We were talking about John Webster.
Someone said “Isn’t it strange, he was the only person who consistently did work that advertising juries loved and ordinary people in the street loved?”
I knew what they meant.
Normally you have to choose between the two.
Either you do work that gets into the language.
You hear your song or slogan repeated on buses, or by schoolchildren, in newspapers, on TV comedy shows.
Or you do work that awards juries like.
Expensive, stylish, jokes you won’t get unless you aspire to be a 30-ish, Guardian-reading male, working in Shoreditch.
Post modern, ironic.
The “it’s so bad it’s good” school of thinking.
So that’s the choice.
Corny ads that the trendy ad crowd would be embarrassed about.
Or in-jokes that only the trendy ad crowd care about.
That seems to be the choice that everyone has to make.
But John Webster didn’t choose between them.
Which is why the public and the awards juries loved his work.
I always thought John’s work could best be described as “the corny done brilliantly”.
John’s start point was corny, but his execution was brilliant.
Think of the characters in John’s ads: The Honey Monster, The Smash Martians, The Hofmeister Bear, The Humphries for Unigate, Cresta Bear, Arkwright for John Smiths.
Now think of other people’s corny ads: The Jolly Green Giant, Tony The Tiger, the Snap-Crackle and Pop characters for Rice Crispies, the Tetley Tea Folk, the wobbly foam aliens for Monster Munch, the opera singer for Go Compare, the stringy-haired woman in Confused.com.
Just like John they all start with a corny character.
Unlike John, they all stop there.
They repeat the same old corny non-jokes over and over.
What John did was take that corny element, the part that catches on with the public, then really start to get creative.
He’d write brilliantly original scripts, use exciting visual techniques, stretch people’s intelligence like the best TV comedy programmes.
So John didn’t have to choose, he had the best of both worlds.
People in the street were repeating his ads, and advertising juries were throwing awards at him.
Because John didn’t choose between corny and intelligent.
He used both.
Corny was the Trojan horse, to get the advertising remembered in the real world amongst real people.
Intelligence was what was inside the wooden horse.
That’s what lifted it above everything else.
Punters noticed the big corny character and invited it in.
Then out popped some of the wittiest writing, the best editing, the most sophisticated visual gags.
That’s why John’s Smash Martians is still voted ‘The Funniest Ad Of All Time’ by TV viewers and advertising professionals.
That’s why, whenever a TV channel runs their All Time 100 Greatest Ads Ever, John has more ads in there than anyone else.
That’s what the punters think.
And that’s why, during the period he was alive and working, John won more awards than anyone else.
Everyone knows that corny advertising works.
But creative types don’t like it, simply because it’s corny.
Truly great people, like John, aren’t frightened of the corny.
They use it, and do it brilliantly.
That was John, the corny done brilliantly.