My John Hughes Story.Posted: August 9, 2009 Filed under: Comedy 12 Comments
The director John Hughes, who just died at 59, was a copywriter at the same international ad agency as I during my first decade there. I knew him a little — not well. He was a quiet, funny guy who could always be counted on to amuse in a storyboard presentation. His low-key manner of presentation was funny, and his work was funny.
Unless my recollection is wrong, he didn’t sell a whole lot of work. I don’t recall any campaigns he was known for at the time. Rather, he was a beneficiary of those fat times in advertising when you could afford to keep talented writers on the payroll just for their ability to amuse you in meetings. And that wasn’t a negligible or valueless skill. Even if the agency’s recommendation to the client was someone else’s campaign, it helped to soften the client up with some yucks from John and his campaign as an amuse-bouche before the main course. Of course, no agency could thrive without coming up with the goods for clients, but it seemed back then that clients were paying agencies to make them laugh in meetings as much as they were paying them to reach consumers; and that agencies were paying some writers primarily to be court jesters in their own internal meetings, which could be difficult to get through without a substantial leavening of humor. Also, you never knew — some crazy, hilarious idea John came up with just might work.
I remember one that didn’t, but which did crack us all up at the time. Several creative teams were working on a freeze-dried instant coffee (freeze-drying was new technology in the seventies), the claim of which was that it was indistinguishable from ground roast. John’s campaign depicted people who inexplicably didn’t know this about our coffee, and who therefore, naturally, went around wearing dunce caps. Schoolboy dunce caps in 1979 were already so antiquated that there was a wonderfully absurd and somehow sick quality to the humor of the idea. In my memory, I actually see people doing spit takes around the room as he unveiled it, and guffawing. There wasn’t a chance in hell the idea would make it to the client; that didn’t matter.
It occurs to me now that the theme of “school” which was present in that idea informed most of his great movie work that came later. Perhaps it was also present in the National Lampoon magazine pieces he was writing at the time he was at the agency. I remember all of us being jealous that he was getting those pieces published while holding down the same job we did, but also holding him in awe for the energy and industry required by his double life.
Joe Devivo writes, in an email:
I read your blog on John and generally agreed with it. I, too, thought John came up with amusing ideas, but had very few, if any, winners. Did he do “Big Yeller” for Kellogg’s? But that was a not-so-great campaign.
And, like you, I was amazed that he could hold down his Burnett job, then go home and write for Lampoon ’til 3am.
The problem I had with your blog was when you said, “he was a beneficiary of those fat times in advertising when you could afford to keep talented writers on the payroll just for their ability to amuse you in meetings.”
I know of nobody who was hired to be amusing at meetings. Sure, some of us were more amusing at meetings than others, and some campaigns that were presented were there for their entertainment value. But even though the times were good, and money was comparatively plentiful, there was no way that Hal, or Norm Muse, or Gene Kolkey, etc., or later, Rob, me, and others would hire somebody just because of their ability to lighten up a meeting.
The only reason that any of them, or us, hired anybody was because there was some feeling that that person had potential to solve advertising problems. And as their bosses, we would benefit by their presence.
So people like Pat Martin, Don Novello, Dan Heagy and John Hughes, who in my memory were great “meeting stars,” were hired because they had a wonderful weirdness about them as well as the ability to put words together in an orderly fashion. And they were hired with the hope that their out-of-the-box thinking (although that term wasn’t invented yet) would someday hit the home run that would make the person who hired them the beneficiary of that success with promotions, stock options and power. That they were all wonderful presenters well-loved by clients and agency alike was a bonus.
As I remember it, [name redacted] did very little work, but most of what he did was sparkling–and he probably sold a higher percentage of his work than anybody else. Don Novello sold hardly anything. But everybody loved him. John Hughes mostly came in 2nd or 3rd, never 1st (Except perhaps “Yeller”). Dan was the real anomaly with the great ability to be off-the-wall and on strategy at the same time. He sold lots.
So, to sum up. You’re full of shit. Nobody was hired to be amusing at meetings.
But the rest of the blog was good.
Needless to say, I disagree with Joe’s main point. While it is certainly true that no one was ever hired to be good in meetings, some people who were hired in those days sustained their careers more on the basis of how many laughs they and they their work got in meetings than on how many successful campaigns they created.
I believe that Joe Devivo pretty well painted a picture of what was really going on at Burnett during this interesting time period. We (in the creative groups) knew that the creative work presented in the CRC meetings provided a great deal of entertainment to the agency decision making folks sitting around the large conference table. Usually, Dan Heagy came up with some of the most off beat solutions that really stretched the bounderies of what was creative and yet strategically on focus with the marketing direction guidelines. He was a genius as far as I was concerned. He was also one of the funniest and smartest people I have ever worked with.
