Campaign Supplement on BMP DDB 1968-1998: BMP’s creative soul - As a founding father of BMP, John Webster created some of the most memorable ads ever seen. And he is still not ready to quit. By Jim Davies

By JIM DAVIES, campaignlive.co.uk, Friday, 23 October 1998 12:00AM

It is one hour into our interview. John Webster is watching a showreel and tittering like a schoolboy. He is a changed man. During the early part of the interview, he was attentive, often insightful and revealing - but he seemed curiously detached, never quite comfortable talking about himself and the agency he helped to establish 30 years ago.

It is one hour into our interview. John Webster is watching a

showreel and tittering like a schoolboy. He is a changed man. During the

early part of the interview, he was attentive, often insightful and

revealing - but he seemed curiously detached, never quite comfortable

talking about himself and the agency he helped to establish 30 years

ago.



So what on earth can be tickling the man who has created some of the

most universally acclaimed advertising campaigns of modern times?



It certainly isn’t a contemporary ad. Far from it. In fact, it is a

ropey black-and-white effort from the 50s, with Peter Sellers

contributing a wonderfully plummy narration. The film opens with an

exterior shot of an impressive country house, the voiceover waxing

lyrical about the English and their traditions.



No institution, it declares, is more sacred to an Englishman than the

taking of tea at 4 o’clock. With that, we’re inside the mansion, with a

close-up of tea being poured into fine porcelain from a silver pot.

Then, a large, hairy hand reaches out for a freshly poured cup and the

camera pulls back.



Yes ... this is the original PG Tips chimps tea party. Sellers keeps up

his genteel commentary as the monkey mayhem begins in earnest, and

Webster is reduced to yet another fit of the giggles. ’John has an

essential naivety,’ explains Tony Cox, executive creative director of

BMP DDB, who has worked alongside Webster for almost a decade. ’But

fortunately this is coupled with a steely will.’



Perhaps Webster feels some empathy for the chimps. He hasn’t been

knocking around in advertising for quite as long as they have, but

admits to feeling ’out of kilter’ with much of today’s output.


’My period was really the 70s and the 80s,’ he says. ’The mood has

changed, it’s harder-edged and cynical. Audiences are extremely

advertising-literate; they take in information very quickly and the

whole pace of advertising has accelerated. I’m 63 now and should really

be growing potatoes.’



But the allotment will have to wait. Webster is still a part of the BMP

DDB creative department set-up - a kind of shadowy, talismanic figure,

encouraging younger, inexperienced teams and tackling the tough briefs

that everyone else has failed to crack. ’He’s the Peter Pan of

advertising - he just keeps going and going,’ says the director, Paul

Weiland, who has worked with him extensively. ’He’s meant to have

retired so many times, but he can never quite do it.’



Webster was one of the nine original founder members of the agency who

decamped from Pritchard Wood in 1968, becoming the creative director

three years later when Gabe Massimi departed. In latter years, he’s

taken a back seat to concentrate on writing and personal projects, with

Cox, and now Larry Barker, responsible for the day-to-day running of

what is generally regarded as the best TV-oriented creative department

in London.



’There’s always some panic going on and I still love it,’ says

Webster.



’So I try to do my bit. I really enjoy helping teams improve their work.

I feel it’s putting something back ... that’s a side of our business

no-one ever really talks about.’



He also looks after a couple of accounts (including PG Tips), and is

still creating the kind of unapologetically populist commercials that

manage to capture the public imagination, such as this year’s Walkers ad

in which the Brazilian football star, Romario, trades his kit for a

small boy’s packet of crisps, and then runs out for his team in the

buff.



’Sometimes I feel a bit like an old rocker getting back in the charts,’

he says.



But it’s certainly his cast of advertising characters created in the 70s

and 80s which have earned him his place in adland’s Hall of Fame: the

Smash Martians; the Cresta bear; Sugar Puffs’ Honey Monster; the Kia-ora

crows; George the Hoffmeister bear; and Arkwright, the flat-capped John

Smith’s drinker.



Post-rationalising, Webster ascribes their success to the fact that they

became distinctive, immediate brand properties, lending an appealing

personality to prosaic products. Celebrity-based work, so common today,

is less memorable because the brand tends to be swamped by the star. As

proof, he points to the 80s Cinzano campaign, fronted by Leonard

Rossiter and Joan Collins.



But there’s more to it than that. Webster’s characters managed to

achieve what only truly great advertising can: they passed into the

vernacular.



It would be no exaggeration to claim they became a part of British

popular culture during the 70s and 80s. Schoolyards across the land

echoed to the tinny sound of Smash Martian laughter; kids worked hard

perfecting the cool insouciance of the Cresta bear; and ’Tell me about

the honey, mummy’ became an essential catchphrase.



So when Webster claims he is ’out of kilter’ with today’s advertising,

he is being disingenuous; after all, his work was an integral part of

growing up for most of today’s creative teams - and it may even have

inspired them to get into advertising in the first place. ’I actually

think his style is coming back into vogue,’ says Weiland. ’People are

getting back into characters and slice of life again.’



