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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Recruitment Genius: External Relations Executive

£33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An External Relations Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Project Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This established Digital Agency based in East ...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links