A Creative Legend’s Lessons For Planners
John Webster created some of the most iconic and popular ads of the last 40 years. A creative who had a high regard for planning, Sarah Carter of adam&eveDDB draws out some lessons for planners from Webster’s work.
Forty years ago, an unassuming art director at London ad agency BMP drew some beady-eyed Martians with wide, smiley mouths… and made advertising history. The man was John Webster and his Martians ad for Cadbury’s Smash dried mashed potato has since consistently been voted the British public’s all-time favourite ad.
This Cadbury’s Smash ad was followed by a cavalcade of campaigns that were revered by the industry, adored by the British public and transformed the fortunes of brands (e.g. Ads for Walkers crisps with Gary Lineker, Hofmeister beer with George the bear and Sugar Puffs cereal with the Honey Monster). In fact, in a poll in 2000, no fewer than 10 of the ‘best 100 ads of the century’ voted for by the British public were by John Webster.
Unusually among celebrated creatives, Webster had a high regard for planners (well the good ones anyway). Although initially regarding the new planning invention at BMP as something to tolerate, he subsequently came to value, and then depend on, planners to inform, and steer, his extraordinarily successful work.
All very well you might say, but what relevance does any of this history have to those of us charged with inspiring and nurturing great creative work today? It is true that Webster’s ads were of a different era: pre-digital, and dominated by grocery and TV advertising. And it is also true that Webster’s unusual maturity and fecundity helped him work so successfully with planners.
But in the course of writing a book about Webster’s work, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how the principles of great communication that he intuitively held so strongly haven’t really changed at all. In fact, these principles are increasingly recognised (through new research from psychology to behavioural economics) as the backbone of modern communication theory. So, in our ongoing quest for ideas that will transform the fortunes of today’s brands, here are eight timeless lessons that I think we planners would all do well to learn from the creative genius of John Webster.
Be interesting. Because brands aren’t
Webster instinctively understood how our real ‘competition’ as communicators is not other brands or ads, but real people’s real lives. It may be an inconvenient truth, but real people aren’t much interested in our brands or ads. Instead, they’re interested in who was voted off The X Factor last Sunday, why the washing machine has started making that weird noise and how to afford a new one.
Webster understood that people’s indifference to what we sell meant that, above all else, his ads needed to be interesting. This meant being plugged into popular culture and borrowing things that people were interested in, like celebrities or music. Or creating things people were interested in, such as his animal characters. Trying to sell intrinsically dull, undifferentiated products, may have made Webster particularly aware of this truth. But we planners too would do well to have as screensavers the words: “They’re just not that into you,” as we ponder our latest ideas, inviting people to take precious time out from their busy lives to ‘participate’ in our brand activities.
Acknowledging people’s indifference to our brands is the biggest and best spur to creativity we have.
Study life. Not ads
Webster was the opposite of the caricature creative adman. Modest, softly spoken and soberly attired, he hated awards ceremonies and shunned Soho ad life. Married to a teacher and with a close circle of non ‘adland’ friends, Webster remained plugged into the ‘man on the street’, never falling into following what was ‘hot’ at the time in advertising circles. Webster would say that what was unfashionable interested him far more than the fashionable – because this would stand out from other ads. So, he would often be found talking early in the morning to Pat the tea lady or Ray the office manager – he valued what they thought about his ads far more than Campaign magazine.
I worry now that our ever-lengthening working hours and ability to hook-up 24/7 to other planners’ thinking, blogs and presentations means we’re all becoming far too self-referential and really should get out more.
Don’t forget to build in scale
Although no-one used the word ‘viral’ in those days, Webster intuitively understood that the more widely his ideas were liked and talked about in playgrounds and pubs, the more effective they would be. So he would deliberately load his ideas with viral ‘tics’ – catchphrases, jingles (remember them?) and mannerisms that encouraged the broadest spectrum of the public to mimic and pass on his ideas. He was rewarded by people across the country talking like the Martians in the Smash ad, perfecting the writhing spasms of the Cresta polar bear (mannerisms which Webster changed each year to keep them fresh and more ‘viral’) and chanting the milk ad’s Humphreys song. Webster hadn’t read the seminal work of Ehrenberg, or Binet and Field’s latest findings on the importance of penetration not loyalty strategies, and the power of reach over targeting in building profitable brands. But Webster instinctively understood that the further his ideas spread, the better the results for his clients’ businesses.
Don’t be afraid of the irrelevant
There’s a lovely story told about the time when Webster first presented his new idea for Cresta, a frothy soft drink, which featured a sunglasses-wearing polar bear. When he finished, the Cresta marketing director apparently asked, somewhat bemused: “But why is there a polar bear in it?” “Why not?” replied Webster.
There was no answer to that. Those of us raised on the mantra that ads need to be ‘relevant’ as well as distinctive, might have had some sympathy with this client’s concern. But Webster’s work reveals that maybe we overvalue ‘relevance’ in creative ideas. Working extensively on beers and FMCG products, Webster realised that despite the views of clients who, of course, needed to be intimately acquainted with their brands, there really was nothing intrinsically interesting or ‘relevant’ to say about them.
