November 7, 2023

Is this the greatest ad of all time?

Written by

He waits. That’s what he does. And I’ll tell you what. Tick followed tock followed tick followed tock followed tick. Ahab says, ‘I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream.’ The old sailors returned to the bar. ‘Here’s to you, Ahab!’ And the fat drummer hits the beat with all his heart.  

Here’s to waiting.

These are the only words spoken in the Guinness; ‘Surfer ’ advert.

If you had to describe the plot to someone who’d never seen it, you could say, "It’s a man and his mates waiting for a good wave to surf. The wave comes, they surf it, the waves turn into horses and then they celebrate their success back on the sand."

It doesn’t sound all that compelling. It doesn’t sound like the greatest ad ever made, but that’s what it is.

After its release in 1999, it received a Cannes Gold Lion, two gold pencils at the Design & Art Directors Association awards, and several Clios. And then, in 2018, BBH Labs World Cup of Ads, saw 15,000 public votes secure Surfer ’s place as the greatest ad of all time.

Let’s have a closer look:

Close up of a man’s face as he waits. His eyes are slightly off kilter.


16 long seconds pass before we hear the narrator, “He waits. That’s what he does…” the camera remains still for another 6 seconds as very quietly in the background we hear the beat of Leftfield’s ‘Phat Planet ’ slowly gathering momentum.

The surfer was just some local dude they found asleep under a palm tree in Hawaii. They didn’t want someone too pretty. He wasn’t even a particularly good surfer but they liked his eyes, his face.

The surfer and his friends grab their boards and run into the water. They dive, we see a flash of hooves thrashing.  

The surfer looks behind him at a wave the size of a block of flats. It’s pure terror, and he’s not acting. He’s never done this before. “Ahab says, ‘I don’t care who you are, here’s to your dream." The words are bitter, fatalistic. We know Ahab is the doomed hero from Moby Dick and that can’t be good.

The beat of the music is insistent. The creators wanted it to mimic the pounding of blood inside the surfer’s head, dangerous as it builds louder and louder.

They ride the wave, their focus intense, the waves become horses, galloping, cresting but never separated, they are the same thing, thrashing toward land. The horses were inspired by Walter Crane’s 1893 painting ‘Neptune’s Horses ’.


The surfer stays on the board, he’s winning. ‘Here’s to you, Ahab!’

Silence. He stands on his board, arms raised in victory, frozen in a moment. We hear nothing, just watch as the men laugh, hug, jump for joy.

The surfer looks at the camera and smiles.

The final words; ‘Here’s to waiting.’

The last image is of a pint of Guinness - “Good things come to those who wait”.

It took a year to make. The creation of art directors Walter Campbell and Tom Carty. They met a lot of resistance but stuck to their guns, made the ad they wanted, the one they knew would work.

Why does an advert that appears to have absolutely nothing to do with Guinness work so well?

In short, it’s everything, all together, all at once. If you take any one element on its own it doesn’t work. But layered together it produces both a goosebump inducing moment, and a complete film with a plot, twist and satisfying ending, in only 1 minute and 40 seconds.

Shooting in black and white mimics the famous drink’s colours and lends a timeless quality to it. At its core, it focusses on patience, shared experience, and achievement. So despite the unusual situation being depicted, it’s relatable in some ways. And people love an ad that isn’t marketing a product. No one likes being sold to. It’s just a good story, that generates a feel-good response. And that’s what Guinness always gives.

The word that appears in all their advertising slogans going right back to 1954 is ‘good’. The first was "Guinness is good for you." in the 1960’s; "My Goodness, My Guinness" (with actor Alec Guinness representing the brand) and then finally, "Good things come to those who..." A pint of Guinness takes exactly 119 seconds to pour. Waiting is important, as 'Surfer’ shows us.

Catsnake is a storytelling agency. We love finding stories, sharing stories and creating stories. Do you have a story that needs telling? Is it time? Have you waited long enough to tell it? We’d love to hear from you.