Hegarty: This creative life

Part memoir, part how-to guide, Sir John Hegarty’s first book is published this month. Eliza Williams talks to him about the past and future of advertising as we review some of the highlights of his 45-year career

Advertising is traditionally viewed as a young person’s game. Maybe this is because brands are so often in thrall to youth, or that the long, unrelenting hours and devotion to work that the industry demands lead to an early burnout. Whatever the cause, adland is certainly dominated by the young, and is preoccupied with snapping up the newest, hippest talents around. But, while youth may have its perks, there is much to be said for the wisdom of age.

At 66, Sir John Hegarty, BBH’s founding partner and worldwide creative director, has worked in advertising for over four decades. He has borne witness to the radical developments in media and culture that have wrought huge changes to the industry, and has recently penned a book sharing what these experiences have taught him about advertising today.

Hegarty On Advertising mixes personal experience with observations on the industry as a whole.

It is filled with advice: on how to be a good creative director, how to manage difficult clients, and how to successfully launch your own agency. Hegarty’s writing style is to the point: his years in advertising have perhaps made him wary of long paragraphs, and instead he adopts almost a bullet-point approach, regularly repeating certain philosophies and ideas throughout the book to emphasise their importance. The most central of these is found in the book’s subtitle, Turning Intelligence Into Magic, which is Hegarty’s slogan for describing BBH’s advertising approach. Magic is what he strives to achieve in all his ads, and while for some the word may seem a touch overblown, it is certainly difficult to fault Hegarty’s track record. The book is filled with images of the classic advertising campaigns created by his agency. Iconic advertising for Levi’s appears alongside the hugely popular Cream of Manchester campaign for Boddingtons, striking ads for Barnardo’s, and the memorable image of a naked Gail Porter projected onto Big Ben for FHM magazine. All these ads generated headlines, burrowed their way into the imaginations of their audiences, and then into the popular culture canon.

Alongside this trip down memory lane, Hegarty uses the book to offer his opinions on the state of advertising now. There is a temptation in books such as these for authors to try and predict how the future will unfold. Wisely, Hegarty avoids this. “Predicting the future is a dangerous business,” he writes in the preface. “In fact, the only prediction about the future is you’ll almost certainly be wrong.” Instead, he discusses the trends he has seen unfold in advertising in the last ten years, and how he feels these have affected the industry. Of course, the most seismic of these is the rise of digital.

Digital technology has not only changed the type of advertising that is created, but also how agencies are run. At one point, Hegarty speculates on what kind of agency he would create if he were starting from scratch today. Instead of the corporate set-up of most big ad agencies, he envisions the modern ad agency as a form of club. “A club is a place people enjoy going to and spending time in,” he writes. “A club is a rewarding, engaging and stimulating place to be. So why don’t we think of the office as a club and learn from the way a club is run rather than an office?”

He expands on this point when we meet to discuss the book. “The world is constantly changing, I think what people want from employment is changing, and I think what I’d be trying to do is get the widest possible talent to be working for us in some way or another,” he says. “I think my club thing was slightly pie in the sky but you do things like that to set a principle in process. Why do we tie people down to a nine-to-five situation when I do a lot of my thinking outside of the office? I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking.

“I think you want your company to be the most interesting place to be, and that you don’t view it as a job, you want to go in there, because you’re going to meet some really fascinating people, you’re going to have great conversations. And yes, you’re going to do some work, but you’re going to be interacting with people from a multitude of other disciplines. So it really was a way to try and rethink the way a company operates and stop maybe calling it a company…. It’s a slight fantasy, but if you’d said 25 or 30 years ago that people would have six months off for maternity leave, and that men would have time off for paternity, you’d have been laughed at. Those things gradually change.”

Hegarty recognises that such changes can be very difficult to implement retrospectively into a company that already exists, however, and that this lack of nimbleness made it particularly difficult for traditional agencies to adapt when digital technology first began to have an impact. “We operate by process and process is fundamentally important, because you get in in the morning and you know what to do. But the trouble with process is it takes us over and we just keep on doing it without actually thinking, without saying ‘why am I doing that?’ or ‘why does it work in that way?’ I think unless we ask those questions we won’t fundamentally change. We’ve got to make sure process really is the servant of the idea, a servant of the company, not dominating the company. The trouble is that the larger you get as an organisation, process takes over more and more. And if you look at any large company, they’re basically run on process. That’s what keeps them going – not what is best, what is good, what we should be doing.”

