Webster's Legacy

In the week of his memorial service, Caroline Marshall looks back at the life's work of John Webster, while those who worked with him pay tribute to his memory.

John Webster and BMP notched up an extraordinarily successful 36-year marriage in an industry where fleeting professional romances are the norm. Even Webster's recent death cannot overshadow a partnership that has been the envy of the industry, provoking outsiders to wonder how one famously shy art director and one agency could produce such a memorable and hugely successful body of television advertising.

For those who worked with him, as the tributes on these pages attest, several ingredients contributed to his vintage body of work: a roving imagination that allowed Webster to come up with fresh ideas; a perfectionism and an eye for warm human detail; a willingness to accept the planning philosophy set by Stanley Pollitt as an aid to creative development, rather than an exam; a healthy scepticism regarding awards from his peers and a passionate belief in the need to move "real" people with his work.

To those who would dismiss these words as so much spiel, we need only point out the list of big names attending Webster's memorial service this week, the tributes here and, above all, a body of work that runs from 1968, when Webster founded Boase Massimi Pollitt with colleagues, to 2005 when he finally retired from DDB.

A "Best of Webster" reel would open, of course, with the 1971 "Martians" campaign for Cadbury's Smash, voted the UK's favourite ad of all time in an ITV poll. The reel would include the Cresta "bear" campaign for Schweppes from 1973 and the Sugar Puffs "Honey Monster" campaign from 1977. It would enter the 80s with the Arkwright campaign for John Smith's and the D&AD President's Award for Webster's outstanding contribution to film advertising. Fast-forward to 1986, and the "points of view" no-soundtrack commercial for The Guardian, a powerful advocate of the open-mindedness of the paper. By 1994, Webster was picking up yet another D&AD silver, this time for the John's Smith's "penguin" campaign featuring Jack Dee. The ads mentioned here are only some of the highlights from a body of work that spread across newspapers, computers, trade unions, glamorous sectors such as perfumery and even political broadcasts for Tony Blair.

It was Thomas Edison who said that genius was 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration and Webster, despite his calm demeanour, was without question a genius in the Edison mould.

Coming into the business at a time when British advertising was staid and bland, he successfully translated the verve and wit of American art directors such as Bill Bernbach and Ed McCabe to the UK industry. To this he added a tireless energy that drove him to constantly dabble with and refine his own work - to the chagrin of colleagues and clients alike.

They would not have put up with it, of course, had they not liked and admired this exceptional man so much.

TONY BLAIR

John Webster was a brilliant communicator with a string of memorable advertising campaigns to his name. But he was always keen to use his talents to promote causes he believed in.

I had the good fortune to see him work at first hand when he helped us in the 1997 General Election. His groundbreaking work for Labour was important because it helped mirror the modernisation of our party and our policies.

The high reputation of British advertising is due, in no small measure, to John's wit and humanity. - Tony Blair, prime minister

LUCINDA KER

I started at BMP Needham in March 1988, and my first production as a TV producer there was with John Webster. At that time, I knew very little about John's reputation, so I was not unduly anxious about the Miller Lite ad we were about to work on together.

From the start, John was calm and self-assured. And that was always the way he worked during the many productions we had together. John made you feel your opinions were important, although you always knew that he had everything more or less worked out in his own mind already. He was always inventive and thoroughly creative, and his work reflected his style: insightful and thoughtful but never flashy.

He was an extraordinary person to work with, and I feel privileged that I was able to work so closely with him over the past 18 years. I'll miss him enormously as a colleague and, more importantly, as a friend. - Lucinda Ker, senior producer at DDB London

SIR ALAN PARKER

I was first aware of John from a beautiful cinema commercial he'd done at Pritchard Wood in the late 60s for the National Westminster Bank, featuring a little girl presenter patently in need of the lavatory as she delivered her pitch. Only John would have had the courage to choose such a risky but magical take.

When I started directing commercials, John had moved to Boase Massimi Pollitt and I directed a number of his early BMP commercials for Smash, John Smith's and Teflon pans.

To be honest, the Smash commercials were mostly directed by John himself, although I might have said "action" and "cut" for appearances' sake.

Courteous and unassuming as he always was behind those steel-framed spectacles, he really pushed me as a director, probably because I always had that nerve-racking feeling that he could have done a better job than me. - Sir Alan Parker, film director, writer and former commercials director and copywriter

DAVE PRENTIS

John Webster helped put Unison on the map in a novel way. The union was just 18 months old and although our public profile was good, we wanted to give it a boost.

John, as BMP's executive creative director, along with the senior copywriter Nick Gill, came up with a fantastic ad that demonstrated the essence of trade unionism. A simple pen-and-ink cartoon of a huge, vacant bear that wouldn't move aside for one ant or even two. But when all their mates came along together, shouting "get out of the way", it did. Strength in numbers - if you want to be heard, speak in Unison.

John even made sure more female voices were included in the mass ant shout - to reflect the fact that we had a million women members.

It was the first time a trade union had advertised on TV. It won an important industry award and paved the way for us to do more. And the ad even generated a small fan club. - Dave Prentis, Unison general secretary

ANDREW FRASER

John was extraordinary.

Not only did he make popular ads but he made advertising as a whole more popular.

We all remember when people used to say that they always looked forward to watching the ads; they're so much better than the programmes in between.

If we were to single out one person to take the credit for this, it would surely be John.

I spent my first five years in advertising working with John; it would be hard to think of a more fortunate start to one's career.

One lesson that John taught me was never to chase awards. "Just get the advertising right," he would say, "and the awards will follow."

My favourite Webster ad? The Guardian "points of view" is stunning in its cleverness. However, for its originality, its charm, and for sheer popular and enduring appeal, I'd choose the Smash "Martians" campaign. It is the epitome of John. - Andrew Fraser, creative director of FCB London

MARTIN GLENN

John made my career. As a young brand manager at Schweppes in 1983, I was given the Kia Ora brand - a basket case - to relaunch and John produced the "I'll be your dog - we all adore a Kia-Ora" campaign, which revitalised the brand and gave some sparkle to my empty CV.

Ten years later, when I was the marketing director of Walkers Crisps, he gave me "No more Mr Nice Guy". Still running today, still brilliant.

His most notable work? It's got to be the Cresta "It's frothy man" campaign.

A rubbish product, but a great example of how he operated.

Tasting the product, making his spine tingle and spasm, he recalled a scene from Easy Rider where Jack Nicholson gyrates after swigging some whiskey. He created a cartoon polar bear that had the same reaction to Cresta. It was the ad of choice for my friends and me that summer. Thank you John; memories are made of this. - Martin Glenn, former chief executive of PepsiCo UK and Ireland

TONY DAVIDSON

I'm sure there will be lots of flowing tributes to John from people within the business. But I think John was more interested in what people outside our business thought - the public. I was admiring John's work long before I knew who he was: Smash Martians, The Humphreys and Cresta Bear were part of my childhood.

His work was a large part of the reason why I wanted to get a job at BMP. During my time there, his quiet, unassuming nature and childlike enthusiasm for his work never waned. I remember watching him sitting in his office on his own laughing in front of his latest George the Bear Hofmeister commercial. How many meetings had he presented the joke that he was still laughing at?

I've always admired people who can do things that you know you never could. Anyone who can do not one, not two, but three famous award-winning campaigns for the same beer is a genius. John Smith's should buy him a lifetime supply in heaven. - Tony Davidson, joint creative director at Wieden & Kennedy.

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