Judiciously tanned, utterly plausible, awfully rich, and the smiling face of his profession: that's John Hegarty, the apotheosis of advertising today, and maybe, some believe, the man with the answer to Tony Blair's prayers
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The Independent Culture
"THIS BUSINESS is as much fun as you can have with your clothes on," said John Hegarty, Chairman of Bartle Bogle Hegarty. One has heard the line before. It is often used by people in the movie business, the music business or the advertising business, people in fast-moving creative professions who indeed have a lot of fun and are rewarded with stupendously large salaries at the same time. "This business!" they say in a tone of despairing affection, a tone that echoes that sign you often see behind the counters of small grocery shops: "You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps." In fact, the way advertising people like Hegarty go on about "this business" is profoundly irritating.

John Hegarty is not immune from the self-love of the advertising industry, but by all accounts he is also a thoroughly good bloke whose creative abilities are among the most durable in a country which produces some of the most sophisticated advertising campaigns in the world. Hegarty is as good as you can get: daring, original, in touch with a generation half his age, ruthless but always charming, and notoriously light on his feet in client meetings. Since founding his agency with Nigel Bartle and John Bogle in 1982, he has somehow risen to become The Advertising Man, an approachable version of Charles Saatchi, a sunny representative of the industry. He has been awarded a reverential interview with Michael Ignatieff and an appearance on Desert Island Discs with Sue Lawley. At the end of the Eighties he was elected Advertising Man of the Decade, beating Martin Sorrell, the former Saatchi's man who in 1986 bought up a wire and plastic products firm called WPP, re-created it as an advertising and marketing services group, and, by 1990, had created a company with a revenue approaching £1bn.

Advertising men are the object of curiosity because, unless you are in the business, it is difficult to know what makes a great advertiser. Indeed, there is a common suspicion that it is all due to luck, accident, drive, bullshit, the ability to wear crumpled linen suits - anything rather than native talent. Without being rude, Hegarty's appearance seems only to confirm these suspicions. He is a young 50, with sandy hair, a glad-handing manner and a history of judicious tanning. He looks thoroughly moneyed and well turned out: happy.

We met in the offices of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in Great Pulteney Street, Soho, the sort of thriving modern office that instantly makes you feel that you have no right to be among its purposeful occupants, with their clipboards and their deadlines. I was late and felt ticked off by one of the women at the front desk. "Mr Hegarty has been expecting you," she said primly.

Hegarty's office was comfortable, but by no means opulent. Outside, there was a pool table, and a little beyond that hovered creative people clutching embryonic campaigns, waiting to see him. Through the door, one noticed a couple who looked rather nervous - which prompted a question about firing people.

How exactly did he get rid of creative types who didn't make it? "This company lives and dies by the quality of its ideas. We employ 250 people here. If I have to get rid of someone because they're not performing, I say to myself that I am protecting 249 mortgages - people's lives, their ambitions. You have to do it in the nicest possible way. We're generous with money and we try to make them realise that it isn't them; it's the culture that isn't working for them."

Hegarty has been fired himself, and so is familiar with the feeling of rejection. When, early in his career, he worked for an agency called Benson & Bowles, they told him: "John, we think you should be thinking of pursuing your career elsewhere. Our paths are not inextricably interwined." This was 1967, and it is not difficult to imagine Hegarty then, pushy, bumptious and faultlessly trendy. "I was a pain in the arse," he said. "We really did know the world was changing. It was happening everywhere, so when we came in with all these new ideas, talking about witty, involving, intelligent advertising, they didn't want to know." But Benson & Bowles had served Hegarty's purpose. During his time there, he had met and worked with Charles Saatchi, who is still one of his great friends. By the time Hegarty was fired, Saatchi had already left to set up his own agency, Cramer Saatchi, which then employed Hegarty.

Hegarty's friends say that he has always been supremely confident, although he describes himself as a late starter, someone who did not shine at school. He was born and brought up in Edgware, which, he explains, is why he is circumcised. Edgware is still a very Jewish part of London, and Hegarty believes that he was done as a matter of routine by the local hospital.

He and his father, who was a park-keeper, did not get on, though he was close to his mother, who died when he was 23, a great loss to him. "My father only said two things of interest to me. The first was that he wanted me to have a good education because it was the only thing he could give me that other people couldn't take away. The second - and I'll never forget this, because he was reading the Daily Express at the time - he lowered the paper and said, `Never trust a man who wears white shoes.' "

This is the way his conversation goes. Everything is reduced to a speedy succession of anecdotes and neat conclusions. He is watchful of his audience and seems to fear losing your attention; at any rate he doesn't linger on a story. It is, in fact, almost a parody of what you would expect from an advertising man: wham, bam, snappy delivery, smart punchline, and out.

