When you hear someone great tell you how they did something it seems so simple, so obvious, you think anyone could do it.

All great answers look simple and obvious afterwards.

I’ve just watched a film of John Webster talking about how he did his great campaigns.

And they seem so simple, so logical and obvious to anyone who wasn’t there.

But I was there.

I was a junior, watching what John did and trying to do it myself.

And it didn’t look logical or obvious at all.

It looked impossible.

Research had just turned the campaign down and we didn’t have anything else.

Then John always came along and turned everything round 180 degrees.

In the film he talks about his campaign for Unigate milk.

He had invented a group of characters called ‘Humphreys’.

They hated milk.

So their teeth would fall out, their fur would be patchy, and they’d be weak and small.

The planner took it out to research and it absolutely bombed.

Consumers hated the little creatures because they were so ugly.

So that’s the end of that campaign, right?

Not quite.

John thought, let’s do the opposite.

Let’s make the Humphreys cute little characters that love milk.

But if we just show them being cute, that will be boring.

So how about if we don’t show them, we just show the long straws they use to nick everyone’s milk.

There was a police campaign running at the time “Watch out there’s a thief about”.

John just changed it to “Watch out there’s a Humphrey about”.

The campaign increased sales massively, school kids everywhere were singing it, and John won a D&AD award.

Then he had to do Sugar Puffs.

He loved the idea of mums talking about their little monsters, so that’s what he did.

A child-sized monster, like the Cookie Monster from Sesame Street, desperate to get Sugar Puff’s honey.

But kids hated it because it was too small to be a real monster, and mums hated its rude behaviour.

So that’s the end of that campaign, right?


John just did the opposite, he made it a huge monster.

That way, when it broke things it was cute and clumsy only meaning to be playful.

Mums and kids loved it, sales went through the roof and John won another D&AD award.

A similar case was John Smiths Yorkshire Bitter.

We’d all had a go at it, we all had the idea of Andy Capp.

But only John thought of doing Andy Capp as live action instead of a cartoon.

A grumpy northerner who doesn’t like anything but his pint of beer.

But again it was disaster in research.

Young men said he was a miserable git, no wonder he was always alone, who’d want to drink with him?

So that’s the end of that campaign, right?

Not for John.

He decided to do the opposite, give him a mate, a wife, and a dog.

Not only did that stop him being a loner, it gave John lots more funny setups for commercials.

Soon John Smiths was the biggest selling bitter in the UK, and John got another D&AD award.

No one could work out how come John Webster was the only person who could do both.

Write advertising the public loves, that works, that also win awards.

Usually you have to choose between them.

Some agencies can do one.

Some agencies can do the other.

But John did both, how did he do that?

I think he didn’t use research for a final decision, he used it for creative development.

So his initial idea was just stage one in the process.

Research was stage two.

Where the rest of us gave up and walked away from an idea that bombed, John just changed gear.

Research wasn’t there to tell him if he should make the idea or not.

Research was there to tell him how to make the idea better.


Big difference between him and the rest of us.