But Webster discovered that this didn’t matter much at all, and so should we. In fact, this rather liberating revelation often led to better, more effective ideas. As long as his ads were linked in people’s minds with the brands they supported (and they always were – Webster was master of the branded slogan and bespoke brand property), he instinctively understood that people were more than happy for ads to be playful, childlike and, yes, irrelevant.
This is the happy upside of real people not caring much about brands. People were more than happy to be sold Kia-Ora orange drink by a barking crow or a puffed wheat cereal by a giant yellow furry monster with a camp male ‘mummy’. Just as people today have viewed Gangnam Style in their millions and are happy to be ‘sold’ an insurance price comparison website by a Russian meerkat called Aleksandr Orlov, a bar of chocolate by a drumming gorilla, or bottled water by roller-skating babies. So yes, we need to be interesting and memorable. But maybe we worry too much about being relevant.
There’s nothing wrong with ‘generic’
And there’s nothing wrong with not saying anything ‘distinctive’ either. Here’s another happy discovery from the need to come up with ideas for beers (Hofmeister, Courage, John Smith’s), or milk (Unigate), or dried potato (Cadbury’s Smash was no different from all the other dried potato brands).
Usually Webster had nothing distinctive to say about his products. So he didn’t bother.
Instead of dancing on strategic pinheads, trying to find some minor product point of difference, Webster took a simple truth – (Sugar Puffs are made of honey) or a generic thought (Walkers crisps are irresistible) or focused on a truth about a user (Yorkshiremen know a good pint) – and he wrote his ads round that. Note to us planners: be interesting and memorable in how you say something. But don’t worry too much if ‘anyone could say that’. Say it differently but don’t worry about saying something different.
Keep a well-stocked mental pantry
Dave Trott (the first creative Webster hired at BMP) once likened going into Webster’s office to going into someone’s shed at the bottom of the garden. His office was stuffed with things that had once caught his eye and were too interesting to not keep for some future use. Pinned on the walls were snippets of poems and cartoons that made him laugh. Cassettes with unusual snatches of music were stacked on his desk. And Webster always kept a notepad handy in his car to write down interesting stuff he heard on the radio.
Webster read widely and talked to people widely. And so should we. Don’t spend all your time reading planning blogs. Observe, listen and hoard. Buy random specialist magazines, walk down a supermarket aisle that you never go down, read The Sun and The Guardian (Webster did), keep scrapbooks, and collect random stuff. Remember that, even today, most of life happens offline (around 90% of purchases, media consumption and conversations are ‘offline’) So sit on a park bench, look up from your screens and spend five minutes observing the world. This all keeps your mental pantry well-stocked, and is priceless planning raw material.
Don’t be afraid to ‘steal’
Webster’s hero was Picasso. And he certainly concurred with Picasso’s view that ‘good artists borrow. Great artists steal’. Webster was the master of the art of ‘stealing’. Fuelled by the contents of his overflowing ‘mental pantry’, he effortlessly combined, adapted and re-booted in creating his ideas. So a chance conversation overheard in a pub would be combined with an odd sound effect on a music track, with a mannerism of a character from a film, with a brand, and so on.
Steve Jobs would later recount how he shamelessly encouraged his multi-disciplinary teams to re-work and improve the ideas of others. As planners too, we can benefit from this approach in our strategic thinking. Can we adapt something from popular culture or a different world, such as animal behaviour? What thoughts can we connect in a new way? What worked in an unrelated sector or target audience?
Keep some doors open. Keep it a bit messy
Uncovering the story of the gestation of Webster’s most celebrated ideas is an eye-opening and rather comforting experience. His best ideas rarely emerged perfectly formed, or sailed untouched through research. Instead, there was an awful lot of stuff that was frankly very wrong. And this was actually an important positive. Just as nature needs many random, flawed mutations from which better adaptations can be selected, so the best creative ideas emerge from a process that not only tolerates, but positively encourages and embraces, the very wrong.
It’s no coincidence that Webster’s greatest ads were often the ideas that were added into research as the wildcard, ‘nothing-to-lose’ option, but emerged as the most successful. Most groundbreaking ads, almost by definition now, seem to me to emerge in spite of, rather than because of, regimented creative development systems and processes.
So let’s try not to overplan, prescribe or predict. Let’s not oversmooth the edges, or iron out all the ‘ugly vegetables’ too early from the creative options on the table. And let’s try to develop more ways of ‘safe-failing’ in our testing of radically new ideas. Sometimes loosening, rather than tightening, opens the way to greatness. ‘Leave the door open for the random and serendipitous’, Webster used to say – because that’s how the magic often comes in.
Webster once joked that, while he aspired to a legacy of profound Wildean quotes, all he seemed to have managed were lines like ‘tell ‘em about the honey, Mummy’. But he, of course, left us much more than this. His legacy is a unique roll call of the British public’s best-loved and successful ads; ads which not only lifted the status of the industry (these were ‘salesmen’ that the public positively welcomed into their homes), but ads which, more importantly, still provide us today with some timeless lessons in how to help create outstanding communication.
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