Director John Burrows, the eye behind iconic campaigns for Flake, Old Spice, Andrex and more has passed away, leaving a profound mark on the London industry. We look back on a wonderful career.
With over 3,500 commercials under his belt over a 30-year career that spanned from the late 60s to the late 90s, John Burrows was a prolific director in the advertising industry.
John passed away last week at the age of 80. Having directed some of the most iconic British ads of the 70s and passing on his love of the production industry to his children Jody Allison (now a well-known producer and co-founder of Heads Up Production) and Toby Brockhurst (an award-winning VFX supervisor), he has left a legacy that is sure to endure.
John directed some of the most iconic commercials of the 70s - old Spice Carmina Burana, the original Flake ad in the poppy field, the original Andrex Puppy ad, the original Captain Birds Eye, most of the Martini ‘Any Time Any Place Any Where’ campaigns, as well as brands like Guinness, Bacardi, Bounty, multiple Milk Marketing Board campaigns, Midland Bank, British Airways & Coca-Cola.
Moving into the 80s John became known as “the car director” shooting many campaigns for Peugeot, Austin Rover, Goodyear with Enzo Ferrari and many, many more, whilst still continuing to shoot lifestyle ads for other brands.
John’s daughter Jody has vivid memories of spending time with her father on set.“I would go on shoots at any opportunity. I absolutely loved being on set and watching dad work, occasionally being shoved in front of the camera too. The atmosphere on Dad’s sets was such fun, always laughter, often naughty at that, and such a feeling of a family,” says Jody.
His work ethic was legendary. At his peak, he was shooting for 180 days a year and he was constantly travelling – Jody says she used to think “it was like having Mick Jagger for a dad”. This was a director who just loved to work – and he had some strong opinions about how the industry had changed in recent years.
“He knows he wouldn’t have enjoyed it much these days… for a start it would have been impossible for him to shoot as much as he did in his height. 180 days in a year would just be impossible now and being on set was so much better than being in meetings. ‘Let’s stop talking about it and get on and shoot the thing!’” Jody says.
“I had a conversation with him about 18 months ago about directors pitching, putting together a treatment and then maybe or maybe not getting the job. He had two thoughts on that: ‘bugger that! They either want me or they don’t!’ and ‘I’m not about to tell them how to achieve the shot, if they hire me, then I’ll tell them!’”
In an age where brands and agencies want more content than ever but value experience less than ever and rarely trust talent to just to get on with it, there’s something to be learned from John’s approach and output.
His words of wisdom certainly left an impact on his children, Toby and Jody, who followed him into the industry. “He was a huge inspiration to my brother and I,” says Jody. “He was so very talented, but always very humble about his ability; he never blew his own trumpet, and just took all of the success in his stride. He showed little ego and treated everyone around him with the upmost respect and kindness, he appreciated that they worked hard for him, to help him realise his dream, and he never took that for granted. He always taught us to be respectful of others’ input in the process, to appreciate it was always a team effort. And he always said it was a small industry so you never know who you might come across further down the line… And work hard and appreciate every moment as it won’t last forever.”
John’s creative flair was evident early on. As it happened, one of the locals in his parents’ pub was the Head of the Photographic Department at Guildford Art College. John’s dad shared some of his son’s photos with his drinking buddy… and he was so impressed that John soon became the youngest ever student at the college, aged just 15. At 17, he was asked to teach night students, and at 18 was accepted as a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and again was at that stage their youngest ever member.
His move into filmmaking came when he was about 21, when he began working as a camera operator for directors like John Schlesinger, Dick Lester and Anthony Mann. And in 1962 he jumped into the directing chair and shot a short film, ‘Youthquake’, to promote ‘the swinging London look’ to America. The film made its way to Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as an example of contemporary film making of its time.
By the age of 25, advertising was the hot new thing for young directors and John hit this scene just at the right time, starting at a company called MRM, before starting his own production company with another MRM director from David Gillard.
Over the course of his 30-year career, he worked on some of the biggest brands and culture-shaping campaigns. And, says Jody, he collected a lifetime of wonderful memories and close friends.
“He really did think it was the best job on earth, even now,” she says. “Two days before he passed away, his old producer from the late 60s, Adrian Lyne [director of Flashdance, Jacob’s Ladder, Indecent Proposal, Fatal Attraction] phoned him from LA and they laughed about their global travel and antics, laughing and reminiscing with a great big smile on his face…”