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Sir John Hegarty: The creatives, not the technologists, are still the future for the ad industry

As a co-founder of BBH, Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA – Sir John Hegarty helped build the ad industry into a global force and with it now facing ‘difficult times’ he wants to see creatives at the forefront once again, he tells Mumbrella's Dean Carroll, in order to fight back against the dominance of digital

So to begin, data or human instinct – what will be the key to creativity in the future when some say we will be ruled by artificial intelligence overlords?

“When an incredible piece of technology appears, then creative people really don’t know what to do with it because they don’t know how to subvert it or how people relate to it. When Picasso painted Dora Maar, he was subverting the way a portrait was painted.

“So you had a point of view about portraits and he came along and said ‘no, look at it like this’. But if you haven’t got that prehistory, then what the hell do you do? The Lumière brothers gave up on the moving camera because they didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t realise they had invented Hollywood.

“Les Paul is in the rock’n’roll hall of fame for perfecting the electric guitar. But it took another 15 years before somebody said ‘oh my god, you can do this with it’ and invented rock’n’roll. What happens is the creative people step back at first and the technologists become the heroes. Then eventually, creative people realise that you can start to make this with it or that with it.

“We’ve been in that place for the last 15 to 20 years and we are beginning to come out of it. We are now seeing through Netflix and such things, a phenomenal resurgence in entertainment and content. The view that people’s attention spans have reduced and that they won’t stay with you if you don’t grab them in five seconds – well, hold on, how many episodes was Breaking Bad?

“Our industry loves to adopt the next big thing, we are a bit like the fashion world in that sense. But we are beginning to get a bit of balance back, with people realising that broadcast has value and that digital can’t do everything.

“A semblance of sanity is returning to the marketing arena, although you still get influencers saying that nobody watches television anymore. Steady on, it’s just not true. It’s a mantra. People forget that what you are trying to do with a brand is make it part of culture, to elevate its status so that it enters the public’s consciousness. You do that partly through some kind of broadcast media.

“You’ve got to talk to a broad audience at some point in time, if you want to grow your brand. This is something that has been forgotten in recent years, we thought technology was the answer and we forgot how to build brands. The famous quote that ‘a brand is made great not just by the people that buy it, but the people that know about it’ is true.

“You don’t ask a printer how to write a book so why would you ask a technologist how to build a brand? They don’t understand strategy, execution or how to talk to a wide audience. We’ve confused persuasion and promotion.

“We will come out of it though. I’m a great believer in gravity. Undoubtedly the future is creative and anybody who isn’t investing in creativity is going to fail. Artificial intelligence cannot cope with curiosity.

“I get disappointed when I walk into creative departments and see everyone looking at the screen. The answer is not in the screen, it’s in the person sitting opposite you who can provide that completely unique conversation. That’s when the mad serendipitous connections occur and an idea emerges.

“David Hockney came from dull and grey Great Britain and went to Los Angeles and saw swimming pools and this amazing light and decided that’s what he would paint. That’s what AI can’t do. When I hear people talking about this, well they just don’t fucking know what they are talking about. It’s a pain in the arse listening to these technologists.”

You are, indeed, in a camp of industry grandees including Dave Trott, Cindy Gallop and Bob Hoffman – who are very critical of the modern-day ad industry – as you all have a prominent voice and not a lot to lose in speaking your mind. But isn’t the ad industry we have today the one we inherited from the industry leaders who created it yesterday?

“We were never in charge of the industry, but we were always trying to inspire clients. All marketing directors have gone home at the end of every day and got down on their knees to say ‘please god, can you make it a science’. But it just isn’t, persuasion is an art.

“That’s the reality. Then along came all these wonderful digital people, who said they had cracked it and that you could have a one-to-one conversation with people – and that they could eliminate waste. It’s so seductive, if you say this to a company.

“The purpose of advertising is persuasion, to preach to the masses. In the Bible it says that when Christ stood on the rock, he spoke to the masses. He didn’t speak to 18 to 24-year-olds with a disposal income of 20 shepherds a week. And that brand is still going today. His job was conversion or at least making you a fan of it, or making you respect it.

“You and I will most probably never buy a Rolls Royce, but we know about its standard of quality and we respect it; and that respect adds value to the brand. That’s what we’ve forgotten. So that element of your marketing has got to be there.

“I think we have to go through this period and we have to learn a lesson before people come back to doing marketing in a balanced and intelligible way. Principles remain even though practices change.”

How much day-to-day involvement do you have at BBH these days, as a 74-year-old co-founder who sold the business?

“I do mostly mentoring there now and quite rightly too. I’ve given the reins over to a new team. I’m there to talk about where we came from and why we did what we did. Learning the lessons from yesterday can be very important. You’ve got to use the past to inform the future.”

Looking back then, what’s your favourite ad that you created?

