John Webster

Advertising writer who brought creative humour to such campaigns as the Smash Martians


John Webster, advertising executive: born Paris 17 December 1934; founding partner, Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP, later DDB London) 1968, creative director 1971-80, executive creative director 1980-2006; married (three children); died Barnet, Hertfordshire 6 January 2006.

John Webster was the best television commercials creator in Britain when Britain was the best in the world - throughout the Seventies and Eighties. He won more awards than any writer of TV advertising in Europe, maybe the world. A generation grew up with his advertising on their lips: the Smash Martians, old Arkwright and then Jack Dee for John Smith's Bitter, the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster, memorable work for The Guardian, the Hofmeister bear and more recently, the "nice guy" footballer Gary Lineker stealing Walkers crisps.

With colleagues, Webster founded the advertising agency Boase Massimi Pollitt (BMP) in 1968. The first client was a Cadbury's brand of instant mashed potato called Smash. Webster's series of Smash commercials with metal Martians laughing at the idiocy of humans - voted in 2000 in a Campaign magazine poll the best advertising of the century - gave the agency an early fame.

Food and drink then represented the highest-spending sectors on television, but had been the most barren territory for anything much more than repetitive sloganising, largely as a result of being governed by a tyranny of pseudo-scientific market research. Stanley Pollitt, one of Webster's colleagues in the new venture, took a different route, providing impressionistic audience feedback from the then novel method of focus groups.

Webster had a porous mind, open to ideas from all over, and was interested in how his work was received by the public. After a time, the obvious originality and commercial success of his output led others to believe that this way of working was superior and what was known as "account planning" began to be adopted as a modus operandi by other agencies; it is now a key discipline in advertising around the world.

What marked out Webster's work was its humanity, his eye for human foibles, idiosyncrasies and telling detail. He was forever collecting chance remarks that had amused him, odd photographs, clips of film and music, all stored away for possible use. His commercials won over their audience with their charm and wry humour - a novel approach in the early days, when it was largely assumed that consumers had to be beaten into submission if they were to buy. Webster believed that the least he could do was to try to entertain and engage.

His essential naivety allowed him to approach each new task with an open mind and be forever receptive to new ideas. Yet he was extraordinarily competitive and loved the prizes with which he was showered and the great success of his agency. This was combined with a steely determination that the work must be the best and he would keep on improving and improving right up to and beyond the actual shoot.

Personally, he was a shy man in an industry where there are few shrinking violets, and he was self-deprecating about his achievements. Many of his most famous campaigns involved some sort of animal. Webster would say that it wasn't so important whether a campaign "had legs" as whether there were four and they were hairy.

In fact his body of work spread much more widely, stretching to campaigns for newspapers (his Guardian "points of view" commercial was voted the best ad of the Eighties), computer hardware, the trade union Unison, more glamorous sectors like perfumery and even party political broadcasts for Tony Blair.

John Webster was born in 1934 in Paris, where his father was working for Unilever. He went to school in York and, after National Service, on to Hornsey College of Art in London. He joined one of the large London agencies - Mather and Crowther - as an art director and here, and at two other large agencies, Bates and Prichard Wood, he developed his craftsman's commitment to work away at something until it was as good as it could be.

The timing of Webster's career was important. There was a sea change in British advertising that had begun in the 1960s. Doyle Dane Bernbach - an American agency - had been producing work with wit and style, and this was picked up by a London agency, CDP. Webster built on this around the launch of BMP, taking this fresher and more intelligent approach into new fields, in what was regarded as the trickiest area for which to write good advertising - grocery products. As he matured, he began to prefer to work largely on his own but spent considerable time coaching youngsters, a role for which he was in much demand.

John Webster had flourishing interests outside advertising. He was a keen cricketer (although a slow scorer). He wrote and developed Hamilton Mattress (2001), an animated film about an aardvark which went out, to much critical acclaim, on the BBC one Christmas afternoon. As he got older he spent more time painting, hoping to develop a sufficient body of work for an exhibition.

A couple of decades ago he bought a house in France which came with a tiny vineyard; he was proud of the wine he produced and sold - at ridiculously low prices - to his friends. He liked to point out that there were two ways you could go in life: you could go into advertising and work excessively long hours in a highly competitive environment, eventually having enough money to buy a small house in France. Or you could just be a French peasant and not bother with the other bit.

Chris Powell

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsSchool leaver's YouTube video features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
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
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Travel
travel
News
Robyn Lawley
people
News
people
News
i100  ... he was into holy war way before it was on trend
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmThe film is surprisingly witty, but could do with taking itself more seriously, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkVegetarians enjoy food as much as anyone else, writes Susan Elkin
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
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 General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain