Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What Would John Webster Do?

The second in a series of tips that suggest, if you’re stuck on a brief, you try looking at your problem through the eyes of someone else.

Today, John Webster - perhaps the greatest writer of television commercials the UK has ever produced.

He had a wide variety of output, but is probably most associated with an ability to create enduring ‘characters’, including the Cresta Bear, the Hofmeister Bear, the Smash Martians, the Humphreys, and the Honey Monster.

Most of these ads are quite old now, but their approach is as valid as ever – just look at the success of Monkey for PG Tips.

Today I’m going to try to analyse how John did it.

Let’s start with the Hofmeister Bear and Smash Martians.

What I want to pick up on first of all is that although John’s characters were often wacky, they were the very opposite of random. There was always a rock solid logic behind them.

The Hofmeister Bear was on the pack. The Smash Martians were robots because Smash was the food of the future. Now, a Hofmeister robot might have been funny, as might a Smash Bear… but they wouldn’t have had the crucial relevance that makes them so satisfying.

So, when you’re creating your character, don’t just pick an animal out of a hat. If it’s going to be a robot, make it a robot for a reason.

Now let’s look at the Humphreys and then the Honey Monster.

The point I want to make here is one of role. I strongly believe that a big part of the success of John’s characters was that he gave them a fantastically simple role to play in the commercial.

The Humphreys want your Unigate Milk. That’s it.

The Honey Monster is obsessed with honey. End of story.

(Similarly, Gary Lineker wants to steal your Walkers crisps).

So if you are creating a character-based campaign, the learning from John Webster is that you don’t need to create a clever strategy. Give the character a simple and clear role to play that connects them to the product. They hate it. They love it. Etc. Most of the power of your campaign is going to come from the character-creation, not the strategy.

Finally, let’s look at the Cresta bear.

The lesson here is a complex one, and maybe the most important of the three points I want to make. It’s this - how do you make your character interesting?

Well, the most important thing a character needs in order to be interesting is a degree of contradiction. (No contradictions = smooth conformity = bland, characterless)

The Honey Monster embodies the classic contradiction of the gentle giant. He is physically imposing, yet mentally kind and childish.

The Humphreys are ordinary drinking straws… and yet have a sinister methodology to their actions.

The Smash Martians are robots, but they are constantly laughing.

As well, as his understanding of contradiction, John wasn’t afraid to borrow interest at times. But he was brilliant at hiding his sources.

John’s particular trick was to take well-known actors and re-make them in another medium. The Cresta Bear was based on Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider. The Hofmeister Bear was a Cockney Fonz.

That doesn’t have to be your trick. But there has to be something about your character that is contradictory, compelling and memorable… while at the same time relevant, and they have to have a clear role in relation to the product.

Give it a try. Madison Avenue has an annual parade of advertising icons. It’s time we created a few more over here.

Previous Tips:

What Would Paul & Nigel Do?; The Hidden Flaw; How To Write Copy; Be Funny All The Way Through; How To Do Virals; How To Get A Pay Rise; Be Wary Of Punding; Challenge The Brief; Tell The Truth; Playing To Lose; How To Write Headlines; How To Do Direct; How To Do Radio; How To Do Press; How To Do TV; How To Do Digital; How To Do Posters; Look At Weird Shit; Presenting To The Client; Presenting To The Team; Presenting To The Creative Director; How To Deal With Rejection; Look Creative; Don't Be Afraid To Ask; Your Idea Has To Be 120%; Read Iain's Tips; Don't Behave; How To Discuss Ideas; Read Hugh's Tips; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part IV - How To Turn A Placement Into A Job; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part III - How To Approach Agencies (re-print of Tip No. 7); How To Get A Job In Advertising Part II - How To Put A Book Together; How To Get A Job In Advertising Part I - FAQ; Make Friends With Traffic; Get Reference; Don't Stop Too Soon; Be Very; Breaking Up; Working Well With Your Partner; Finding The Right Partner; How To Approach Agencies; Never-Seen-Before Footage; Dicketts' Finger; Two Blokes In The Pub; Play Family Fortunes; Should You Take A Bad Job?; Don't Overpolish


Anonymous said...

Nice one, Scamp.

Have you been watching 'Washes Whiter' (it's on before 'Mad Men'). Webster's been in the last 2 episodes. What a softly-spoken, reasonable-sounding bloke he was. And made great ads that outlived the brands they were for.

