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TV ads are bad, research doesn't work: Ad legend

Sir John Hegarty is the founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and former worldwide creative director for the agency.

Sir John Hegarty likes being a black sheep. The legendary ad man chose the proverbial outsider as the fluffy symbol of the ad agency he cofounded, London-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and has believed in the power of being counterintuitive since he started in advertising in the Mad Men era of 1965. (A "brilliant" television show, he says, but somewhat exaggerated – "nobody could drink like that. They'd be dead in a month.")

Speaking to The Globe after his presentation to the Institute of Communications Agencies' Future Flash conference at a resort in Ontario's Muskoka region on Thursday, Mr. Hegarty talked about why marketing is having a heyday – and how it is falling short.

You said you think this is the best time to be in marketing. Why?

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There are so many tools at your disposal. Really now, it's all in the power of the idea. I turn that Marshall McLuhan line around – the medium is the message? No, the message is the medium. If you have a great idea, it gets picked up by the audience, and transmitted. That's free. We've just done a piece of work for a soft drink in the U.K., with a very limited budget. It now has 1.5 million hits on YouTube. ... Better [work] gets out there, for free.

Yet work you did for The Guardian newspaper was almost counterintuitive for the digital age. You made something cinematic, and long, at a time when we're told digital is making people's attention spans shorter.

There is absolutely no empirical evidence at all that shorter is better. What there is empirical evidence of, is that boring is bad. Young people today … turn things off quickly when they're bad. But we all did. The idea that we sat around in the 1960s saying, "It's really boring but I'll keep watching it" – we didn't.

We stopped watching, or started chatting. Our brains switched

off. We can now physically switch off.

But I think people are driven by things today that are really really good. TV is having a golden age. Game of Thrones, The Killing …. What was this about shorter? The Killing – 22 episodes long and it was about one killing. It was about quality. ...

When a new piece of technology comes out, it's driven by the technologists. .... Gutenberg was the Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg of his day. It wasn't until a group of creative people came along that you had writers and a publishing industry. The Lumière brothers invented the camera; they didn't invent the cinema. Les Paul didn't invent rock 'n' roll. I think we're coming out of this idea that it's all about the technology.

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My big, big criticism of our industry, unlike almost every other creative industry, is that it doesn't look to its past. If you're an architect, a painter, a musician, you know about what came before. In our industry, it's appalling. It's almost as though yesterday's dead. But it's not; it has a huge amount to show us about entertainment, about work that captured people's imaginations. What's changed, is my ability to spread the idea further. But the idea hasn't changed. That's what's important.

You've said that you feel TV has reached a new height but the ads have gotten worse. Why?

Because people have lost faith in it. Our clients have lost faith in it. If you get up and say, "I think television's fantastic," you get a shrug. But I think it is having a golden age, and we're not utilizing it. The other thing is, most clients want what they're doing to be a science. It's why there's so much research and data, because it proves something. ... But we are instinctive individuals. All information goes in through the heart. We know research doesn't work. But clients go on using it. Why? Because it makes their job easier and safer in the organization they're in.

You are critical of the use of big data in marketing. But can marketers afford not to use it in a world where media, and your access points to consumers, are so fragmented?

Don't get me wrong. Data are important, because it's knowledge. But the idea that it has the solution within it, is wrong. Everybody's reading the same data. If it has the solution within it, everyone will come to the same conclusion. We call that "wind-tunnel marketing." If everybody's looking at the same stuff, interpreting it in the same way, coming to the same conclusion, you'll all be the same. And the point of a brand is to be different.

In your talk, you said marketers are doing promotion without persuasion.

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They're both important. You can't have one without the other. But what we've seen happen over the last 10 years is, digital basically is promotion. Nike Fuelband – brilliant. I wish I'd had the idea. But it talks to Nike loyalists. If I like New Balance, you haven't persuaded me that Nike is a great brand. It doesn't persuade, it promotes. Which is important, but you can't have one without the other. I think people have given up, to a certain extent, on persuasion.

How do you define persuasion?

Persuasion is taking a nonbeliever and turning them into a believer. Christ stood on the rock and he talked to the masses. He did not talk to 18- to 25-year-olds with a disposable income of 25 shekels and a preponderance to change. He persuaded – because of what he believed in. What does a brand believe in? You have to communicate that to a large audience.

With social media, consumers are able to speak louder than ever before. How do brands shift their communications in that context?

This idea of the consumer controlling the brand is seriously dangerous. Because one day they're going to say, "Actually, I'm bored with you. I'm going over there."… Great brands are two steps in front of everybody. ... That's your job: tell me why it's great. Because my life is worrying about my kids and the love of my life, and my football team and a thousand other things that are a damn sight more important than instant custard. This idea that we're all sitting around talking about brands is delusional. And I think, as you did point out, there's a kind of echo chamber to all of this.

It seems like there's no respite from marketing. You mentioned that it seems marketers have come back to the false idea that interruption is good. How can advertising still be relevant, helpful, or even halfway effective in this environment?

Make it engaging, entertaining, honest – all the things we were saying in 1965 when I got into advertising. … I can remember sitting in a presentation in 1982 and explaining to a client how many advertising messages people were exposed to in a day. It was a problem in 1982, and it was a problem in 1972. It will be a problem in 2022. Make it interesting and I might listen. It's as simple as that. But very, very hard to do.

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