There's still much to be learned from John Webster, the man behind some of Britain’s best loved ads, says Google’s Patrick Collister
It’s often said that advertising’s human touch died with John Webster, as warmth made way for ‘cool’ and people were recast as ‘consumers’. So when students at the School of Communication Arts approached Google head of design Patrick Collister and asked to edit old footage he had shot of Webster, he was over the moon that this human touch still carried resonance. As the resulting film launches on humanadman.co.uk, Collister explains how there’s still much to be learned from the man behind Britain’s best loved ads.
John Webster was born in 1934 and departed this life in 2006. For 35 years he was the creative director at Boase Massimi Pollitt, an agency that did not bear his name. At his funeral there were more people than could fit in the church. Many of them were people his talent had made well-to-do.
When Channel 4 put together ‘The 100 Best TV Ads Ever’, 11 of them were John’s and another five had been created by teams reporting in to him.
His Sugar Puffs campaign with the Honey Monster (“Tell ‘em about the honey, mummy”) is still running.
His campaign for Walkers turned a small Leicester concern into the number one FMCG brand in the UK and propelled Gary Lineker from a recently retired footballer into a ubiquitous TV presence.
His ‘No Nonsense’ strategy for John Smith’s bitter was still evident in its most recent advertising and his ‘Points of View’ commercial for the Guardian, written in 1986, was the inspiration behind BBH’s ‘Three Little Pigs’ ad for the same newspaper in 2012.
When D&AD celebrated its 50th anniversary by recognising its most awarded writers and art directors, John was the number two copywriter and the number two art director of the last 50 years, which made him number one in most people’s eyes.
His peers looked like ad men. David Abbott was striking-looking in hand-tailored suits and his helmet of silver hair. Frank Lowe wore cricket jumpers, John Hegarty wears Rupert Bear outfits. John, by contrast, looked like the janitor of his agency, not its lynchpin. And its lynchpin he most definitely was.
There is a story of a board meeting in the mid-80s. Saatchi & Saatchi, at that time an unstoppable force, had put in an offer to buy BMP. A board meeting was called. The money on offer was going to make everyone in the room rich. There was little debate. Then the door opened. In came John, late back from an edit in Soho.
“Ah, John,” said Martin Boase, the chairman. “We’ve just decided we are selling to Saatchi’s.”
“I don’t think so,” said John, and that was that.
We called him The Potter, because he had a poky little office at the top of the corridor. It was filled with bric-a-brac and resembled your dad’s potting shed. When I say bric-a-brac, I mean the many dozens of Grands Prix he’d won from around the world and which had been stacked in muddled heaps. The only two awards which might possibly claim to have been on display were his black pencil for John Smith’s and his BMP Cricket Club batting prize.
What he did in there was potter. But it was pottering with purpose.
I happened to be walking past his office one morning when he called out, “got a minute?” Seven hours later I tottered out, exhausted. But in those seven hours we had written a campaign for Sony featuring a robot with a John Cleese moustache, which won awards and gave my career something of a leg-up.
In my experience, most creative people can concentrate for maybe as long as half an hour. John was unique in that he could concentrate for six, seven, eight. As long as it took to have a good idea.
He was a ruthless judge of work. I remember showing him the rough-cut of a commercial we had made for Unigate CrazyMilk.
“Mmm,” he murmured. “Can I see that again?”
I played the ad a second time. “And again?”
I played it a third time. He nodded. “Yes, I can safely say that is the second-worst commercial ever to come out of the agency.”
It took me two years to summon up the courage to ask him what the worst was.
Or there was the time I showed him a script and he read it thoughtfully. He handed it back.
“Yes, that is very good. Fantastic, even.” Pause. “For Masius, but you’re at BMP. Now go away and do something we can be proud of.” (Masius was a big, institutionalised agency not known for its creative product).
If that makes John sound haughty, he wasn’t. He always tried to give constructive guidance when rejecting work. He was generous with his ideas. He gave me a great approach to the Banana Marketing Board. The complete cock-up of an ad was all my own work (another candidate for BMP’s ‘Worst Ad Ever’, I think).
Several years after I’d left BMP I got John to come in to Ogilvy & Mather to do a talk about how he worked. He showed his much-loved Kia Ora commercial.
“I’d just been to Sweden,” he said, “and the sound engineer we were working with played me this music mix he’d made of his dog barking. I loved it and told him I would use the idea at the next possible opportunity.
“Anyway, the very next day I got this Kia Ora brief. Now I’d just seen an Oscar Grillo video. He’d animated a Linda McCartney song and it was just wonderful so all I did was bring the two together.”
“But John,” I wanted to know, “where did that bit about the crows come in? You know, ‘Kia Ora’s too orangey for crows, it’s just for me and my dog’ so all the crows sing ‘I’ll be your dog’.”
He looked at me sadly. “Patrick, you have to think up a bit of it yourself.”
His explanation of how he wrote a famous commercial was not just revealing both of his methods and his magic, but it was funny.
So a couple of years later when I was working for myself I asked him if I could interview him on film.
I went into the agency three times and filmed him on the set of a Tropicana commercial he was shooting. I got over three hours of material, which I edited down to 45 minutes. It was very rough stuff. I planned to go and do some post-production one day, when I had time and budget.
I showed the rough-cut at the School of Communication Arts and was delighted that the students saw the worth of John’s ideas. When Nick Werber and Tom Baker asked if they could use the footage as the basis for a documentary of their own I was even more chuffed. And when I saw the film I was the cat that got the cream.
John would have loved it that they took his old commercials in to research. They went into a pub and showed them to beer drinkers, who loved them, and asked: “Why don’t they make adverts like that any longer?” They took his kids’ commercials into a school and the kids loved ‘em too.
John had a genius for ideas that make people smile.
As well as his short-form successes, he had a hit with his TV film ‘Hamilton Mattress’, the story of an aardvark who comes into town. It was screened on Christmas Day on ITV.
In the contest of Queen v aardvark, I think ‘Hamilton Mattress’ won.
John knew how to create engaging content decades before the phrase ‘engaging content’ was first coined. In their film, Nick and Tom have made relevant to their peers the working methods of a man from whom there is still much to learn.
The Drum recently commissioned photographer Julian Hanford to create an A1 poster celebrating John Webster and the warmth and humour of his ads. Read the story behind Hanford's posthumous tribute to one of the UK’s most admired advertising creatives.