life with what I’d call ‘fixed-focal-length minds’. We see the world only through the eyes God or evolution gave us, unable to take in much beyond the landscape 30 degrees left or right of dead ahead, and unwilling to focus on detail for too long.

By contrast, great strategists have a mind something similar to a zoom lens. They have the ability to zoom in on the smallest detail (that old ‘infinite capacity for taking pains’ thing). But even more significantly, they also have the ability to zoom out to the widest of wide angles, seeing problems in the context of much broader commercial, behavioural or cultural realities. That’s when the awe-inspiring stuff happens.

To experience an inspirational example of such a ‘zoom mind’, there are few better places to turn than a new book called ‘Changing The World is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man’. Written by the respected creative (and doctoral historian) Steve Harrison, it tells the story of one of the greatest creative talents to grace our business, Howard Luck Gossage.

A book on a creative, by a creative? What has this got to do with strategy? In a word, everything. Consider this: most of the big ideas we assume to be a direct consequence of the internet were first expounded on a manual typewriter (and with the help of plenty of Tipp-Ex) by this eccentric San Francisco copywriter of the 1960s.

If Gossage could ever be accused of having a formula, then it was this: share the client’s problem with the audience and make them complicit in finding the answer. Take Fina Gasoline’s problem: the perennial one of how to differentiate a commodity. The solution? A unique and entirely mythological tyre pump additive known as ‘pink air’.

The audience was invited to perpetuate the pink air mythology by sending off for pink tyre caps and free samples of the magical substance. In so doing, Gossage was able to create something remarkably modern: a community that was actively engaged in a direct dialogue with the brand.

Implicit in this example is a valuable lesson for would-be community creators of today. You can’t expect your customers to join in just because you want them to. There must be a real benefit in participation, in this case a wonderful sense of being in on the joke.

An appropriately modest view about the insignificant role of marketing in customers’ lives characterises much of Gossage’s output, both his client work and his personal writings.

Take the strapline he developed for Fina: ‘If you’re driving down the road and you see a Fina station and it’s your side so you don’t have to make a U-turn through traffic and there aren’t six cars waiting and you need gas or something please stop in’.

This honesty shines through in what is perhaps Gossage’s most famous aphorism: ‘People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad’. This quote would make a pretty good opening slide for any presentation pitching our industry’s latest darling, ‘content’.

For fans of Gossage, all this is familiar stuff. What really makes Harrison’s book stand out – at least for me – is that it’s the first work about Gossage which places the man in the context of the intellectual currents which influenced his thinking.

These were, to say the least, eclectic, and occasionally bizarre.

It’s well-known that Gossage ‘discovered’ the Canadian academic and messiah of the media age Marshall McLuhan. He also accelerated the career of the self-appointed inventor of the New Journalism, Tom Wolfe.

Implicit in Gossage’s work is a valuable lesson for would-be community creators of today. You can’t expect your customers to join in just because you want them to. There must be a real benefit in participation, in the Fina Gasoline’s case a wonderful sense of being in on the joke.

What I didn’t know is that his thinking about audience conversations was influenced by his exposure to the work of Norbert Wiener, the ‘father of cybernetics’. Wiener formalised the scientific study of feedback mechanisms in complex systems.

In Gossage’s hands, Wiener’s idea of ‘feedback’ found expression in advertising campaigns which weren’t rigidly planned but instead evolved over time in response to the audience’s comments and contributions.

Gossage must have been somewhat frustrating to work with. And the fact that there is no global agency network bearing his name tells its own story. Gossage’s real legacy is his work. And the lesson that great innovators tend to have a vision that encompasses the periphery as much as the centre.

Perhaps the closest thing to Gossage we’ve had in our own age is Steve Jobs. In his famous Stanford commencement address, Jobs relates how the first Macintosh owed its radically new text handling capability to the calligraphy course he’d discovered while a college drop-out.

To me, this is another beautifully poetic example of the ‘zoom mind’ in action. Or to quote Jobs: ‘A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. They end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.’ Time to change.

Richard Madden is chief strategy officer at Kitcatt Nohr Digitas

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