The Glory of ‘Surfer,’ One of the Greatest Guinness Ads Ever Made

Keith Cartwright picks his 3 favorite campaigns

Guinness has a legendary advertising history dating back to John Gilroy’s famous illustrations of the 1930s and ’40s, created via ad agency S.H. Benson, featuring the zoo keeper and his animals, including the famous pint-balancing toucan, enjoying the Irish stout.

The brand has also unleashed countless renowned TV spots, from the Rutger Hauer “Pure Genius” spots of the 1980s to “Noitulove,” the brilliantly playful human-history-in-reverse ad that won the Film Grand Prix at Cannes in 2006.

But any discussion about Guinness’ greatest advertising always comes around, eventually, to “Surfer,” the 1999 spot from Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, directed by Jonathan Glazer, that likened the act of waiting for a slow-poured pint of Guinness to waiting for the perfect wave. The tagline: “Good things come to those who wait.”

Keith Cartwright, executive creative director at Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners, chose “Surfer” as one of his three favorite spots when Adweek sat down with him at One Show judging in March for our “Best Ads Ever” series.

“It was just so well crafted,” Cartwright said. “Smart. Really simple. Not a ton of copy or dialogue. It didn’t need it. It sticks with me as a high bar in craft.”

I spoke to AMV BBDO art director Walter Campbell by phone about “Surfer” when it was released back in 1999. Campbell told me he was influenced a lot by the old “Guinness Is Good for You” ads. “We looked at the history of Guinness … and the way that imagery stayed with you,” Campbell said. “We wanted to get into something like that, something that had a sort of strangeness or mythology to it.”

The image of giant, ghostly horses galloping atop the waves came directly from Walter Crane’s 1890s painting Neptune’s Horses. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could bring that [painting] to life,'” Campbell said.

Tom Carty’s copywriting, which Campbell described to me as “Moby Dick-esque with a bit of Dylan Thomas,” completed the vision.

“Instead of making the kind of surf film where people say, ‘Hey, I’d like to do that,’ we wanted to say, ‘Maybe you should think twice about coming out here,'” Campbell said.

At Cannes in 1999, “Surfer” lost out in the race for the Film Grand Prix to Lowe Howard-Spink’s “Litany” for the Independent newspaper. But in 2002, “Surfer” was voted the best ad of all time by the British public in a poll by Channel 4 and The Sunday Times.

As for his other favorite ads, Cartwright chose Burger King’s “Subservient Chicken” by CP+B and Barbarian Group, as well as a campaign he worked on at Wieden + Kennedy—Nike’s “LeRoy Smith” for the Jordan Brand.

“It blew my mind. I didn’t know we could do that kind of stuff,” he said of the interactive BK campaign. “Props to those guys for putting in that work, and creating something that’s still talked about today.”

Of the “LeRoy Smith” campaign, Cartwright added: “It was just a lot of fun. It was one of the first big integrated campaigns that I had done that included all the social surfaces and film. We created apparel, we created shoes, we created this whole encompassing campaign that took off and did really well for the brand.”

Check out the video at the top of this story for more from Cartwright, including recent BSSP work he’s proud of, as well as who inspires him creatively outside advertising.

See more recent “Best Ads Ever” videos below. And for the full series, click here.