I never got the chance to meet him, but I grew up with many of his creations.
John Webster was possibly the greatest TV commercials writer and art director in the UK, if not, the world. He was born December 17, 1934 in Paris and after attending Hornsey College of Art, spent most of his career at Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB London), having helped set up the agency in 1969.
As Creative Director, he gained a reputation as one of the most talented advertising creatives in London and won more creative awards than anyone else. To put this into perspective, let me quote leading ad man Dave Trott:
“One year I won a Cannes Gold Lion for a commercial that I’d written. I felt pretty good. The same year John won three Gold Lions for commercials he’d written, another three for commercials he’d art-directed, and another three for commercials he’d actually directed himself. Nine times as many as me. Or, to put it another way, three times as many as anyone else in any field in our business. And that was just one year.”
But ironically, winning awards was the last thing on John Webster’s mind. Unlike many of his contemporaries who had been sucked in by the back-patting world of the London ad scene, John knew there was more to life than advertising. He knew that people switched the box on to watch Hollywood blockbusters, sitcoms and soaps. That’s why he pitched his ideas to the ‘normal’ people in the agency; the tea-lady, the odd-job man and the receptionist.
He couldn’t care less what his peers thought about his work. After all, they weren’t who he was selling to.
One of John’s colleagues, James Best, says that one of the things that made John Webster’s work so powerful was that he knew “Nobody’s asked you in… John’s particular magic was to realise that if you’re going to communicate with people, rather than shouting at them, why not amuse them and even charm them? If they like you and enjoy what you’re about, then they might be prepared to listen to what you’ve got to tell them.”
John Webster’s advertising creations read like a Who’s Who of advertising icons:
The Cadbury’s Smash martians, the Honey Monster, George the Hofmeister bear, The Cresta Bear, John Smith’s Arkwright and my all time favourite, the ‘It’s too orangey for crows’ Kia Ora ad.
Now, there are some rather bizarre rumours going around that the characters in this commercial reinforce racial stereotypes. Maybe I just see the world through orange-coloured spectacles, but the idea that this commercial has any racist overtones is beyond me. I would like to take this opportunity to (s)quash any such nonsense!
According to anyone who knew and worked with John, there wasn’t a bad bone in his body.
Advertising luminary, Winston Fletcher says:
“John was the antithesis of the caricature advertising man. Though supremely confident of his own talent, he was never arrogant, did not push himself forward, dressed unexceptionally, threw no tantrums and accepted good ideas from others gracefully, including ideas from clients, something few advertising creative people will countenance… He was immensely popular and a team player, both literally and metaphorically. He played cricket and golf for his agency – though even he would not have claimed to be great shakes at either – and he was generous to a fault in devoting time to the encouragement and training of young people.”
And to quote Dave Trott once more:
“He was a typically eccentric Englishman. He approached multimillion-pound campaigns as if he were tending prize leeks in his allotment… of all the creative greats in the UK, John was the only one not to have his name above the door of an advertising agency. And yet, at BMP, John was the agency.”
Some Webster facts:
– He is responsible for ‘Watch out, there’s a Humphrey about’ and ‘Gertcha’
– He introduced Gary Lineker to the world as the face of Walkers crisps
– In a poll of the UKs top 100 TV commercials, 11 were created by John Webster
– He won two Cannes Grand Prix awards and the D&AD President’s Award
– His Cadbury’s Smash Martians commercial was voted TV ad of the century by Campaign Magazine in 1999, and Best Ad Ever by ITV in 2005
– There is now even an award named after him – The John Webster Award for Best 30 second Commercial (British Television Advertising Awards).
And finally, to quote the man himself:
“I always know a piece of work is really good when I feel angry. It’s a sort of resentment that someone else has done it.”
John Webster, 1934 – 2006. An inspiration for two generations of creatives.