He went to Hornsey art school and then, having been told that he was unlikely to make it as a professional artist, to the London College of Printing to study graphic design. It was there that he was turned on to advertising, by a lecturer named John Gillard who showed him a picture of the Volkswagen Beetle which was simply captioned "Lemon". "The Volkswagen campaign was to advertising what the Sistine chapel is to painting," he told me, perhaps overegging his case a little. "For me it was like having a switch turned on in a darkened room. I looked at it and I suddenly thought: `This is what I want to do.' "

What appealed to him was the fact that the VW ads had first appeared in America, a land of long roads , unlimited gas and tail fins. A land, in other words, which had no need of a compact, economical, undecorated little motor. Advertising, and nothing else, was what persuaded Americans to buy the Beetle. "When you think that car ads were about girls draped across the bonnet, here was a car telling you it could be a lemon - lemon meaning a duff car. What it said was that we may sometimes make a bad car, but we make sure it doesn't get to you."

Perhaps none of this seems very relevant today, but if you look at the current BBH television commercial for Audi, you will see the same trick; that is to say, an advertisement which appears to be insulting the product. It has the typically glamorous look of BBH commercials and shows a young City dealer talking about his life. Shots of him playing squash, going out on the town and bragging are interlaced with him driving around in a very desirable Audi car. It is plain that this young man is a Nick Leeson figure, if not a little more objectionable. Anyway, the commercial reaches its witty conclusion when he takes the car back to the showroom: ho, ho. The fellow has only been out for test drive and, of course, he is precisely the sort of unlovely Eighties person who wouldn't have the gumption to choose an Audi.

Hegarty played this for me with rapt attention, as well he might; Audi have been with BBH since the beginning, as have Whitbread, Boddingtons and Levi's. These accounts represent a large part of BBH's income - it had billings worth £150m last year - although the agency has also won praise for advertisements made for much smaller clients; the English Collective of Prostitutes, for instance, which campaigns against the prostitution laws. The result was a poster campaign, written by Rachel Caroll, which pertinently appeared a few months before the Government's Back to Basics campaign. It read: "NO ONE SCREWS MORE PROSTITUTES THAN THE GOVERNMENT" And then, in smaller capitals: "IN 1990 PROSTITUTES WERE FINED HALF A MILLION POUNDS."

It didn't get the laws changed, but it did win BBH an award, and rightly so. Hegarty tried to deploy a similar brand of cheek on behalf of the ill-fated left-wing newspaper, News on Sunday, and suggested a campaign which ran on the lines of "More balls than tits and bums". The paper didn't like it.

The agency clearly has a talent for direct, punchy copywriting that reminds one of the style that emerged from Saatchi & Saatchi during the election campaigns from 1979 through to the late Eighties. So far BBH has resisted the idea of working for a political party because Hegarty believes that his staff could not be dispassionate about the brief. The Tories have shown some interest in the agency, but a straw poll among BBH staff suggested that the relationship would not work. Labour, although currently involved with another agency - Butterfield, Day, Devito & Hockney - would probably go down better. Still, one has a sneaking suspicion that Hegarty would like to turn his talents to political advertising, if only to match up to Charles Saatchi. Certainly, he's got plenty to say.

Hegarty believes that Tony Blair has much to offer, but that the Labour Party needs to refine its message and take into account what happened in the Eighties. At present, there seems little idea of what the party's thrust will be at the election and one suspects that Labour will wait for some time before it makes up its mind. Besides, the party has only recently appointed Joy Johnson as head of Campaigns, Elections and Media. Her brief is to form "a sharp political strategy, one central campaign with maximum flexibility" which has "the capacity to prevent and rebut Tory attacks".

That core of the campaign is what, of course, engages the interest of any advertiser, and without pause Hegarty began defining the problem, not in political terms, but in marketing terms. "You have got to appeal to people's ambitions. The reason that the Labour Party has failed so often in recent years is that it doesn't do this. Instead, it says that we must continue to make the playing field more level - redistribute wealth. What it doesn't realise is that people want to realise their ambitions. People feel that they are not talking about the right things. They have got to make people say to themselves, `Now I can realise my potential.' If they don't do that they will fall again.

