San Francisco’s ad scene has always been nothing short of colorful. Far from agency hubs of New York and Chicago, its history is dotted with characters who beat to a different drum. The work was (and still is to some degree) infused with a west coast quirkiness that raised the eyebrows of the establishment.
In the ’60s, no one personified that sense of creative derring-do than Howard Gossage. The restless character was the fore-bearer of the city’s current ad culture and, according to biographer (and former industry creative director) Steve Harrison, was “a hard-drinking, hard-playing, heavy-smoking kind of tough guy. An eccentric genius, the “Socrates of San Francisco” only cared to produce work that was subversive, beyond typical advertising and pioneering. Gossage made print ads that included a coupon where readers could send him feedback on whether or not they liked it. He came up with Earth Day. He helped stop the construction of a dam in the Grand Canyon with a groundbreaking ad. He died of leukemia in 1969.
So how did Gossage manage to succeed in advertising? By all accounts, it was due to the steady hand of Alice Lowe, former CEO of Wiener & Gossage, who passed away Mar. 2 at the age of 97.
As pioneers like Mary Wells Lawrence and Jane Maas were gaining hard-earned and well-deserved recognition in major markets like New York, Lowe quietly made her mark, understanding her influence on creative people could be a useful superpower.
Lowe was born in Portland, Ore. in 1922, the youngest of four children. Her father, who died when Lowe was three and a half years old, emigrated to the city from China. Raised by her Chinese mother, Lowe attended Reed College in Portland and ended up in San Francisco in 1950.
“Alice was a particularly cool San Francisco character because she came from the biggest Asian community outside of China: San Francisco Chinatown,” said Jeff Goodby, co-founder, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. “She became an industry leader from what a lot of people thought was a backwater of advertising.”
In 1953, Lowe met Gossage for the first time. She was an assistant to the PR director at J.J. Weiner and Associates (the agency preceding Weiner & Gossage). At the time, Gossage was a struggling copywriter. After being rejected at the time by the agency, Lowe ran into Gossage on the street and tried to console him. Four years later, Gossage returned, but this time as a partner at the agency. From there, the two built a partnership that resulted in outstanding work.
There was no question that Gossage was brilliant, but he embodied the “difficult creative.” At times, he would lapse into depression and stay away from work for days, only to have Lowe—who understood the pressures creatives faced—coax him back to his desk with doses of tough love.
Lowe also navigated Gossage’s many whims. Gossage would decide, on the spur of the moment, to throw a party at the converted firehouse that housed the agency. Film director John Huston and Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck were among the usual guests at the affairs that sometimes had to be planned within a few hours. To that end, Lowe invented The Instant Party Plan, which helped her convert an office to a party space within 15 minutes.
Lowe elevated her influence in the mid-1960s, becoming president of the agency and eventually CEO, a remarkable achievement considering the sheer dominance of white men in the industry.
“She would have been on the masthead today,” said Goodby. “And that shows you that the role of women at the time since she didn’t start the agency, herself, she didn’t get her name on it. She labored in the shadows in that period and let the creative people come to the fore and be the idea of the place. And that that was a wonderful gift.”