“People always ask me – which was the work you were most proud of? I always say the work we did for Phileas Fogg, these upmarket snacks. What we did was tell everyone the truth, that these things were made in this rather small town in the North East of England otherwise known as Consett.

“I was very proud of that work but you know you could talk about Audi, Levi’s, Lynx, Häagen-Dazs or Boddingtons. I love them all in different ways.”

Now Flat Eric, the ad for Levi’s with the puppet. How an earth did that happen?

“We’d got to that moment when they’d decided that they didn’t want these individual heroes anymore or to be repetitive. There was a wave of opinion coming at me. I was seeing lots of scripts come into the creative department about a couple of people on the road and I just thought they were all really boring and very bland.

“Two or three months before that, I’d been shown this work by a director in Paris with this fluffy yellow puppet and it just stayed in my brain. Then I thought maybe we do attempt this Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on the road discovering America backstory, but one of them is a fluffy yellow puppet. That made it interesting to me.

“Of course, most of the people in the agency thought I had gone slightly mad. Then when I presented it to Levi’s I didn’t tell them until the very end that one of the characters was a fluffy yellow puppet. They said ‘under no circumstances’ and I had to go back three times before eventually they bought it. The rest is history.

“A big regret is that I wanted to put Flat Eric in ads on the back pages of Vogue where you normally get these cool-looking men or women. That would have been great, we should have done that.”

Jumping to a more serious topic, what’s your take on the #metoo movement, given the number of chief creative officers that have lost their jobs to misconduct over the last year or so? And have you personally witnessed men behaving poorly in the industry?

“It’s appalling, I think discrimination of any kind is repellent. I’ve worked with some wonderful women and the idea that they should be compromised in some way because of their vulnerability, I just don’t understand it.

“I’ve personally never seen it, although we did once have a person at BBH that we had to take to one side and say that ‘if this goes on you will be out’. It wasn’t overly serious, but it was wandering hands.

“But I think exploiting anybody is deplorable, so I’m pleased the movement is there. It’s shocking that we have an environment where this thing is tolerated.”

Changing track, given that BBH is owned by Publicis these days – do you see good work coming out of all the network agencies still? Is the holding company model really a good fit with creativity?

“If you look at London, which is where I have the most intimate knowledge, I think the two best agencies are Adam & Eve and BBH. They are both network agencies.

“I think the Arthur Sadoun [Publicis CEO] move to stop us entering awards was completely stupid. It’s misguided, foolish and means he is not investing in the thing that is going to create the difference for him, which is creativity. He, therefore, in my view doesn’t understand the creative mind and why people want to enter awards.

“Of course, the danger is that a corporation can smother creativity. But look at the big brands in the fashion industry, they’ve understood that you do need to invest in your creativity and that you do have to give that creative leader the freedom to do what they want to do. That’s the only way forward and the holding companies have got to understand that as well.

“By and large, we don’t have any restrictions from Publicis because we negotiated a deal with them called ‘autonomy within’ so as long as we hit our modest profit targets the desire from them is for us to be more creative – not less.

“That said, I do understand that creative revolutions often start at the edges and then work inwards. And I am actually very critical of my creative colleagues for not starting their own agencies and driving the agenda.

“It’s pretty sad in a way that the two best agencies in the UK are part of large networks. What [Dave] Droga is doing is interesting, but then they’ve got ownership. I don’t see great creative thinkers emerging. I would like to see more creative people going out there and holding the flag up and doing things differently like we did in the 1970s and 80s.

“I don’t think someone like Martin Sorrell will have a legacy though. Why would he be remembered? The creative people are the ones that have a legacy. Nobody remembers Marion Harper, who was the guy that started Interpublic in the 1960s and was the creator of the holding company. But they do remember David Ogilvy.

“Martin Sorrell tried the WPP approach, but in my view it devalued the difference between his agencies. That was a disservice to the company in my opinion. There was a time when J. Walter Thompson was the largest and most successful agency in the UK, that is no longer the case.”

And what do you make of Sorrell’s plan to pursue a new type of model with S4 Capital – one that doesn’t exactly put creatives at the forefront anymore?

“It’s ultimately destined to failure because he is looking at it from a process point of view rather than a creative point of view. He thinks process is more important than creativity. Well, it isn’t. Look, best of luck to him. Revenge is a dish best eaten cold and he is obviously driven, but it’s an irrelevance.”

So back to BBH. Why did you sell in the end – was it about the money, the timing or just something else entirely?

“We had sold 49 per cent to Leo Burnett to help finance our expansion around the world, but we were still in control. Then we got to the stage where we had to think about succession. How are we going to make sure the company keeps doing great work and has a future.

