My Favourite Writing #9: Steve Harrison

As our regular reader will know, it’s our belief that regardless of strategy, creativity and the creative crafts ultimately make the difference between great advertising and not-so-great advertising. And none more so than great writing. Regardless of media or technology, great writing is still the most powerful tool available to the marketer and advertiser. So we have been asking people whose opinions we respect to tell us their favourite three pieces of advertising writing. And thankfully most of them didn't tell us to fuck off. We’re running them as an irregular series. Today's is number nine, with selections from copywriting colossus Steve Harrison. Steve has recently released his excellent book on the life and work of one of our greatest creative heroes, Howard Gossage – more on that at the foot of this post.

“Here are my three. There are others I could have shown but, for various reasons, decided not to. First there were Steve Timms's press and posters for M&G Investments; but he did them at my agency so it might have seemed a bit self-serving had I included them. Then there was anything by the doyen of the direct mail letter, Bill Jayme. He, better than anyone, knew how to home in on the prospect's problem and then show how the thing he was flogging would solve it for them. Unfortunately I couldn't get hold of any examples. Same with the Epson printer ad I wanted to show. Ben Kay has already picked an execution from this campaign. The one I prefer showed how famous novelists and dramatists might write business letters. If anyone's got a pdf can they send it to

 So that leaves us with:

1 – Fina. “If you’re driving down the road...”
Howard Gossage’s Fina ad In the 1950s and 1960s the major players in the gasoline sector, Shell, Esso, Mobil etc were using some high octane hyperbole in their efforts to claim market leadership. Never one for bombast, Howard Gossage realised he could differentiate Fina by simply making them likeable. And having got his head round the reality of how and why people shopped for gasoline, he sat down and wrote this ad. To this day, I don't know of any headline that is as honest, empathetic and appealing. Ever one to zig when all others were zagging, Gossage also recommended that, thereafter, the headline run as Fina's 44 word strapline.

2 – Maxell Cassette Tapes: Into the Valley.
Crap ads (which comprise 95% of the ‘creative’ that surrounds us) are messages to the real world from the delusional realm of marketing. Good work, however, takes a bit of the real world and gives it a deft commercial spin so that we suddenly see the thing that's being sold in a new and beneficial light. I can't think of a better example than this spot. The writing works so well because the bit of the real world (the Skids Into the Valley and, more accurately, Richard Jobson's ludicrous rendition) was already (unintentionally) very funny. I intended to play it once just now to remind myself, and am currently on my sixth viewing.

3 – Written after hours.
We end at my beginning. When I was starting out as a 30 year old trainee I saw this in a book called The 100 Greatest Advertisements. Reading it made me realise that I was standing in the lengthening shadow of all those unsung heroes who'd dedicated their lives to our craft and sullen art. It made me proud to say I was a copywriter (it's a title I always preferred to that of Creative Director). And, pinned above my desk, it got me through a lot of all-nighters and solitary Saturdays. Have a look at the romantic ideal it describes. If it doesn't make you proud as well, it could be that you're in the wrong racket.”

Thanks Steve. Now, onto Steve's book. It never ceases to amaze me how few people in our business have even heard of Howard Luck Gossage, yet as Jeff Goodby once so eloquently said “The best of Gossage is the best advertising ever done...”. Up to now, the only real reference for the scholar of Gossage has been The Book of Gossage, which is getting increasingly hard to get hold of. Thankfully Steve Harrison has ridden to the rescue by painstakingly putting together what is a fantastic biography of HLG, as well as an educated look at his work and his legacy. It includes material from interviews and stories from people who were actually around at the time and/or worked with Howard. Clearly a lot of time and love has gone into it, and thankfully with Steve being a great writer himself, it is enjoyable to read as well as inspiring. I respectfully implore you to get hold of a copy. It's called Changing The World Is The Only Fit Work For A Grown Man. Published by Adworld Press.

Previous MFWs:


  1. Love the Maxell Cassette ad - very clever and funny!

  2. As explained in a book of essays by HLK, Is There Any Hope for Advertyising? published in 1986, that Fina ad was written by the client, J.M. Shea,Jr. A man who sounds like the kind of client we would all give our eye teeth for. Later resigning from the company for honorable reasons, an act quickly followed by HLK resigning the account (his biggest, by far, at the time).

  3. Awesome blog - I like your Poliakov pyramid!

  4. Steve Harrison22 July 2012 at 20:35

    Dear Ciaran,

    I beg to differ. If you look at p 49 of "Is the any hope for advertising" you'll see that Jack Shea did not write the headline. But he did provide the insights that inspired it.
    Like you say, a great client.
    Cheers, Steve Harrison


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