This systematic approach to making advertising hasn’t just affected agencies, but clients too. In the book, Hegarty rages against the influence that research groups have had on the ad industry, blaming them for the mediocre or ‘safe’ work that clients will often buy over more radical ideas. “Too often you’re dealing with people with the power to say ‘maybe’,” he writes. “Great work is bought by powerful people, not by the weak, the ones who say ‘maybe’, or the ones who hedge their bets.”

Globalisation has also had an impact on client behaviour. “What is different today is I think clients have less power,” he says when we meet. “They are much more part of a corporate structure. The work that we’re selling has a global aspect to it, so therefore they have to convince their other partners around the world that this is right. I think that that’s the major problem – that there are many more constituents to appease with this work, therefore it becomes harder to sell something really distinctive…. There’s more of a committee. I think that’s the difference. Large organisations haven’t realised that yet, or they may realise it, but they don’t know what to do about it. It’s just too difficult.”

For Hegarty, being a great client simply means being open to great ideas. “People often say to me ‘I’m sure there’s a list of clients you’d love to work for’,” he says, “and I say ‘no, there isn’t’. The people I want to work for are the people who really, really want to do great work. I don’t care what they sell, it’s irrelevant…. I just don’t want to work with boring people. And boring people are often in really exciting industries. Just because they’re in an exciting industry doesn’t mean to say they’re interesting.”

He devotes a whole chapter of the book to one client-agency relationship that worked magnificently, until recently at least. He reminisces nostalgically about the early days of working on Levi’s at BBH, when they created truly influential work: the launch of the Laundrette commercial, where young model Nick Kamen famously stripped down to his boxer shorts to wash his beloved jeans, not only sparked enormous sales of 501s but made an old-fashioned form of underwear popular again, sending the once-ubiquitous Y-fronts towards a fashion demise from which they have never recovered.

The success with Levi’s continued for many years, and produced much iconic advertising, though BBH recently resigned the account, a point that Hegarty somewhat skips over in the book. “It was a long drawn-out thing,” he says now. “They became much more about trying to emulate other fashion brands, rather than, we believe, standing on their own and standing for what they were about. I think the problem for them is their confidence was knocked after the 501 stopped selling – they spent too long trying to promote the 501 and we kept saying ‘you’ve got to do something else’. Eventually the fashion world turns on you and I think they lost their confidence and never got it back. It’s a great shame.

“What they wanted from an agency had changed,” he continues. “We have a view here at BBH that the product is the hero, not the person who wears it. Now the person who wears it can be shown to be the hero, but it is through the product that you demonstrate heroic behaviour. They began to elevate the wearer over the product and I think that was a big mistake. I think with great brands, people aspire to them, they aspire to that brand…. You’re not trying to be the friend of the consumer, you’re trying to inspire the consumer.”

It’s easy to think that the cultural impact achieved by big TV campaigns such as Levi’s Laundrette is no longer possible in our media-splintered days. But Hegarty remains optimistic about advertising’s reach. “Over the last ten years, with the rise of digital technology, there’s been a lack of faith in broadcast media,” he says, “and television, being the ultimate broadcast media, has suffered. That’s now coming back though.” Hegarty cites the enormous viewing figures of programmes such as X-Factor and Downton Abbey as proof that TV can still capture wide audiences. “I think now there is a resurgence in TV, you’ll feel a recommitment to television [in advertising],” he continues. “Because of the digital phenomena and the digital agenda, anyone who said ‘let’s write a great television ad’ was told ‘oh you don’t understand what it’s about. This is the new world.’ But we can now use this medium in a much more interesting and exciting way … if you use it in a new, dramatic way, you invigorate that medium as well as stimulating all the new media. It isn’t about going backwards but it is about making sure that you’ve understood the messages and the lessons that media teaches you. I think the digital fog has lifted – so maybe we’ll start to see a few more exciting TV ads.”