I had the pleasure of also working with Tim Kazurinsky at another agency and found Timmy to have these same creative quailities. Tim continues to write for TV and also makes cameos in movies and remains a good friend today. Not alot of people can say that they worked at Burnett 3 times as I did. Perhaps this was because Burnett represented the most fun I have ever had in my career in advertising and I kept coming back.
No other agency provided the creative environment that I found at Burnett…and I had worked at several other large Chicago agencies as well. Bob Birkenes / Boca Raton, Fl
Great to hear from you, Bob!
I agree with you about Dan.
Rob Nolan, who was John’s boss and remembers him selling more work than either Joe or I do, wrote a piece on the Huffington Post about John’s advertising career:
I was a ‘johnny-come-lately’ at Leo and obviously missed the John Hughes era. But I will say one thing. Having just spent the prior 10 years working for Bill Bernbach and Bob Levenson and Roy Grace and Helmut Krone and Peter Murphy and on and on ad infinitum, John Hughes would not have been in the room to provide comic relief at DDB. His work would have been valued, bought, and sold to the client or Bill would have had the account guy who failed to sell it on the carpet asking for reasons why. May I humbly suggest that John Hughes was the right guy in the wrong agency? I personally endured endless CRCs where trite jingles with absolutely no ideas won the day over work that was idea-driven, irreverent, funny, and original lost out to mediocrity of the worst kind. It us disgraceful that someone,at John’s passing, would demean a talent like his by suggesting a fat agency kept him around for laughs. It wasn’t John’s fault he wasn’t selling his work. The fault lies squarely with the agency team that employed him at the time. His subsequent success with mass American audiences bears testimony to his brilliance. And the dunce caps in all those uproarious meetings were on all the wrong heads.
Your reaction made me reread my post to see if it could reasonably be interpreted to demean John or his talent, and I’m not seeing that. With the objectivity of six weeks’ distance from the date I wrote the post, I see admiration bordering on awe for John in every paragraph.
I’d also question whether John felt demeaned by his Burnett experience. Rob Nolan, in his Huffington Post piece, doesn’t think so:
This discussion is very interesting, but its main thesis is flawed. John sold lots of things in his five years at Burnett. Which I will spell out for you privately at lunch (not a big fan of public forums). One does not become a creative director at a major ad agency by not performing.
John Hughes, Leo Burnett’s Own Court Jester
Let me help. Here are just two statements I have a hard time seeing as ‘admiration, bordering on awe’.
1. “He was a beneficiary of those fat times in advertising when you could afford to keep talented writers around just for their ability to amuse you in meetings.”
2. “…agencies were paying some writers primarily to be court jesters in their own internal meetings which could be difficult to get through without some leavening of humor.”
Perhaps others may not find these comments disrespectful and demeaning to John’s memory, and that’s fine. I do. His contributions to American humor, film, art, and culture stand on their own. He certainly doesn’t need me or anyone else to defend his brilliance or his talent. But he was no clown, and you can bet when he was up there trying to sell an idea to the all-powerful CRC, he wasn’t just clowning around. He was presenting work he genuinely believed in. And I doubt he found the ‘spit takes’ and ‘guffaws’ around the table the least bit amusing.
More likely, he found them hurtful. I know I did.
Ted, instead of expressing my disagreement with your interpretation of my post, I’d rather express my agreement with one thing you say. Which is that the clash of corporate hierarchy with artistic aspiration can be a terribly hurtful one. You were hurt by it, I was hurt by it, everyone who allowed himself to expose his soul to it (which was the only way to do good work) was hurt by it.
It’s good to acknowledge this. To deny it is somehow to accept the hurt as deserved, which is not psychologically helpful.
There is one part of your last comment I would take issue with, though. It’s just a gut feeling, but I think that John was gratified when a CRC would respond with hilarity to one of his funny ideas. That was the point of so much of his work, after all — to make people laugh. Sure, he would have liked it even better if they had laughed and then said, “We’re going to produce this,” but getting good, solid, non-derisive laughter — even better, guffaws and spit takes! — was an affirmation of his talent, and a sign of affection for his person. Winning a CRC was what we wanted to do, but walking away with a feeling of “well, at least I know they really, really liked my work” was a consolation prize that could get you through the night.
I’m a voice from your past. Probably the only “black” guy you ever created ads with.
I’d forgotten all about you, Burnett and most of the ad game until another “white” ex-Burnetter seemed shocked that a, er…uh…ummm, “person of color” actually worked there over 30 years ago.
Anyway, it took me a while to remember your last name but it just came to me about 5 minutes ago.
I remember John Hughes too. But from Needham, where he was when I got there in 1972. I think that was after Burnett, but I’m not sure.
All I can remember is that he was young, seemed smart and kinda distant. I think he worked in Dale Landsman’s group. But I also recall when he started writing jokes for the National Lampoon. Who knew what it would lead to.
Lowell “RaceMan” Thompson
Great to hear from you! And thanks for sharing your “John Hughes memory.”
Hope all is well with you. Remembering you fondly,