"After the war and beyond, the Labour Party was on to a winner with its message - the cause of education for all, health for all... I mean, they couldn't fail. But we've passed through that. Now they have got to address a different issue. The brand issue has changed." It may all sound a little glib, but you can begin to see the strands of a campaign forming. Having heard Tony Blair begin his offensive into Conservative territory three weeks ago, at the Spectator lecture, one imagines that he might go along with a lot of this. Blair is a product of the Eighties, more particularly of Thatcherism, and he is undoubtedly addressing the "brand issue", so preparing the ground in a number of policy areas that, in about a year, the new model will be ready for the road.

And Hegarty, of course, is keen on new models. "The thing about Margaret Thatcher is that she came along after Callaghan and told people that they could be successful. People believed it and they went out and they succeeded. We appreciate now that they succeeded on nothing: they built paper empires and a lot of it was founded on very unsound things. In the Nineties, there has been a real change. We can now make things that really work. There is export-led growth, inflation is down and there is a greater understanding of the mood to make and design things well. The whole process of what you make and how you sell it has changed. What we really need now is a leader who will take the potential of this country and make us believe in it."

Was this Tony Blair, I asked?

"It might be Tony Blair, but sometimes I wonder whether he is shackled to a party that wants to live in the Seventies. What I objected to about the old Labour Party is that when I became successful, it rejected me. It was because I was earning too much money. They said you've got too much money to be a socialist and I'd turn round and say isn't that what you fought for? Isn't that what you wanted me to do - be successful? For Christ's sake, my father was a park-keeper!"

My first impression of Hegarty was wrong, in the sense that he has never gone in for a conspicuous display of wealth. He is a millionaire several times over, and his salary as chairman and creative director is very large indeed - over £300,000 a year, according to industry insiders. But he does not flash it about. He and his wife, Karri, have lived in the same house in Highgate since they were married in June 1970. They have two children, Elliot, who is at the London International Film School, and Laila, who is at St Martin's College of Art and Design in London.

The Hegartys have not bought a house in the country, nor a holiday home abroad. "What being successful means to me is that I don't worry about paying the phone bill. Money has liberated me. If I want to go somewhere, I pick the phone up and get on a plane, and that is really the only way it has affected me. The trouble is that most people allow it to trap them. I think I have disdain for it. I know it is a means to an end, and that's all."

From talking to Hegarty's friends and associates, you get a sense that he is too good to be true. You cannot fault any of his attitudes, and he is an extremely personable man, always thoroughly engaged and down- to-earth - but...

"I can only think of one unpleasant thing to say about John," said a friend. "He has become the face of advertising and by and large he has been extremely good for the business. But I sometimes think that if you examine what he is saying, it's perhaps not as full of substance as one might think. Sometimes the presentation is immaculate, but the content is not all that great."

Well, you might say that that's advertising, and a journalist whose beat is the advertising industry had this to say: "The agency is very brand- orientated, very life-style orientated, in a way very Eighties. I think that's a bit like Hegarty, really. It's all to do with appearance, context and style. What am I trying to say? I think that I'm trying to say that he may be not very nice. I think working for him might be quite difficult. He's quite egocentric, quite hard in some ways."

What is certain is that he is unmovable when it comes to his creative judgement. He takes up to a dozen important decisions each day, and once he has made his mind up, he will not be moved. "Sometimes he finds it hard to say why the idea is good, it just defies description" said a former colleague at BBH. "Then he's likely to say, `This is right and that's the way it is'. You can't argue with him. Who knows why he is good at it, but he is. And he tends to get most of the decisions right. In this way he is ruthless, uncompromising - which, I suppose, is what he's paid for."

But it can go wrong, as it did for Beefeater Gin. Once again, Hegarty used the trick of appearing to say that the product was bad; on this occasion, he didn't pull it off. "We tried to project the average gin drinker as a gormless twit. Gin is basically a declining brand and we were trying to inject youthfulness into it. Anyway, it was a complete disaster. It just didn't work, and when we saw the commercial our heads hit our hands. But the thing is that you have to live on the edge in this business. I mean, hell, the 501s [Levi's jeans] were created in 1865.We have to come up with new ideas each week."

Hegarty is the front man of BBH, but the other two partners, John Bartle and Nigel Bogle, play just as important a part in it. "They are much more equal partners," said a former colleague, "than you would believe from the outside. Nigel's logic and drive and determination, allied to Hegarty's uncompromising creative excellence, allied to Bartle's marketing and analytical skills, make their agency unique," he went on, in that understated way that comes so easily to advertising types.

