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.
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The Independent Online

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

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