Art Twain: Staying Loose and Coloring Outside the Lines

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A Personal Retrospective

I don’t know where to begin with this story. It’s about retail, forgotten brand origin stories, advertising, and the golden age of radio. You might say it’s a trip down memory lane, but my instincts tell me it’s really a story that touches upon so many things that are so right now. Every time I hear someone talk about how retail taps into culture, or asks why we are suddenly devouring podcasts, listening to the radio, and enamored with the ’70s, I think of Art Twain.


Right around the time in the ’70s when advertising was changing and creatives took over from account executives, things started to get looser. With little guidance, retailers, brands and marketers were compelled to understand and respond to that cultural shift.

Enter Art Twain. He’s the marketing mastermind behind the original brand development of a little shop called Pants and Discs. He was also the account lead for that brand of “pants” which, at the time, barely sold east of the Mississippi. That shop would become the Gap and those pants were Levi’s. The fact that the Gap was born selling Levi’s and LP records is an origin story that has mostly been lost to memory.

Twain perfectly captured and communicated the DNA of many of the most iconic American brands just when America itself was searching its soul to find its own “brand.” The “I can’t get this song out of my head” jingles, television commercials, and groovy graphic design of the era perfectly positioned Twain’s natural talent for music, storytelling, and humor.

I recently sat down with the octogenarian mastermind of Art Twain Creative Services at his home in Oakland, Calif., and his energy and enthusiasm were contagious.

Debra Scherer: All right, let’s begin at the beginning.

Art Twain: My career probably began when I was a kid because everything struck me as funny and I had to be the center of attention growing up. I grew up in an era without television, so I listened to the radio. And when I listened to something like the serial called “Inner Sanctum,” a guy would open the squeaky door, walk in the room, and you’d hear the footsteps. I knew exactly what he looked like, I knew what the room looked like, I was scared out of my wits when I’d hear the creepy voice and all the sound effects. So my imagination was developed to see pictures when I heard sound.

Then when television came along, it spelled it all out for you. Sound and pictures. I went to UC Berkeley and majored in communications, which was considered the back door to the creative side of advertising. So I got very lucky after I graduated and got a job as a copywriter in advertising.

DS: That was here in San Francisco?

\"4_1976GapGivesGirlsFit.jpg.scaled.500\"AT: Yes, in San Francisco, at the company that is now called Lowe Campbell Ewald. They had some of the best writers in town — great people I learned from who nurtured my own skills. The experience ultimately gave me the confidence to do my own thing. And then I did the agency thing, where you get hired away by somebody who doubles your salary because they know your reputation. I eventually went to Honig-Cooper & Harrington. They hired me to be the head writer on the Levi’s account.

DS: What year was that?

AT: This would be around 1966. I brought Levi’s into the radio era. In fact, the first year I wrote and arranged all the music for the jingles and we won a lot of awards. We tested as the third best-liked commercials among teenagers, after Coke and Pepsi. They could have put our budget into their change pocket and still have lots of room for a loaf of bread. It was all about drawing outside the lines and having a good time.

DS: So how did you start working with Donald Fisher?

AT: That was in 1969. The agency said to me, “There’s a guy here that’s going to open his first retail store; he’s a real estate guy, and he wants us to be his agency, but he’s way too small. Do you want to handle him freelance?” I said, “Sure.” They introduced me to Don and he told me what he wanted to accomplish. He said, “The store’s going to be named Pants and Discs.” He was going to have the store named for the two things that 16-year-olds wanted most: records and Levi’s. It was on Ocean Avenue, near San Francisco State University, not far from City College and close to the high schools and junior high schools.

DS: Why, of all things, did he pick those two particular things?

AT: Well, he had had a bad shopping experience … haven’t we all? The difference was he did something about it, and we usually don’t. We complain and moan, but he went out and decided to build a retail store that solved all the problems that he didn’t like.

DS: Which were?

AT: Well, let me start with his experience. In one of his properties, Don had a Levi’s showroom as a tenant. So he bought a few pair of pants, and got home and the length wasn’t right. So he came back to the showroom and said, “I’d like to exchange these,” and the guy who ran the showroom said, “I’m not a store, I’m only a showroom, but take these Levi’s to any of the department stores and exchange them there.”

\"image_gallery\"So he went to a few of the department stores, and he found they mostly carried four of Levi’s 32 different models, and they were mostly one color; there were only even sizes, they didn’t have odd sizes. The only place that carried Levi’s that would give you a real selection was in Sacramento, called Tower of Clothing.

So Don was thinking, “What if I had a store that carried all the models and all the sizes? How cool would that be?” Because everybody loves Levi’s, grew up with Levi’s here. But he wasn’t sure that that was enough to bring people into the store. So he was going to use some sort of bait, or loss leader. He thought, “I’ll have records, and then they’ll come in for the records and incidentally buy a pair of Levi’s.\” And so that’s what he did.