“In the end, Publicis bought Leo Burnett and then bought our ownership. We wanted to ensure the continuation of the BBH culture. We didn’t want to sell to the highest bidder. We wanted a fair price, but we wanted to sell to somebody who would care for and nurture the brand.

“They came up with the idea of ‘autonomy within’ so long as we met our financial targets. They wanted a creative company and we thought that was the best way to ensure the continuation of our culture. They were interested in us for our creativity, they certainly weren’t interested in us for our profit because we made up about one per cent of their global profit.

“We felt it was a way of harbouring our brand and safeguarding it for the future. And we had to go, eventually everybody has to go and this way we sustained the company. To be fair, they have been good partners even though they might aggravate me on certain things like the stupid not entering awards things – but Sadoun will get over that and realise the error of his ways.”

Besides BBH, what else are you doing these days – I read that you started an incubator with some venture capitalists?

“I’m putting my experience to use in a different way. I got very interested in helping companies grow so I thought an early-stage investment company, helping young entrepreneurs get their business off the ground, would be a terrific way of employing all the things I’ve learnt in advertising.

“So we started The Garage and the mantra is ‘don’t start a business, build a brand’. We explain to these young entrepreneurs that whatever idea you’ve come up with or whatever technology you’ve created someone will come along and copy it, but the one thing they can’t take from you is your brand.

“That is where value will reside. That is what will help build your fame and your company. We help these companies grow through creative capital and we are having tremendous success with the likes of Simba [a box mattress company], The Dots, which is LinkedIn for creative people, and the influencer platform Whalar.

“The general rule is you back 10 companies, eight fail, one makes all your money back and one is your unicorn that makes you very wealthy. So far, our hit rate is higher than that because we nurture them. We don’t just put money in and tell them to report back three months later.

“And we are quite agnostic, we don’t focus only on media or tech. We’ve backed 22 companies and one or two have completely disappeared with another three or four in the emergency ward, but the others are all doing well and showing growth. It’s really exciting.”

Back to advertising, who is the biggest natural talent you’ve ever worked with?

“It’s hard that because I’ve worked with so many terrific people, who were wonderful to watch and be around. I mean you know Alan Parker, Ridley Scott as well as great animators and photographers.

“They have an ego, but ego is art – I believe in this. The really great ones though understand where ego stops and hubris takes over. They know how to listen and also how to give advice.

“I worked with Ridley Scott on a number of projects and Alan Parker too. They were very proud of the advertising they did, it wasn’t just something they did on the side. They loved it.

“I remember on a Johnnie Walker job we were doing with Ridley Scott. We were doing the final edit and he’d seen it and he called me from Hong Kong at about 2am his time, as he was concerned about a certain cut.

“He ran me through why he wanted to do it in a certain way and I just thought he articulated his point brilliantly before he said ‘in the end John, you’re the creative director and you’ve got to make the final decision’. But he was absolutely right and I walked away thinking that not only was he a pleasure to work with, but he really cared about it.

“You could work with Leonardo da Vinci, but if he didn’t care about the work then what would it matter? It’s not just a job. Creativity isn’t an occupation, it’s a preoccupation.”

A different type of question. Why did you agree to this interview and why do you do other such trade press interviews when you no longer really need to?

“It’s very simple. I love our industry and what it has done for me so anything I can do to help it move forward through this difficult moment in time and inspire the next generation is something that is very important to me.

“Being able to impart your experience is key. I remember early in my career somebody helped me and I told them they were very kind and they told me ‘we must all pass it on’. It’s a very well-known expression, but clichés are clichés because they are probably true. The industry is exciting and I love it so why should I not talk about it.”

I also wanted to ask you about ad industry awards shows and scam work – as you were vociferous in your criticism of fake work when attending the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity earlier this year. How big is the problem?

“Scam is my bête noire. I think it’s a tragedy and I liken it to drugs in sports. If we don’t kick this habit, we will undermine the awards that we have. Shows have got to be more proactive in how they weed out scam and how they penalise those that create it. They should say to agencies, if you do that [scam] you will not be able to enter for the next three years.”

Is the problem getting any better, given that noises are at least being made by event organisers about stamping it out and tightening up awards criteria, and judging processes?

“No, it’s still the same. What are we doing? It’s making a laughing stock of the industry.

“Just ban them. But they won’t do that because it’s a money-making machine. They are killing our industry and killing creativity. The Tour de France had to come down very heavily on drug cheats and we have got to do the same. We need to view scam like it is a drug.

“The way our industry will get better is when better people do better work and better clients see it so that they say ‘wow, why don’t I have a bit of that – it really did work’. Television has been revived because it invested in better writing and better directors.

“That’s what we need to do in our industry. But if, instead, we are doing scam that nobody sees then it is doing nothing to help us. The television industry has moved forward because people have seen great programming and gone ‘god, I could do that’. So that’s why I get on my high horse about this issue.”

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