Bob Brooks: Director and photographer behind noted TV ads

 

They peel them with their metal knives... then they smash them all to bits... they are clearly a most primitive people".

These were the words of the metallic-voiced, cackling Martians in the classic 1974 advert for instant mashed potato. The campaign, and its follow-ups, were a tremendous success for the product, Smash, and the company which conceived its TV advertising. In 1999, Campaign magazine gave the Smash Martians its "TV ad of the century" award.

A decade later, TV audiences were moved by the tale of JR Hartley, played by Norman Lumsden, who was searching for an out-of-print book on fly fishing. At the end of the 50-second story, he finds it the help of Yellow Pages, revealing in a twist that it is he who is the author. Such was the impact of this advert that viewers began asking where they could buy the fictitious volume.

Bob Brooks was the creative genius behind these ads, and many more like them, who over 30 years directed several thousand commercials for British television. With humour, emotion and clever storytelling he brought a human touch to television advertising. He turned adverts into entertainment that was often better than the programmes that they punctuated.

Brooks was born in Philadelphia in 1927 and studied at Penn State University. He began at his first agency, Ogilvy and Mather, in 1955. Two years later he joined Benton & Bowles at a time when Proctor & Gamble's Crest toothpaste needed a sales boost. He came up with the simple idea of a picture of a child with a dentist's report card and the words "Look Mom, No Cavities!". Key to the ads' visual appeal was his choice of the illustrator Norman Rockwell to give a popularist, folksy, feel to the imagery. The impact of the campaign, in its creative drive and in sales, established him as a new force within the advertising world.

Arriving in the UK in 1961, Brooks started as co-creative director at Benton & Bowles' London office. He admitted being a tough character to work with: "I was angry and would shout and scream. But that's because I took the work so seriously." One of his first initiatives was to create Design and Art Direction (D&AD), a trade association based on the New York Art Directors Club. The D&AD awards became the industry's benchmark for quality and Brooks went on to win them on several occasions.

Conscious of the importance of product shots, in 1963 he acquired a large-format camera and set up his own photographic studio. Self-taught and inspired by photographers such as Irving Penn, Brooks used a Polaroid instant camera to preview the look and feel of the finished shot. He quickly became known not only for his advertising copy but also the quality of the pictures that went with them.

Three years later he teamed up with Jim Baker and Len Fulford (obituary, 30 December 2011) to establish Brooks Baker Fulford (BBF, later BFCS), now with the aim of making short films for advertising. "Bob Brooks and Len Fulford probably picked the best time ever to start a film production company – if not for themselves, then certainly for the industry", noted Beryl McAlhone in D&AD magazine.

Brooks explained their rationale: "Art directors were used to working with the top photographers in town, getting a certain kind of light, a particular attention to detail." By comparison, until then "...feature film-makers were the main directors and they couldn't give a damn what a plate of soup looked like, or bread, or an egg, or any of the textural things that made that kind of advertising so outstanding."

BBF soon gained recognition through a piece for Senior Service cigarettes, combining American actors and a sense of fun. "It was one of the most charming commercials I did and straight off the bat it won a gold at Venice", Brooks said.

Smash was the first major campaign for the Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) agency, whose founders had taken the Cadbury account with them when they left Pritchard Wood in the early 1970s. BMP creative director John Webster worked with copywriter Chris Wilkins and Brooks as director to create the Smash Martians TV ads, which became such a success and remain Brooks' most memorable legacy.

Aside from advertising shorts, Brooks also directed for television, including episodes of Space 1999, the made-for-TV film The Knowledge (1979), about four would-be London cab drivers, which was nominated for a Bafta, and Tattoo (1981). In 1995 Brooks retired to Monaco.

Advertising director Dave Trott said: "Bob switched from being a photographer to a director. This meant he understood stylish, sophisticated lighting. No one else directing in London did. Before Bob, all UK commercials looked cheap and tatty. Alan Parker said, when he saw Bob's ads he realised for the first time that commercials could look as good as anything from Hollywood. Bob Brooks opened the door for that rush of classy, stylish British film talent that is now some of the best in the world."

Robert Brooks, advertising film director and photographer: born Philadelphia 26 December 1927; died September 2012.

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