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