As to advertising’s status in the world, Hegarty sees an improvement over the years, in spite of the negativity so often slung at the industry.
“I think there was a greater antagonism when I came into the industry,” he says. “The number of times I would say to somebody ‘I’m going into advertising’, and they’d say ‘oh, I see, you’re just going to sell things to people that they don’t want’. That was very much the attitude, whereas I think now people accept that it’s a part of a competitive commercial world, and whether you like that or not, that’s the world we live in, and it feeds all of us in some way or another, we’re all part of it…. I think actually the other thing too is when advertising became engaging and entertaining people accepted it far more.”

He acknowledges that the industry faces an ongoing battle to attract the same calibre of talent that it has previously, however: in his early career, which included stints at CDP, Saatchi & Saatchi, and TBWA, he shared office space with the likes of Alan Parker and David Puttnam. Would such characters be likely to enter advertising today? “I do think that advertising has a problem in the sense that it needs to constantly attract original thinkers,” he says. “But of course there are many more things that people can do. Therefore advertising has to make itself more attractive, and it has to set out its stall far more. But that’s a maturing of the creative world we live in really. We are engaging with creativity much more than we did 20, 30, 40 years ago – therefore there are more places for you to be creative, and there’s more competition for those thinkers. I fundamentally believe that we lack truly, truly great people [in advert­ising] – it’s the biggest problem that BBH has, finding really, really good outstanding creative people.”

Is there a BBH mind? “I hope we don’t employ a BBH person,” he replies. “Although we do talk about ‘talented and nice’. I quite like that. But in the end it’s all about the work. You tend to know … there’s that spark there, the ability to put something down on a piece of paper or to have an idea … you feel it.”

This emphasis on ‘nice’ has clearly served Hegarty well in his years running his own agency, and is refreshingly different from the clichéd 2 3 image of the adman as a belligerent, bullying bastard. In Hegarty on Advertising, he expands on the need to treat your staff well, in order to get their best work from them. “Believe in your creative department and give them permission to excel,” he writes. “Establishing a belief in your creative people and making them confident in themselves are essential for any creative director…. Even if a team has just presented you with a bucket load of mediocrity, they have to walk out of your office believing they’re on the verge of greatness. They’re looking to you for direction and affirmation. Screaming, shouting and bullying them may make you feel great for a fleeting moment, but it will do nothing for the creative process.”

As to where to find creative talent today, Hegarty is still a strong believer in the art school route into the advertising industry. “I still think an art education of some kind or other, wherever you do it, is a fantastic grounding for what we do,” he says. “I still say that the most creative environment, and the most exciting environment that I ever worked in was at art school. Because I sensed that all these people who were studying – be it sculptors, be it filmmakers, whatever – were all interconnecting, and really art school was a testing ground for what was going to come. So as an environment to work in and be a part of it was always very stimulating, and I think it opened you up to a creative culture.”

When it came to writing the book, Hegarty found himself pondering what it meant to be creative. This set him thinking back to his own days at art school, which were spent first at the Hornsey Art School in London, followed by the London School of Printing (now LCC). “I realised it was fearlessness,” he says of the creative nature. “I think creative people have a fearlessness to them, in the sense that they know that they’ve got to come up with an idea that is fresh, is different, and that’s what they’re seeking to do all the time. And to put that out in front of people, and say ‘here it is’. Of course, at art school everybody was like that. So you have to have this fearlessness – I think that’s what separates out people who earn their living by being creative. I believe the really great ones just don’t fear it – they will just try and do something incredibly different.”

Since its launch in 1982, BBH has spread across six countries and now employs about 1,000 people across the globe. Hegarty, who was knighted in 2007, has watched as the ad industry has evolved, reacting to developments in media, culture and entertainment. While much has changed, certain aspects of the industry have, of course, remained the same. For Hegarty, the primary requirement of good advertising is the same as it ever was: the necessity for a ‘big idea’ that will prove persuasive to audiences. As to his own longevity within an industry that worships the young and the new, he puts it down to an enduring curiosity about the world around him. “Creativity is an expression of self,” he says, “so if you’re constantly interested in what’s going on out there, that will come into you, and it will be reflected in your work. And cynicism is the death of creativity. Never become a cynic. That’s the important thing.”

The book Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence into Magic is published by Thames & Hudson; £16.95. For more information visit thamesandhudson.com

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