Enduring Properties

A new documentary on the life and work of the legendary John Webster reminds us of his great skill in creating loveable advertising ‘properties’. And while they may not be the coolest aspect of modern communications, great characters can still be extremely valuable to brands

There is a lot of talk these days about how advertising is changing. Conferences are built around the subject, books are published on it: being a spokesperson on change in the industry can be a lucrative thing. What is less discussed is what aspects of ad thinking have endured from the analogue world into the digital age. In all the conversation about storytelling, big data, 360 degree thinking, people rarely mention some of the classic ad ideas that have carried through to today. It’s simply not that fashionable to do so. And yet, when we at Creative Review watched a recent documentary about John Webster, we were struck by how relevant his ideas remain in today’s world, particularly his skill with creating advertising characters, or properties.

Webster, who died in 2006, spent most of his career at Boase Massimi Pollitt (otherwise known as BMP, which later became DDB BMP and is now Adam & Eve DDB). While there he created some of Britain’s best-loved and most famous advertising campaigns. Much has been made of CDP’s contribution to the UK’s advertising history in recent years, but BMP in the 1970s and 80s was an equal force. Skip through Webster’s back catalogue and you’ll find gems ranging from the hilarious (decades of ads for John Smith’s bitter) to the serious (his Points of View ad for the Guardian remains hugely powerful today).

In the documentary, which was created by Google’s Patrick Collister, a former colleague of Webster, with the help of some students at the School of Communication Arts 2.0, Webster is seen talking through these campaigns in an archive interview. He is joined in the film by a range of industry figures including the likes of Sir John Hegarty, Dave Trott, Rory Sutherland and Collister himself, who all expound on his brilliance.

Collister explains that he made the film both to preserve the interviews with Webster, but also as a “reminder”: “I think so much of what he talks about is as relevant today to young people in our business as it was when he was in his pomp back in the mid-70s,” he says in the film. He’s right, of course. Webster’s ideas were full of humanity, rich in warmth, humour and detail. This is no more evident than in the characters that he created. He is the man behind the Cadbury’s Smash Martians, the Honey Monster, the Cresta Bear, and the Hofmeister Bear, amongst others.

For those of a certain generation, these characters are iconic, and through them Webster has left a template for how a great advertising character should be made. It is one worth paying note to, for while characters might not seem the most exciting advertising idea today, they can still be incredibly potent. Just look at the meerkats.

More than fluffy toys

When talking to Martin Boase, founding partner of BMP, for this article, he was keen that Webster be remembered for more than just creating “fluffy toys”. This is a fair point, but there is surely more to Webster’s ad properties than mere fluffiness too. Indeed, it was vital to Webster that his characters were rich in detail. “Every single one of them had a back story,” says Collister. “All of John’s had personalities and characters and back stories. He could probably have written a book about all of them.” In Collister’s telling, Webster’s characters sound as if they were almost real to him. He cites one time where he had created an ad for Sony featuring a robot, with John Cleese providing the voiceover. The robot had a wife who was in the form of a vacuum cleaner and one scene saw them sitting together on a couch. “Before the shot, I watched John taking out chocolates from a box and unwrapping them and then dropping the wrappers around where the feet of the vacuum cleaner would be,” remembers Collister. “I said to him, ‘John, it’s not going to be in shot’. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said, ‘this is what she does when she watches telly, she eats chocolate.’ I thought it was so revealing.”

At a time when CDP had somewhat cornered the market in celebrity advertising, Webster recognised that BMP needed to do something different. He also saw the many advantages that non-human characters offered: they would never grow old, they were cheaper than using real stars, and they wouldn’t ever show up the brand by being caught in a sex scandal. They are also a huge potential moneyspinner, with the IP for the characters owned by the brand in the vast majority of cases. But in order to capture the public’s imagination, he also knew that they couldn’t be bland. “They are identifiable characters, they’re not stereotypes,” says Collister of Webster’s work. “They’re individuals and we recognise them as individuals, that’s why they became so popular. We love them because they are identifiable as themselves.”

“He was an arrested kid really, like most of us are,” he continues. “We want to be delighted and have a sense of fun and wonder when we see things.”

Double acts

While Webster himself may have gone, many of his characters are still with us, though are in varying degrees of health. When you watch the early ads with Honey Monster, he appears like a hulking hunchback desperately craving his honeyed sugar puffs; over the years he has been softened, cartoonified, and ultimately lost a little of his charm. The dreaded blandification, so common in advertising today, has taken place to a certain extent. Webster’s legacy lives on in some of our other familiar ad characters though. Monkey, a character first devised for ITV Digital and now a star for PG Tips, contains all of the elements that Webster set out in his characters, although he always appears with his human sidekick, Al, who has been played throughout by Johnny Vegas.

