Saturday, 1 December 2012

John Webster – The Earth People’s Ad man (Carter, 2012)

 Webster is the other defining creative director of DDB.  On the one hand his style of advertising is completely different from Bill Bernbach’s ads, but in their humble, entertaining tonality they are very close.

Webster’s work is most interesting and puzzling to me as a planners. Most of his ads cannot be reduced to half a sentence or  a genius insight – but on the other hand they were never really ads but more pop culture – viral, before such a word existed in marketing language. „Dave Trott concurs ‚John was absolutely not interested in what the advertising fraternity thought. They weren’t as good as him anyway, so why would he give a shit what they thought? He was interested in what the bloke in the street thought.’“ (Carter, 2012, p.63).“ John believed the true measure of the success of an ad was nothing to do with creative awards. It was when it passed into the vernacular.“ (Carter, 2012, p.22). „’I always thought that actually there was something oft he megalomaniac in John. He was very shy and thoughtful. He disliked flamboyance. He hated all that Cannes stuff. But he liked the idea of influencing millions through his characters.“ (Carter, 2012, p.57).

And that was his ‘calling’ (if such a pompous word can be applied to Webster’s work). But to a certain degree such a word is right, because that gives meaning to our work: „G K Chesterton said of Dickens: ‚He didn’t give the people what they wanted. He wanted what the people wanted.’ He could have been talking about John.“ (Carter, 2012, p.1). „John taught us something about ourselves. Not through novels, painting or plays. But through his own specialist medium – 40 or so seconds of film, on a small screen, in the corner of the nation’s sitting rooms.“ (Carter, 2012, p.1).

He had his own way of working with others: „He worked with others, but they were never there as partners, more to stimulate his own creativity.“ (Boase quoted in Carter, 2012, p.7). And he used planning and research in the same way:  „Peter Jones, the world’s first advertising Planner, tried out John’s ideas in rough form on unsuspecting housewives round the country, to return to a wall of abuse from the author when the idea didn’t work quite as expected. Two things stopped this developmental approach collapsing before it had really got going: John’s fecundity – by the next morning he’d written up a new idea – and his interest beyond winning prizes (although he liked that well enough if they were the very top prizes) in creating campaigns that were talked about in pubs and over garden fences.“ (Carter, 2012, p.12).

And in the same way he treated research: „’John believed research was data, not a decision’ Alfredo Marcantonio (former Lowe Howard Spink creative director and long-time friend) once said, ‚He would look at the failings exposed by research and try overcome them.’“ (Carter, 2012, p.57). „’John understood that what outsiders call creativty is in fact, a process of rejection, a painstaking and unsentimental sifting oft he wheat from the chaff.“ (Carter, 2012, p.58). Thus, as a planner, you are not responsibility to come up with ideas, just stimulate your creative director and recognize an idea: „Through working with John, I realised that 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. And that’s just as well, because over the course of my career I have succeeded in coming up with a relativeley good idea about once every seven or eight years.“ (Steel in Carter, 2012, p.28). „What I did develop, and I’m sure I learned this from John, was an ability to recognise good ideas when others had them.“ (Steel in Carter, 2012, p.28). „But if you stop trying to be heard above the noise, and just listen, it’s surprising how many good ideas are flying by.“ (Steel in Carter, 2012, p.28).

And to be able to come up with ideas, it is important to collect stuff, that might stimulate at one point in time: „The key, as John showed time and time again, is to watch, listen and collect. He was a magpie among birds, a collector of pretty things that one day might, just might, be useful. A keen observer of humanity and the culture that surrounded him, he hoarded language, film clips, art, music and anecdotes, all stored in an encyclopaedic memory.“ (Steel in Carter, 2012, p.28).

„ he taught me that optimism can be a more powerful force than intellect. John saw each brief as an opportunity, each rejection as a catalyst for improvement, and even at the end of his career he still believed that his best work was ahead of him. As planners we would do well to remember this: rather than dwell on what can’t and shouldn’t be done, or wallow in the obstacles that stand in our way, we should be champions of possibility.“ (Steel in Carter, 2012, p.29).

„As he (John Webster) explained: ‚I’ve always tried to develop characters in three dimensions. So when I invent a character, I always write the back story so we know where he’s come from, who his parents were, his personality traits ... very like actor doing a role in a feature film I suppose. I started to write biographies oft hem fort he clients.“ (Carter, 2012, p.40). „John imagined that many years ago in Africa lived animals called honey midgets who ate only honey. Some escaped, only to find themselves on a remote island where the only honey was very high up in the trees. Over time, the honey midgets evolved into honey monsters so they could reach the honey.“ (Carter, 2012, p.43). „One day Henry, a middle-aged, somewhat camp bachelor came tot he island with the Navy and took a Honey Monster back to live with him. The monster thought Henry was his mummy. Hence: „Tell em about the honey, Mummy.’“ (Carter, 2012, p.43).

Thus John Webster was a creative the whole way, not just for the beginning: „But very often it sounds as if having the ‚idea’ is the only difficult, ‚creative bit’ , and the rest is mere decoration. People respond to ads, however, not to abstract ideas.“ (Feldwick in Carter, 2012, p.70). „The reason John’s work still looks so fresh today, the reason we still admire so much of what he did, is not that he had better ‚ideas’ than anyone else. It’s because he made better ads.“ (Feldwick in Carter, 2012, p.70).

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