Modest genius who turned life into art

Adland is mourning the death of John Webster, a true creative legend from the golden age of advertising.

It is a poignant irony that less than a year after he played the role of a heart patient in a profile-raising ad for Nabs, a heart attack should have ended John Webster's life.

For those who knew him, his death was doubly shocking because of its suddenness.

Despite his 71 years, he seemed as fit in body as he certainly was in mind.

So much so, that, little more than a year ago, as his 36-year stint at the one-time Boase Massimi Pollitt (now DDB London) was drawing to a close, he was talking as excitedly about his new TV campaign for Tropicana orange juice as he had when introducing the Smash Martians three decades earlier.

At the peak of his creative prowess in the 70s and 80s, Webster's ads were among the best at exploiting TV's power as the most potent mass medium.

His national and international advertising awards exceed those of any other European creative. He accumulated so many that he had to cull them just to create some space on his shelves.

Unlike many of his immodest contemporaries, Webster was a shy man who rarely saw clients. He once told Campaign: "My awards give me confidence. When someone walks into my office, they listen to what I say. When an account man wants to turn down my script, he thinks twice."

Webster graduated from Hornsey College of Art in the early 60s and worked as an art director at Mather & Crowther and Ted Bates. But it was when he joined the Martin Boase-led exit from Pritchard Wood to help establish the first of the new-wave agencies, BMP, in 1969, that he began to flourish.

If Stanley Pollitt established BMP as a planning powerhouse, Webster moulded its creative personality. "John believed research was data, not a decision," Alfredo Marcantonio, the former Lowe Howard-Spink creative director and a long-time friend, said. "He would look at the failings exposed by research and try to overcome them."

Webster drew his ideas from life's everyday occurrences. He adored the films of Jacques Tati, saying: "He taught me that humour or irritation, for most people, come not from large, dramatic situations but from normal ups and downs of life."

This line of thought made him an avid collector of trifles, from scraps of poetry to newspaper photographs, that he thought might inspire a creative route. Two years ago, he recalled sitting in a greasy spoon cafe when a taxi driver was complaining about his breakfast: "'Who made this sausage then? Dunlop?' the man asked. It made me smile, so I jotted it down."

Such influences were often seen in Webster's work. The Cresta bear's antics were inspired by Jack Nicholson's performance in Easy Rider, the Hofmeister bear was based on the Fonz from Happy Days and the Smash Martians on the Daleks.

Some think Webster's eclecticism might have made for an easy transition to film direction. "I always had the feeling he would have done a better job than me," Sir Alan Parker, who helped bring some of Webster's early TV scripts to life, said. Webster, though, used to say he never wanted to be forced into directing inferior scripts.

"So many of us back then were influenced by the pieces of 30-second theatre being produced by Doyle Dane Bernbach in the US, but John ploughed a different furrow," Marcantonio said. "What he did yesterday would still look innovative today."


Leading figures from across the communications world this week paid tribute to John Webster's talent and creative legacy.

Sir Alan Parker, who directed a number of the BMP executive creative director's early commercials, said: "If there ever was a golden age of advertising, then John was its golden goose. As a TV commercials thinker, he was head and shoulders above any of his contemporaries and he did it campaign after campaign, year in and year out."

David Abbott, the former Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creative chief and a contemporary of Webster at Mather & Crowther, described his work as "pure genius" and Webster himself as "a quiet, lovely man who inspired advertising people throughout the world".

He said: "It was no surprise that John went on to create the greatest body of TV advertising that this country has ever seen, or will ever see, I fancy."

Dave Trott, the Walsh Trott Chick Smith founder and a Webster protege who worked with him for ten years, said: "A lot of people tried to copy John's style because they thought it was weird and wacky. In fact, his work was always based on logic. He had great empathy with consumers."

Chris Wilkins, the copywriter on the Smash Martians campaign, said Webster saw the legendary Collett Dickenson Pearce creative director Colin Millward as the man he most wanted to impress.

"John understood that what outsiders call creativity is, in fact, a process of rejection - a painstaking and unsentimental sifting of the wheat from the chaff," he added. "He was the keenest critic in the business, as hard on his own work as he was on the work of others."

Martin Boase, the former BMP chairman, commented: "John was fundamental to the success of BMP where he created a cavalcade of brilliant campaigns. We're extremely lucky to have shared his talent for so long."

Michael Hockney, the D&AD chief executive and a BMP senior manager for 12 years, said: "What was John's legacy? Unquestionably, some of the best ads ever.

"But, more importantly, a series of brand properties which sank into the minds of the British public and, through their compelling nature, delivered huge value to his clients."


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