“We based the two of them, Al and Monkey, on comedy double acts from the past,” says Mark Waites, founder at Mother, of how they were first devised. “Morecambe and Wise, Laurel and Hardy – all the usual, but we realised that it’s never smart guy/dumb guy but parent/child. Al is the child with the cartoon voice, Monkey is the unimaginative adult who takes himself far too seriously. To this day, I don’t know why anyone would want Monkey merchandise, he’s an awful little git.”

Waites’ personal view aside, Monkey has been the subject of many a successful spin off, including a new recent book for Comic Relief. This is of course a difference between Webster’s era and today: while there might have been the odd merchandising opportunity then, there is now a huge industry in toys, books, podcasts and the like for today’s ad characters. Get the property right, and it can appear in a vast number of forms, no longer just in a TV spot. This of course includes social media, and today all ad characters are expected to have their own Twitter feed and Facebook page, as well as perhaps a blog. Again, it is vital then that the character has a distinct personality: get that right and a lot of fun can be had with it online. Monkey, for example, has over 16,000 followers on Twitter, who tune in for one-liners and other witticisms, all delivered in his distinct tone of voice. “Social media is the perfect place for an ad character,” agrees Waites. “Although often they need to be less ad and more character. Fans get bored quickly if it’s all product.”

Meerkat mania

The campaign that has taken most advantage of the opportunities available with ad characters today is surely Comparethemarket.com’s meerkat campaign, which launched in 2009 and was created by VCCP. The meerkats themselves were designed by Darren Walsh at Passion Pictures, and something about their distinctive look, their Russian heritage, and chief meerkat Aleksandr Orlov’s catchphrase ‘simples’ chimed with the public from the off. They continue to head up the comparison website’s advertising and have appeared across social media, in books, and as a series of cuddly toys that are given away on the site when certain products are purchased.

The success of the meerkats is undeniable, even if opinion on the ads themselves is sometimes split. “It’s become rather fashionable to decry the meerkat at the moment,” says Collister, “but I think it’s a bloody genius idea. It’s done fantastically well for them in a market in which you can only differentiate through your advertising. You can’t differentiate through the product or service.”

If the meerkats were a bizarre proposition to begin with – the first ad featured just Orlov’s character, who is shown complaining about customers confusing his website, comparethemeerkat.com, with comparethemarket.com – over the last four years their adventures have become increasingly surreal, with the later ads completely relying on their audience being in on the joke to make any kind of sense. To be fair, most people are, though in this, the ad agency has broken one of Webster’s golden rules. “The great thing about John is he managed to produce these campaigns that went on running and even if you arrived from Mars and saw it for the first time in year five, you’d still understand what they were,” says Martin Boase. “If you look at the meerkat campaign now, it’s completely incomprehensible. The whole thing is baroque. You wouldn’t have a clue what it is about. [Webster] was very good at running campaigns that still had a currency to the newcomer, as it were, even down the road.”

This point aside the meerkats have set a high benchmark for other comparison websites to follow, seeing off the previous market leader, Confused.com, to take the top spot in the sector. Confused.com has recently come up with a character of its own, Brian the Robot, in order to try and fight back. “One of the reasons we are working with Brian is because Confused.com were the brand leader and they were pushed out of the way, as were Money Supermarket and Go Compare, by the bloody meerkats, who are massively popular,” say Steve Nicholls and Matt Anderson, creative directors at Publicis. “Insurance is such a boring subject, people just switch off. And we’re even doing the more boring thing, which is comparing insurance. So we needed something that was lively to say ‘I am an insurance expert’. I think the way we described him was that Brian is like The Terminator, he has one thing on his mind which is to give you an insurance quote.”

This determination has led Brian into some unusual, and comedic, situations including one where he appeared to interrupt a couple engaging in a spot of dogging, in order to give them an insurance quote. This led to a number of complaints, though perhaps gives Brian The Robot some comedy edge, a rare quality in an ad character today. The jury is still out on whether Brian will be fully taken to the public’s heart, though Confused has invested heavily in him – building a real working robot to appear in the ads – so we can expect to see much more of him in the future.

While these examples show that John Webster’s legacy in character design is alive and well in today’s more complex advertising landscape, there is one respect in which his style may not be so suited to today’s world. Virtually all of his characters were determinedly British, with quirky personalities suited to the British sense of humour. Webster himself felt that part of the success of his characters was down to the UK’s love affair with animals, which can at times surpass our interest in humans. It is difficult to see how many of Webster’s characters, and in fact even some of today’s more recent character offerings, could be made to work in a global campaign. Perhaps the only characters that can be made to work on a global scale are those that are bland – Ronald McDonald say, or Coke’s polar bears. But maybe there was one set of Webster’s characters that could have made the leap to global fame. “All of John’s characters were very, very British,” agrees Collister, “there weren’t any examples of them going global. But I have to tell you I think the Cadbury’s Smash Martians would work anywhere.” 1

View the John Webster film at humanadman.tumblr.com

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