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Industry heroes: John Webster

John Webster won ‘shitloads of awards throughout his career, but I don’t think he ever set out to do that ever’ – says Chris Kyme of Kymechow

Before I worked in advertising, I wanted to work in advertising. Not that I had any inside track into the industry, any contacts who already worked in it. Nor did I go to college or ‘ad-school’.

I had grown up on a diet of simply brilliant British television advertising in the 1960s and 1970s that made me want to be one of the guys who came up with them. That’s all I knew. So I gave up my job as a labourer on building sites, slept on a couch at a friend’s flat in London and went in search of a way in.

Which turned out to be in the mailroom at FCB London. And that was it. I was through the door. I then set about finding my way into the creative department, which I eventually did, with a bit of blag, a bit of front, and a modicum of writing ability. And my advertising education began.

And it was then, as I hungrily gobbled up everything I could learn from the clever people around me, I discovered that many of those ads I had grown up enjoying so much, were down to a man called John Webster.

The legendary Webster

He was the creative genius who resided at Boase Massimi Pollit (BMP), the agency he helped found in 1968. We never saw him. He wasn’t an outspoken industry figure, driven by ego and self promotion.

Apparently (I never met him) he was a shy, reclusive character who was happiest when tucked away quietly working on briefs. But we knew he existed because every year there were gobsmackingly brilliant commercials coming out.

There were so many famous campaigns to his name, it was hard to keep count. He created the Sugar Puffs ‘honey monster’ (“Tell them about the honey mummy”), the Cresta bear (“It’s frothy man”), the Smash Martians, for Smash instant potato, the Kia-ora crows, George the Hoffmeister bear, to name a few.

Campaigns that were on the tip of the tongue of thousands of ordinary people, that built brands and flogged products in shiploads. And although fun, inventive characters were at the heart of much of his great work, as well as an almost childlike sense of humour, when he turned his hand to more serious, thought provoking subject matter, it was equally as original.

Like the famous Guardian newspaper ‘Points of View’ commercial.

Although he did have a string of writing partners over the years, who were all industry creative giants themselves, he mostly worked alone, once saying: “There are a lot of advantages to working on your own. 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”.

Instead he had director collaborators, including Hugh Hudson, Roger Woodburn and Paul Weiland. He said: “I hate changing directors, it’s like having to change your dentist.”

But what inspired me was the work. I wanted to do such work. I wanted to come up with TV commercials that people saw and loved. I eventually did have one or two spots that became talked about throughout the country and featured in newspapers and it was the best feeling in the world. And my mum was so proud.

We used to look at his work and think – how did he come up with that? Usually you can trace the strategy and discussions that might have taken place to lead up to an idea. But with John Webster’s work it just seemed to be the product of a brilliantly inventive mind. Of someone who studies and understands ordinary people.

A great example would be the ‘Gertcha’ commercial for Courage Best Bitter, featuring the music of London ‘Rockney’ duo, Chas and Dave. Just mind-blowingly different. He was also someone who, unlike most creatives, did not fear research, the killer of ideas. Instead, he used the learnings to improve his ideas. To make sure they would work.

John Webster won shitloads of awards throughout his career, but I don’t think he ever set out to do that ever. Unlike the self-satisfying glory-hunters today who create work that is only ever seen by awards jury judges, working in agencies for whom it is an annual, budgeted strategy.

His work was just so good that he almost effortlessly cleaned up again and again. Sometimes winning more on his own at Cannes than the entire output of the rest of the creative department at BMP.  Work that did the job. That built brands.

I could happily spend hours looking through his showreel again and again, like listening to a greatest hits compilation from your favourite band. But if I was to pick just one favourite, that I was most jealous of, it would be the ‘Dog’ commercial, featuring the Arkwright character from the John Smiths Yorkshire Bitter campaign.

As a budding TV copywriter, I was being drilled to know how to write inside 30 seconds. Honing every word. Every utterance. I would spend a whole week writing one script. Here was simple genius inside 30 seconds. Minimal dialogue. Every word designed to count.

I just want to wrap up with an anecdote. I was working at FCB London under two very good group heads, who were eventually poached by John Webster to work at BMP.

Over a beer, before they left, they told us about how they were approached. The phone rang, and a quiet voice said: “Is that so and so?” To which the reply was “yes”. “Hello, this is John Webster.” “Get out of here” came the reply. “Pull the other one. Who’s this?”.

Such was the man’s legend, so in awe of him were people in the industry, that these two very highly regarded creatives thought it was a prank when he approached them. John Webster died in 2006, aged 71, and was working well into his 60s. The work he created gave the industry a sense of glamour and greatness. It made me want to be in the industry,

When I look at how self-congratulation is so rife in the industry today, with award winning work created for the sake of awards, it sometimes makes me want to get out.

Kyme was inspired by Webster’s TV ads

Chris Kyme is co-founder and creative director Kymechow, an independent agency in Hong Kong

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