The three had worked at the British arm of the French agency, TBWA, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, so they knew each other well before going into business together. (People say that Bogle and Hegarty can still get on each other's nerves, and that Bartle is the man who smoothes over the difficulties.) They left TBWA because they did not own the business, and there was little prospect of their acquiring a greater share of the equity. They each own 23 per cent of BBH - which, of a company with billings of, as we have said before, £150m, is worth something. The problem the three have lies in keeping talented staff. Although everyone admits that at the beginning, working for the agency was extraordinarily stimulating, it became clear to such creative partnerships as Tim Lindsay and Jerry Judge that they were never going to have a greater say in things and that the equity of BBH was split three ways for good. Lindsay and Judge departed first for Young & Rubicam, then Lowe Howard Spink, where they have much greater autonomy. That's the way it is in the advertising business: when Hegarty was deputy creative director of Saatchis in the early Seventies, he found that he too had to leave to expand and do what he wanted.

A continual criticism of the agency is that it has a male atmosphere, a sort of pool-playing laddishness which is uncongenial to women, especially women with families. Hegarty bristles at the charge, and has been known to write furious letters in defence of the company and the general atmosphere at Great Pulteney Street. He is not, perhaps, a person who can easily tolerate flak; in a way, much of the easy-going informality of his manner is designed to defuse it.

John Bartle says otherwise: "He's got this great ability to manage people - creative people. He's done it himself, and he knows what it's like. He's a person who gets better all the time. He's got this ability to talk generally about advertising, about brands and the position of brands and he doesn't just say, `Here is a great ad.' There's a depth to him now, and he manages other people to produce of their best. It's a rare combination we're talking about."

Hegarty's strength is the emphasis he places on the specialness of British- made advertising and the purity of an agency which has an entirely national interest. Bigger agencies, such as J Walter Thompson, have characterised this approach as being ludicrously old fashioned. Why, they ask, shouldn't a Kit Kat script be written in Kuala Lumpur and shot in Britain? "Great ideas, like good wines," argued Miles Colebrook, the chief executive of J Walter Thompson's European network, "do travel, and there is plenty of evidence of this." But you don't have to ask Hegarty why BBH doesn't link up into an advertising network. The agency is successful here; to expand it with foreign responsibilities would be distracting.

Even more to the point, perhaps, Hegarty, Bartle and Bogle can run their business exactly as they choose, without having to conform to other people's standards and priorities. For instance, the trio decided at the inception of the agency not to work for the tobacco companies. And, in the late Eighties, Hegarty was able to spend much time campaigning for the release of John McCarthy - BBH produced the startling cinema advertisements that urged McCarthy's release. Hegarty makes little of this activity, but it is certain that, were he to have been hooked up with a large international concern, he would not have had the flexibility to devote to McCarthy.

This may also have something to do with BBH's creed of focus. "I learnt the art of focusing on one thing from Charles Saatchi a long time ago," said Hegarty. "Charlie would just look at something and say this is the problem, that's what we need to solve. He just concentrated on that until it was solved. There was no periphery involved, nothing distracted him. And what was great is that he didn't mind where the idea came from. All that mattered was that it was a good idea."

Saatchi is a big influence. Some years ago, Hegarty described working with him on the Family Planning Association account, an account which produced one of the most famous ads of the past 25 years: "Charlie rushed out with a layout to show me. It was the pregnant man. I almost died. It was the best thing I had ever seen. Its simplicity and audacity was electrifying. I had been writing lines like `Who taught your daughter the facts of life?' with a picture of a pregnant gymslipped girl. The pregnant man was more than just a piece of advertising; it was the first time that I had seen a piece of work that moved beyond the accepted boundaries our business operated in, commanding attention from a far wider group of people."

It is perhaps difficult for the outsider to understand this specialised thrill, but it's what keeps Hegarty fresh: "I have got a sort of mission, and that is to create advertising which is involving, witty and intelligent. I know I have said it before [he had - three times]. It's about being populist as well as intelligent. People think it's dangerous to link these two words, because they think you are trying to make advertising art. But when we do a print or TV ad, millions of people see it. I observe how people respond and that affects me and I learn more."

I asked whether he was ever tempted to give it all up, or at least assume a role which would allow him to nap in the afternoon.

"No," he said. "They'll have to take me out in pine box. I love this business."

And that is, perhaps, the point about John Hegarty: he's an immensely acute learner, always picking up signals from the real world, the world outside "this business". The operator who was elected Advertising Man of the Decade at the end of the Eighties has performed a seamless adaptation to the Nineties. And that is why he may just be the man for Tony Blair - who, of course, is engaged in precisely the same process of transformation. !