Your tip is a useful one. The point about contradictions is true: the YouTube and AdultSwim vids made by people using Star Wars figures are so popular because the characters are altered to contradict what we expect them be like. Vader and The Emperor act like they're in a slightly camp relationship; Ben Kenobi swear, etc.

Anonymous said...

just working on something that might require a character, and this tip is spot on, thanks scamp!

Anonymous said...

Can you think of any character based ads of late that come close to those little gems?

Wooley & Worth? That idiot at the Post Office? Anyone?

I like Gary Lineker for Walkers. Celebrity endorsers are like politicians, ugly buildings and hookers - if they stay around for long enough, they start to earn a bit of respect.

The same is possibly true for Jamie Oliver at Sainsbury's..... Maybe. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

pg tips monkey & churchill dog are modern classics.

the budweiser frogs/lizards were great a while back too (i know they're american) but great writing.

i also liked that alan whicker travelocity stuff. heavy on the product yet silly with it.

Anonymous said...

Irn-Bru 32 cuckoo was an ace character. Begbie dressed like a bird = good contradiction


Anonymous said...

Yes - Monkey! Love it. Although surely it's ITV Monkey first and foremost.

I'm not sure what it is about Churchill, but I really like their daft new campaign - possibly for the reasons stated by anon 3.45.

Anonymous said...

re anon @4.39

No no, please don't like the Churchill ads, they're awful, terrible ads, so crap that I found myself calling Churchill the other night to get a quote. Doh. It worked.

But I felt dirty afterwards, hence my anonymity.

Anonymous said...

re anon @4.39

No no, please don't like the Churchill ads, they're awful, terrible ads, so crap that I found myself calling Churchill the other night to get a quote. Doh. It worked.

But I felt dirty afterwards, hence my anonymity.

Sell! Sell! said...

Quality post scamp. Part of the appeal of Mr Webster's creations was that they always seemed to have a warmth to them - even the Humphreys were 'cuddly sinister' - there was no sense of them trying to be to-cool-for-school. I think that helped them to become popular and endure.

Anonymous said...

I've invented a character.

It's called stinky the minge (it's based on a real whoopsie-la-la).

She gets into lots of amusing scrapes, like the funny time she opened her curtains to find a throng of flesh-flutes baying for ingress.

Of course she let them all in and had a great time as they rode and dived and spent their tributes, one by one.

'What's she selling?' I hear you ask.

Nothing. It was just a silly little story about my lovely wet fanny.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah the hofmeister bear is so great.. i mean, can you even get that piece of shit lager anywhere these days? sold it like a true pro there!

Anonymous said...

And he reversed his technique by basing John Smith's Arkwright on Andy Capp.

Anonymous said...

Anon 8.26: Unfortunately, the character was better than the beer.

There was a lot of crap lagers in the 80s that it's hard to find now (thankfully): Harp (awful); John Smiths Lager (an anachronism or perhaps an oxymoron – discuss); Kestrel (you had to >pretend< to be drunk after 4 cans of it).

Any more for any more?

Anonymous said...

What would John Webster do? Turn in his grave if he saw that Pepsi Max ad.

]-[appy Thought said...

@ Anon, 4:39 PM

Forget ITV or PGtips, that's Mother's monkey that is! If PGtips get tired of him he'll go be the Millar monkey or something. He has become a character in his own right, he just happens to associate with brands for large amounts of money.

Speaking of, anyone seen his 10 minute mini-feature he's in before most cinema films? Only a truly loved character could pull that off.

Rob Mortimer (aka Famous Rob) said...


Anonymous said...

Do you mean the environment mini-feature that MOnkey did?

Good Lord that was shit. Boring and a crap use of Monkey.

Anonymous said...

Cresta - So what have you got for me

Agency - We've got an idea from the man who invented the Hofmeister bear.

Cresta - The hofmiester bear? I loved that ad. I can't wait. So what have you got for me.

Agency - The Cresta Bear!

Cresta - cool.

(rip john)

Lunar BBDO said...

Copyranter's alive again, for what it's worth.

Kind of like Dirty Den.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, this reinforces my belief that entertaining content is the key criteria for a "good ad" as judged by the man on the street. I'm wondering what other categories there might be to judge this..

Anonymous said...

Interesting, this reinforces my belief that entertaining content is the key criteria for a "good ad" as judged by the man on the street. I'm wondering what other categories there might be to judge this..


Rachel said...

Dont know where to put this up but congrats on the March Anna Scamp!

Anonymous said...

the pg tips ads with monkey are genius.