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Creating spots that are both cultural and commercial Add to ...

A black sheep holds pride of place in John Hegarty's office. Not a real black sheep. (That would be weird: Mr. Hegarty may be a famous advertising agency creative director, but he's not clinically insane.) No, it's a stuffed animal that serves as a reminder both of one of his greatest campaigns and of his modus operandi: When others are zigging (a.k.a. being sheep), he zags. Through more than 40 years in the industry, he has tried to swim against some of the most famous campaigns in British advertising, from helping to revive Levi's to current work for Axe and Johnnie Walker.

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Next week Mr. Hegarty, the worldwide creative director and co-founder of the London-based agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (aka BBH) who was knighted in 2007 in recognition for his services to the advertising industry, will make his annual pilgrimage to the Cannes advertising festival, where he will receive the first-ever Lion of St. Mark award. The honour coincides with the publication of Hegarty on Advertising: Turning Intelligence Into Magic. He spoke with The Globe and Mail this week from his London office.

Not only have you been knighted, you're about to receive the first-ever Lion of St. Mark, both of which are imprimaturs of the Establishment. Doesn't that seem odd for someone who's built a career on a healthy disrespect for the status quo?

I think it's an acceptance by the U.K. establishment that creativity is a far more important ingredient in our economy than it was 20, 30, 40 years ago. I went to art school and design school, and one always felt there that art schools were tolerated as something a civilized society should support but that their value within society was somewhat limited - there was the 'real world' and the 'art school world.' And what's happened over the years is what art schools are teaching is being seen as increasingly important and actually vital to the future of our economy.



Still, as you note in your book, the U.K. government did at one point invest heavily in art and design training. Is that still the case?

Everybody pays lip service to [culture] but then as soon as there are cuts in government funding, what generally gets cut first is arts funding, and I think that's an absolute tragedy. It is about experimentation, it is about doing things which haven't been done before, and if you just leave that to the commercial industries, all you'll get sponsored is the average: that which is safe. You don't get sponsored that which is experimental, and the very essence of creativity is breaking new ground. Government funding for education is absolutely crucial, and that's exactly the sort of thing governments should be doing.

You suggest in your new book that all agencies are destined/doomed to go through cycles of being hot and then being not.

Absolutely. You're making something with emotion. You're creating magic. And some days the magic's not there.

With BBH as well?

Oh yes, we've been in down times, up times, down times. People often say to me when we're in a bit of a down time: 'Oh, what's happened to BBH?' It'll be alright, we'll come back. You can't sort of manufacture this, and you need the clients to kind of help you generate the work, and if you haven't got the clients at that particular moment, it's very hard. I mean, look at Crispin (Porter + Bogusky) right now, I think [they]are going through a bit of a tough time.

Are clients more or less brave than 30 years ago?

I think clients have always found it difficult buying great work. I think the thing that's changed now is that more of the work we produce has a global component to it, and the people we're selling it to tend to be on the global stage, so to speak. And there are often lots of stakeholders. So I'm no longer selling just to one person, I'm selling to a group of people, and the group of people have to agree, and that makes it much harder. Yet you also have technology which allows you to do things with a very small budget.

You know, I always say that revolutions always start at the edges and work in. So you'll do something small at the edges and suddenly everybody can see it because of technology and they go - 'Wow, that's great! Why don't we do something like that?' I mean, our Johnnie Walker 'The Man Who Walked Around the World' is a wonderful example. That was originally done as just a sort of a PR film for Johnnie Walker, just explaining their history. That was the brief. They came to us and said, 'Just put a bit of film together and write a script for us about the history of Johnnie Walker so we can show it to, you know, PR people and we can use it as an instructional film about the company.' And we went, 'Wait a minute, there's a great story to be told here.' If we told the story like this, a walk - because it was all about walking - we could do something magical. And we did. And suddenly the client looked at it and went, 'Wow, this is fantastic!' And it went global. And that's what you can do today. Couldn't have done that 10 years ago.

You've becomes something of a celebrity in Britain, appearing on shows like Desert Island Discs and elsewhere in the media. Here in Canada, I can't think of a single creative director who's even semi-famous. Are we missing out on something here?

When I went to the States and we opened up BBH in New York, I was quite shocked in a way to find the advertising industry and people in it were quite lowly regarded by industry at large and the public at large. I thought that was a shame, and I thought maybe it's just because there's so much of the stuff and it just gets in your face, and so much of it is not good. But it's just like every other creative industry - I always say that 95 per cent of advertising is crap. But I think that's the same with television, I think that's the same with movies, I think it's the same in virtually every other creative industry. Our problem is we jam it in front of people's faces, so there's a greater responsibility on us to make it better.

One of the other differences between the U.K. and the U.S. is we [in the U.K.] tend to use the culture around us in our advertising. So we'll refer to things. We'll refer to something that's happening in the world outside, and we'll use that in our advertising to kind of help create a distinctive piece of work. Whereas in the States I tended to find that advertising just tended to reflect advertising. So as an example, I thought the 'Wazzup?!' (Budweiser) campaign was a fantastic campaign that took a bit of common culture and used it in advertising. But that's very rare in the States. And I think from that point of view, therefore, people view it was a separate industry, whereas here in the U.K. we use the culture around us, and we'll use famous people in ads, and we'll reference programs or we'll reference things and it makes advertising much more a part of everyday culture.

There's more of a dialogue.

There's more of a dialogue, and people can relate to it much more. Whereas I tended to find that advertising in the States was in this kind of world called Advertising.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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