John Hegarty on the ‘nonsense’ of Big Data, the ‘abberation’ that is scam and why Cannes is losing focus

John HegartySir John Hegarty is one of the world’s best known advertising creatives. He co-founded iconic British agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, which has offices in Singapore, Mumbai and Tokyo, in the early ’80s.

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks at the Martinez Hotel on La Croisette, Hegarty talked about why Cannes is “losing focus”, the impact of scam on adland, the “nonsense” of Big Data and why Asia has to learn from Europe about building brands that stand out.

What’s your take on the quality of work at Cannes this year?

There hasn’t really been, if you’ll forgive the expression, a “tent pole idea” that everyone rallies around this year. This year hasn’t been a stand out year in terms of the work.

I think one of the major problems we have at Cannes is that it’s hard to get a grasp on what’s actually happening in the real world of advertising. The festival is losing a bit of focus. What Cannes should be all about is how creativity aids branding and builds business. But are we really seeing the ideas that are creating effective work? I’m not sure we are.

Advertising is where art meets commerce, but I’m not sure how the work we’re seeing at Cannes can be applied in the real world. Is it really helping brand building? And we as an industry have become so obsessed with technology that we’re forgetting what it is suppose to deliver. People are not interested in technology, they’re interested in what it can do for them. There’s an obsession with technology now, but is technology delivering messages that move people? That’s the question we should be asking.

A lot of global advertising is failing to connect with the audience that it’s talking to. If you look at great communication, what it’s trying to do is become part of the cultural landscape. But a lot of global work, because of nature with which it’s created, is gliding over people’s heads. It’s not touching them.

You’re known to have strong views on scam, work created purely to win awards. What’s your view on the impact of scam on the industry?

I’ve gone on record before saying that scam is in danger of destroying what we stand for. Award schemes were set up to demonstrate to clients how great creativity can aid brands and increase effectiveness. Scam is an abberation. It is like drugs in sport. It is a delusional practice, and the problem is we’ve created a beast called awards and it’s taken over.

There was a lot of talk at Cannes this year in the role of data in creativity. What’s your view on this?

Research is, and always will be, a big thing for big corporate clients, who will not move forward without affirmation through data. But it’s sad when you think that great brands like Nike and Apple do not use it. All that big data is, is data rebranded. It dismays me. Data gives the answer to what has happened, not what is going to be. The danger of a reliance clients have on data is that they think it will give them an answer for tomorrow. They want it to be their oracle. But they are seeking a nonsense really. You can have all the data in the world, but you can’t predict the future.

The whole idea of advertising is that creativity can change the way people feel and think. Of course I can use data to help understand things. But it can never replace intuition.

The other issue with data is that it is very easy to misinterpret. And since everyone will have the same data, there’s a danger that everyone will end up with the same ideas and the same products. An overuse of data can lead to what’s called wind tunnel marketing.

What do you think this year’s Cannes Lions tells you about the state of the ad industry?

Creativity needs to be at the heart of the business, or we will have a very short future. Advertising is good at capturing people’s imagination. It’s about reimagining – that’s the power of creativity, and why the industry will constantly evolve and change. Data is just a bit of support. If the industry is based on data, it won’t survive, because other industries know how to use it better than us.

It is said that in Asia, clients often choose strategies that follow the market leader rather than differentiate to be unique. What’s your view on this?

European culture was built out of the drive to question everything. Europe became the dominant continent because we wanted to find out how things work. You have to, at your core, have a belief in wanting to find out more and accept that you don’t know everything. That was crucial to Europe’s success. Unless Asia learns that, and accepts that it has got to do things differently and build brands that are different, it won’t be the powerhouse that everyone claims it will be.


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