Advertising writer who brought creative humour to such campaigns as the Smash Martians
Friday 13 January 2006
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.
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