He went to Levi’s to give them his idea, but Levi’s had a rule: No new stores. They couldn’t supply them. Levi’s was very cautious about not overproducing and not having too many factories so that if they had a difficult period of time they wouldn’t have more money going out than coming in. But Levi’s was titillated by the idea.

The average age of the Levi’s customer was supposed to be 16 years old, but it turned out that the average age was mid-30s. What also happened was that customers bought Levi’s and they also stole the records! The store refused to lower the price of the records below Tower Records, which was a wholesale record retailer. I kept saying, “If you’re going to use the records as a loss leader, they need to be a loss leader; they need to be cheap enough to bring them in.\” But it was quickly evident that people actually came in for the Levi’s, so they took the records out, and they brought in more Levi’s stuff.

DS: So how did the name change come about?

AT: The first thing I told Don was, “You need to change the name or some radio disc jockey’s going to break his tongue saying Pants and Discs.” So he went on vacation to La Jolla with his family and we had a phone conversation one evening because the sign painters were coming in the next morning, and, by God, a name was going to be painted on that store! So I had my list of names and he had his list of names. When he was coming out of a party to take the phone call, his wife Doris turned to him and said, “The Gap, short for the generation gap.\” He said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “The Gap. That should be the name of the store.\” I thought that was a great name!

DS: So, going back to that time when it was culturally so different, phrases like “the generation gap” or “the gender gap” had so much meaning, perfectly expressing the counterculture of that time. It was almost like with that simplified “The Gap” you could project your own idea of self-expression.

AT: We could make the Gap mean whatever we wanted. One thing I liked about the Gap was it was both a space and concept at the same time. It existed as a store, yet a gap is basically an emptiness. So I thought I could get a lot from that. And I also decided to use radio as the main medium, which was against the grain because I was told by fashion people, “No, no, you have to show it. It’s fashion, you have to show it.\” I said, “More than show it, I want people to feel it. This is the way you feel when you’re wearing a pair of these pants. You feel like a rule breaker, you’re coloring outside the lines, you feel loose and free. Maybe you stand up straighter or slouch more, because you get to do whatever you want to do in these pants. You have all of this choice.\”

We knew that we had a very loyal audience for Levi’s that had been boo-hooing for years that they couldn’t buy Levi’s anymore. They couldn’t find the right sizes, enough models, and so on. And so Don says, “I’m going to have tons of Levi’s for them.\”

DS: It’s amazing that someone from outside of the retail industry could be so innovative based purely on gut. Everyone is so focused on expertise. That’s why I love this story so much; it’s as if it just bubbled up organically. So Berkeley in the ’60s.

AT: Don never studied any retail at all, so he broke a lot of rules. At the time, he used the walls for a display, which no one had ever done before. He worked out a honeycomb system of shelves, and the pants were displayed not by model, but sorted by size. So if you knew your size, you could take five, six, seven pairs of pants into a dressing room.

Though a stroke of innovation, his dressing rooms were enclosed. Before, non-enclosed fitting rooms were to discourage shoplifting. Women had to go through the indignity of being shown from here up, and from here down, which they hated. They felt it was a violation. So Don says, “I’ll have enclosed dressing rooms, and I’ll have a return policy ‘no questions asked.’” People would come in with a pair of Levi’s that they’d worn for a year, and that had obviously been washed a zillion times, and were wearing thin at the knees, and said, “I got these last week, and they don’t fit,” and the answer was, “Okay, pick another pair.” He said, “For those who would take advantage of it, you’re benefitting a huge amount of the population just afraid to make exchanges, just feeling uncomfortable about the shopping experience. I’ll give them a good shopping experience.\”

DS: What were the next steps in terms of marketing and your involvement in it?

AT: We did print and I wanted to do things that were still outside the box. So instead of people wearing Levi’s, I had line drawings of things wearing Levi’s. I would have a coke bottle, beer mug, martini glass, all wearing Levi’s. It was tagged: \”Levi’s for good tastes.\” I had a baseball bat, tennis racket, boxing glove, all wearing Levi’s, and that was tagged: “Levi’s for good sports.” We ran campaigns teasing people to anticipate the next thing we were going to do.

I did one ad that absolutely filled the store with people. We ran it until somebody called up and said it was an obscene ad and we pulled it. It was a line drawing of a pair of pants from the thighs up, with the fly open, and in the middle of the fly in small letters it said, “the Gap is open.” Most people loved that we were iconoclastic. They loved that we were free and loose and they liked being associated with that whole feeling.

DS: Wasn’t that part of Berkeley culture or Bay Area culture? You guys were out there in the vanguard of what was the center of all things loose and free!

AT: You can either try appealing to the lowest hanging fruit, or you can take your chances and go to the worst skeptics who you probably can’t ever convert. I went for the skeptics because it was easy to sell to the Love Generation in Haight Ashbury, but that’s a limited market. I wanted my market to be everybody. The idea was that Levi’s were for people all over the country who wanted to feel loose. So if I go to the Midwest, there might be five out of 100 people who wanted to be that loose, as opposed to Haight Ashbury, where 99 out of 100 people wanted to be that loose. I mean, if they’re already that loose, how much looser am I making them anyway?

