Claire Beale: A welcome reminder of Webster's wise words
A view from Claire Beale

Claire Beale: A welcome reminder of Webster's wise words

Perhaps we've all spent a little too much time recently looking backwards, celebrating advertising's past. Perhaps there's not enough present to celebrate, but it's certainly comforting to be reminded of how good the industry can be.

This week, there’s a bit more nostalgia – a new book on John Webster, The Earth People’s Ad Man. The title is a reference to his Smash Martians TV ad, voted (by real Earth people) as the best of all time, and quite a few people think Webster was the best advertising creative of all time.

As well as telling the story of some of Webster’s most famous campaigns (we’ve included a few of them on page 26), the book also includes a number of tribute essays from people who worked with him.

I love the Webster joke Dave Trott retells about a golfing gorilla. On each hole, the golfing gorilla whacks the ball 300 yards straight down the fairway, on to the green and an inch from the hole. Each time, his bemused opponent concedes the hole without even teeing off. Back in the clubhouse, he meets the gorilla’s owner, who asks how the round went.

When the golfer tells him he conceded each hole because the gorilla’s first drive was so brilliant off each tee, the owner rebukes him. "You idiot… he putts like he drives." And Webster told Trott that was exactly where Trott was going wrong.
"That was brilliant advice," Trott says. "Everything I did was full-energy, flat-out, shit-or-bust. Every script I wrote was really good or rubbish." What Webster taught him was "if you can’t do something brilliant, do something good. At least do something OK. Sometimes, it’s right to smash it 300 yards. Sometimes, it’s right to tap it."

WPP’s global planning director, Jon Steel, tells a lovely story about Webster and planning. Steel once wasted several weeks of his life preparing a creative brief for Webster on a beer brand. "It was painstakingly researched… I’d analysed the brand’s problem from every angle and written what I considered to be a strategic masterpiece. When I had finished, John gently observed that I had disappeared so far up my own backside that only the soles of my feet were showing… ‘Just talk to me,’ he said." Steel says "through working with John, I realised it was much more important to be useful than clever. It wasn’t even my job to have ideas – rather to create an environment where others were more likely to have them, and feel comfortable expressing them."

It’s also worth recording Steel’s recollections of Webster on a con­ference platform. Webster was asked why, compared with many other creatives, he seemed to feature the brand and logo quite prominently in his ads. Steel recalls Webster’s response: "I don’t know how many of you think you are in the entertainment business. But if you do, you should probably fuck off and write scripts for The Two Ronnies."

All nostalgia, perhaps. But some lessons are timeless.