But if the formula is so simple, why doesn’t everyone come up with a

suitably colourful character to represent their brand? Why hasn’t there

been a Holsten horse, a Pringles Pekinese or a Lil-lets lemming? The

answer is, of course, that it’s not quite so straightforward. Sure, you

have your Ronald McDonald and Tony the Tiger, but they just don’t

connect in the same way that a Webster character does.



’I’ve tried to develop characters in three dimensions,’ he explains.



’So we knew where he’d come from, where he was born ... I used to write

biographies of them for the clients. (The commercials) were like mini

programmes in a way, with well-rounded characters who were real to

people, particularly the young.



’There were various tricks; all the catchphrases and mannerisms like the

Cresta bear spasm. All those things were loaded into the campaigns very

consciously to get people to repeat them. I’m not saying they’re

Chekhov, but there’s a bit more to them than surface image.’



His creations may emanate warmth, but Webster himself takes a little

more getting to know. He’s a shy man in an industry where shrinking

violets are a little thin on the ground. It is perhaps one of the

reasons he’s worked solo for many years, though in the past he has

teamed up with first-class writing talent including Gray Joliffe, Chris

Wilkins, Graham Collis, Frank Budgen and Dave Trott.



’There are a lot of advantages to working on your own,’ he says. ’You

don’t have to consider anyone else’s feelings. Plus, I only felt half a

man when I was working as part of a team. I thought: surely you should

be able to do this on your own? I love words and read a lot. I can come

up with a good sentence.’



Instead, he tends to work extremely closely with his directors, building

trust and understanding over a period of time. Hugh Hudson, Roger

Woodburn and Weiland have been regular collaborators over the years. ’I

hate changing directors,’ says Webster. ’It’s like changing your

dentist.’



If anything, Webster appears more devoted to BMP and advertising than

ever. His flirtation with directing commercials ended after four years,

and he has now more or less given up pursuing his children’s TV

series/movie idea featuring an animated aardvark called Hamilton

Mattress.



He admits that he has found it frustrating watching friends and

contemporaries such as Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Alan Parker getting

their Hollywood breaks, and one of his few ambitions outside of

advertising is to mount an exhibition of his huge figurative paintings.

’Advertising is a wonderful way to earn a living,’ he says. ’Every day

brings a new challenge. It’s stimulating and involving ... you never get

bored. That’s why it’s so difficult to get out.’



FOUR CREATIVE DIRECTORS PICK THEIR FAVOURITE WEBSTER ADS



DAVE TROTT, WALSH TROTT CHICK SMITH



’One year, at BMP, I won a gold lion at Cannes as a copywriter. It was

the same year John Webster won three gold lions as a copywriter, three

as an art director, and three as a director. The next year, I won a D&AD

silver - as did two other BMP teams. Stanley Pollitt was delighted

because, for the first time, the entire creative department had won as

many awards as John Webster did on his own (that year John won three, we

won three).



John’s done so many great ads it’s hard to pick one, so I’ll choose the

one he did with me: Courage Best’s ’gertcha’.’



TIM DELANEY, LEAGAS DELANEY



’I was at BMP when there were only four creative people hindered by two

juniors: John, his writer, Alan Orpin, the art director, David Ashwell,

and I did the work. Gabe (Massimi) hung out. Dave Christensen, famously

fired, kept coming in and became head of art (and human

perseverance).



His writer was a surly young man called Derek Day. Most of John

Webster’s ads are among my favourites. But because it doesn’t get

mentioned much, I nominate the ’humphreys’ campaign, the straw that

stole the milk. A thousand times better than the much-awarded ’got

milk?’ in the US. Intelligent, relevant, funny, populist: as good as it

gets.’



STEVE HENRY, HHCL & PARTNERS



’There are lots of talented people working in our industry, but only two

who I would consider using the word ’genius’ about: Tony Kaye and John

Webster. Tony challenges the preconceptions of advertising - but John

Webster’s ads never forget they’re ads. John’s work is leagues above

what the rest of us strive to create - and yet it’s never ashamed to be

advertising. Obviously I love Sony Lifespan, John Smith’s performing dog

and the Guardian ad - but for the sake of being different I’ll pick an

ad he did for BMP once, using glove puppets. Simple, unexpected,

irresistible.’



JAMES LOWTHER, M&C SAATCHI



’I’d swallow six-inch nails to have one frame of John Webster’s ads on

my reel. The man’s a genius. I just think the Guardian ’points of view’

ad is in a stratosphere of its own. It doesn’t look like a

commercial.



It has no frills and doesn’t need them. It’s got something better: a

brilliantly simple and intelligent observation. And it has something

Bill Clinton wouldn’t recognise - it’s bloody true! John was once kind

enough to select my ’headlights’ ad for the 100 Best Ads book on the

grounds that it demonstrated a truth. This ad does the same in spades,

hearts, diamonds and clubs.’



This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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