My John Hughes Story.Posted: August 9, 2009
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.