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.”
Lowe was the last person to see Gossage alive. After his death, she and then-partner Jerry Mander had to decide what to do with the agency. The duo knew that they could make a lot of money by selling the shop, but would have to compromise its high standards.
“We decided that for Howard’s reputation … let’s just dissolve it,” said Lowe at the time.
Lowe settled the finances, resigned all of the agency’s clients, closed the doors, never worked in advertising again and pursued her passions outside of the industry.
A community leader
Fascinated by her Chinese heritage, Lowe became a docent for San Francisco’s Brundage Collection of Asian Art—which then became the Asian Art Museum—in 1966. Quickly, she asserted her experience and influence to transform the collection’s PR and fundraising, and the museum’s large events became, much like the parties at the agency, the thing of legend.
Lowe became Chair of the Committee on Communities at the museum and worked to bring the rest of the Bay Area’s Asian and other communities together who had felt ignored by the organization. She was also appointed by then-mayor Dianne Feinstein to serve as Commissioner on the San Francisco Asian Art Commission from 1985 to 1999. She was its first Asian American chair from 1989 to 1993. Lowe was also president for the Society for Asian Art from 1986 to 1988.
Even with a packed schedule, Lowe continued to be a docent at the Asian Art Museum every week.
According to Goodby, Lowe was one of the legends, like Gossage, that people needed to know and understand. To that end, he and Rich Silverstein invited her to give a talk at GS&P a couple of years ago. The recollection of her time with Gossage and running the agency was an enlightening education for people at GS&P.
“Everyone loved it,” said Goodby. “We talk about legends in the industry, and Alice is right there with all of them. People said, ‘you’ve taught us about Howard Gossage, but we had no idea that she was out there.’ It was very moving.”