There were a lot of people in the workplace at the time with very stiff, straight collars, you know, straight-laced. They wanted to feel a bit outside of that. We saw more casual dressing in the business arena than we’d ever seen starting in the early ’70s. We’d go to a meeting at Levi’s wearing Levi’s, because that was their product, and nobody complained.

DS: So, you did the Gap thing freelance, and then you started your own thing? How did that work? Was Levi’s your client, or just the Gap? Did you work with Levi’s because of the Gap?

AT: I was at the advertising agency and we started with the Gap in ’69. In 1970, I was fired from Honig-Cooper & Harrington because I did a music track for a friend of mine. Don Fisher said, “Stay here, I’ll support you, you’ll do fine here. Just go freelance.\” I had always gotten my paycheck from the corporate womb. I didn’t know you could make money outside of that.

I became Art Twain Creative Services, and was considered a radio expert by the industry. I knew radio really, really well. I put a lot of my effort into radio, and I could also compose and arrange music. I play several instruments. I could also do marketing strategy.

The first year on my own, I doubled my income, much to my surprise. I helped the Gap grow from one store to 500 with my advertising and marketing.

I tell people, “I’m not afraid of the sharks in life, I’m afraid of the piranhas, the minutia — it nibbles you to death.” The shark takes a big bite. You wrestle it to the ground. You win or you get bitten, and then you don’t do that anymore. But you don’t want to get nibbled to death with 1,000 cuts by all the minutia.

DS: Can you tell me about your process and some of your favorite commercials and jingles?

AT: People have tried to make a science out of the process. They’ve written books on it, they tell you the process, and I think the creative people who are intuitively and instinctively creative probably laugh at it all because it’s like having a manual on how to tie your shoes.

My creative process is making order out of disorder. Part of it is trusting your instincts, your subconscious self. The conscious self is a bookshelf full of books. The unconscious is a three-story library. The secret is how to access it.

Levi’s was so much fun to do. I wrote and produced all the radio the first year. Then I found great music guys: music writers, composers, and arrangers.

In 1973, Don was off on a trip, and I was off as well doing some commercials for him. I decided that since the Gap sounds almost doo-wop, why don’t we do an old ’50s, rock ’n’ roll? That’s when “Fall into the Gap,\” which was only a tagline, became a musical line. I wanted to make “Fall into the Gap” alive, I wanted to put it on the end of every single commercial we did, so that the music literally falls into the Gap.

DS: It’s now 2015 and that jingle is still in my head!

AT: Our longest-term memory for anything is music. When I lectured for the radio industry, I would say to people, “Can any of you remember a headline from two days ago in the newspaper?\” They would rack their brains. I’d say to them, “Do any of you remember this song?” Then I would sing the itsy-bitsy spider. That’s the power of music and sound — it stays with you. Today I think it’s almost laughable how few companies build a good equity through music branding.

DS: I grew up with all of those things that you just described that were so a part of American culture. Now Levi’s and the Gap have lost their way and a lot of their meaning. They keep trying to connect to the culture by chasing that aura of authenticity, rather than being authentic. They try to do collaborations with artists that make no sense or recapture a small part of what they once were. Look what Levi’s has become. They owned the denim market, now they have to compete in a much larger global denim market.

AT: You have to understand the reasons why it’s happening. From Levi’s standpoint, everybody went into the jeans business, everybody. And so, they’re competing with everybody else’s jeans. How far can you go outside your field and become something you’ve never been?

Every time Gap builds a model of something, five guys steal it. Gap does all the reinvention work. And if you look at businesses that have reinvented themselves, you probably won’t find more reinvention than the Gap. They continually reinvent. When they have a hit that’s really working, it’s great. And then that slips because they’ve got guys that copy them and undersell them. Copy and undersell, that’s the ticket out there. So what kind of chances can you take?

DS: I know — it’s a tough game. And now all the technology businesses want to get into the fashion business.

AT: It’s very hard to continually reinvent yourself. The larger you are, the more you’re like a jumbo jet. You can’t make a turn within a mile, it takes five miles. And when you’re as huge as the Gap or as Levi’s, a mistake resonates enormously … enormously.

This Millennial generation loves the idea of random. You don’t know the next thing out of somebody’s mouth. The next thing you do is something you could never have guessed, because it’s random. A big compliment is that somebody’s random. My generation is linear. It wants to go from A to Z so that we understand the whole path of logic. Random is the poison pill in the glass for our group.

DS: So, final thoughts?

AT: Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines. At the same time, don’t be afraid to be straight-laced and very stiff if that’s what needs to be done for that particular audience. My job has been to come up with a compelling and entertaining argument for why someone should at least think about a product; why should it stay inside their head?



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