John Webster: Simply the best

One of the legends of British creative advertising, John Webster, the brains behind such creations as the Smash Martians and the Honey Monster, died suddenly earlier this month while out jogging. Dave Trott pays tribute.

I was the first person John Webster hired when he was made creative director of BMP (Boase Massimi Pollitt). He was the only creative director I ever worked for. I kept trying to leave for better-paid jobs, I even got as far as handing in my notice a few times, but every time, it felt that I'd be wasting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from the best there was. And, yes, he was that good.

John won more creative awards than most agencies put together. Everyone knows that. But what you may not know is that he never ever tried to win an award. That was one of the things you learned from John.

Let me try to bring that to life. 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.

The awards just used to arrive in boxes, stacked up in reception. John didn't go to Cannes to collect the awards, of course. He never did. The people John wanted to impress were not in Cannes - they were in Stoke Newington, Liverpool and Sunderland, on the bus, in the supermarket, in the playground.

The real awards to John were the photographs in the newspaper of milkmen who'd decorated their floats with his characters; or the letters from teachers asking if their class could have a still from his commercial; or hearing people in the street shouting his slogan.

I asked John, as he'd just won three times as many awards as any film director, why he didn't become a film director full time and make shed loads more money. John said he couldn't face directing a script that he knew he could have written better.

That's part of what made John different to everyone else in advertising. It wasn't about the money or the awards or the photograph in Campaign, it was about the work.

He was a typically eccentric Englishman. He approached multimillion-pound campaigns as if he were tending prize leeks in his allotment.

As with an absent-minded professor, everything else disappeared except what he was working on. The work came first, second and third.

Consequently, 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. Every year the competition for D&AD awards would be between CDP and BMP (although everyone knew it was actually between CDP and John Webster). To give you another example: one year at D&AD I sat next to Stanley Pollitt, one of the founding partners of BMP. Stanley was particularly pleased that year because BMP had swept the board with six awards. He saw it as a sign of BMP finally achieving creative maturity. Not because we'd won six awards but because, for once, John had only won half of them. The rest of the creative department had finally managed to get as many as John had got on his own.

So how did John do it? What was he doing that no one else was? Well, precisely that. He was doing what no one else was. Purposely. He looked at what everyone else was doing and said: "Let's do something different."

He didn't see advertising as the whole world. He saw it as a very small part of a much, much larger world. So he wasn't competing with other advertising, he was competing for space in people's lives.

He was competing with films, sitcoms, newspapers, radio, any form of mass media that would cause the public to take something into their lives and talk about it, adapt it or use it. That's why, most evenings, you'd find John in his office discussing the ideas he'd had that day. Not with other advertising luminaries, but with Pat the tea-lady, or Arthur the caretaker.

Which, of course, made John a planner's dream to work with. He wasn't interested in what people in advertising thought about his work. They weren't who he was talking to. The people who watched the commercials and bought the product, they were who he was talking to.

This clarity came out of his passion for what he was doing. To John, his work was more than his job, it was also his hobby. To go into his office was like going into his shed. The walls were full of bits and pieces he'd collected that he thought were far too good to waste, and was sure he'd find a use for one day. During the 10 years I worked with John (several decades ago) among all the other stuff, he always had several photocopies of Saul Steinberg drawings above his desk. Recently, I saw John's Compaq computers ad on TV featuring animated versions of Saul Steinberg's drawings. I knew I'd be seeing them sooner or later.

Before starting to write this, I made a list of all the things I'd learned from John. Each one would take an article the size of this one so, as I can't do them justice here, I haven't started.

But I've been teaching advertising students for the past 30 years, and most of what I teach in those classes I learned from John.

I never told anyone before, but over the years since I left BMP, whenever I've done anything I'm proud of, I like to imagine John at home watching TV, and saying: "Look at this, Maureen, that's wonderful. I wonder who did it."

He was the person I most wanted to impress. Even as I'm writing this, I'm wondering what John would have thought of it ("It's a bit boring, isn't it? Can't you put some jokes in?").

But, as I say, John didn't want to impress anyone. He always told me what we did was trivial compared with important jobs, such as nursing or teaching. That sense of perspective gave him the clarity to be much more powerful and truly effective than the rest of us who take advertising too seriously.

He didn't have the rabbit-caught-in-the-headlights reaction to peer-group approval. The peer group John cared about didn't work in advertising.

This was summed up for me by one of those media or marketing magazine interviews. The question that was put to John was something like "What is your media?"

John replied: "I take MG Owner for its recherché indolence, and Art Weekly for the nudes."

With wit and charm John always kept advertising gently but firmly in its place. Which is, of course, why he was always light years ahead of the rest of us.

Dave Trott is one of Britain's best-known advertising creatives. He was given the President's Award at the D&AD Awards in 2004

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?