John Hegarty: Master of creative rebellion

John Hegarty, of global advertising giant BBH, has been responsible for some of the most successful campaigns of the past 25 years. He tells Alex Benady about his undiminished appetite for Adland and how he hopes to snatch the prized British Airways account from the Saatchi brothers
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But the truth is that as a representation of the agency it doesn't quite hit the mark. Black sheep stand out, of course, but the phrase also implies something of a rebellious streak.

As arguably the best advertising agency in the world over the past quarter century, responsible for numerous iconic advertising campaigns for a client list that includes big banks, soap conglomerates, drinks giants and global telcos, there is nothing remotely subversive about BBH.

It does a nice line in glossily packaged rebellion - that's precisely the appeal of Hegarty's long-running Levi's campaign. But really BBH is a company that sits at the heart of the establishment and underpins our economic system. Ask anyone who knows about the advertising industry and they'll tell you that BBH isn't different from most other big advertising agencies - it's just better.

But today Hegarty has much to laugh about. He proudly reveals that he has become only the third Briton, after David Ogilvy and David Abbott, to be elected to the US Advertising Creative Hall of Fame. "I'm not a wonky person. I don't read all those books about 'jump and a parachute will appear'. But you must understand," he says, "that I am cursed with being an incorrigible optimist."

So he is feeling optimistic about his agency, the future of advertising, the future of media, the future of capitalism and the future of the planet. Most of all, he is feeling optimistic about the future of the £60m British Airways account.

The business, currently with rival agency M&C Saatchi, is up for grabs, following the arrival earlier this year of BA's new chief executive, Willie Walsh, who was formerly with Aer Lingus and who has instigated the review as part of a drive to cut BA's costs.

Because of BA's international scope, and the fact that it is the flag carrier and has a tradition of epic commercials, it is widely regarded as one of the great prizes in British advertising. Every agency in London would give its eye teeth for the business. Only 10 were considered and BBH is down to the last four.

"It's undoubtedly one of the sexiest accounts in UK advertising and we really, really want it," says Hegarty. He won't disclose his creative ideas for BA, not least because - uniquely in the advertising business - BBH has always refused to present creative ideas when pitching for business. It's the sort of strong stance you can take only when you are absolutely confident of your worth.

The agency does, however, give prospective clients a strategic analysis of their business and communications. "We presented a way of thinking that was a philosophical way forward for BA," he says.

Flying is no longer about sheer glamour. The advent of no-frills rivals means airlines are now "retail accounts" in industry parlance. This means the ads will have to be as much about price promotion (work that carries low or zero status in advertising) as beautifully shot multimillion-pound epic television campaigns. "Tesco is the best analogy for BA's complexity," says Hegarty, "so what is needed is a big overarching brand, thought driven through absolutely all its communications."

He seems to have completely forgotten - or forgiven - the controversy that surrounded the last time he pitched for the BA business 10 years ago. Then the BA chief executive of the day, Bob Ayling, was within a whisker of appointing BBH, but was overruled at the last moment by the BA chairman, Colin Marshall, who insisted the business went to M&C Saatchi. "Whenever I look back at all the things we've won and lost, invariably it turns out to have been the right outcome for one reason or another. So I do hope we get it. I feel very confident about it. But if we don't, it will be because it wouldn't be right," says Hegarty.

If BBH does succeed in breaking up BA's 22-year marriage to the Saatchi brothers, there will be an extra frisson of pleasure for Hegarty. In advertising, creative people work in art director/copywriter teams. Charles Saatchi was Hegarty's first copy writer in the mid-1960s.

And if BBH doesn't win, Hegarty will have the consolation of knowing that he presides over one of the most successful and highly regarded creative companies in the world.

Apart from overseeing the apparently endless reinvention of the Levi's campaign, which has somehow managed to stay fresh and cutting edge over the course of dozens of commercials, Hegarty introduced the phrase "Vorsprung Durch Technik" for Audi, which has become one of the UK's most famous advertising slogans. His agency's work is characterised by slick, stylish commercials with high production values and often brilliantly original ideas at their heart. Recent examples include work for Microsoft Xbox, KFC, Lynx, Barclays, Johnnie Walker and Robinsons among many others.

In an era when most agencies set up with the intention of selling out within five years or so, BBH has remained independent and at the top of its game since it was established in 1982. In so doing, it has not only succeeded creatively, but it has also become one of the few independent companies able to compete not just in the UK but globally against the big three of the marketing services industry, Interpublic Group, WPP and Omnicom. It has won new business from Dyson, Google, Dunlop and the World Gold Council in the past three months alone.

It's true, however, that BBH did sell 49 per cent of its equity for £25m to Leo Burnett, now owned by the world's fourth largest advertising group, Publicis. Given that BBH Group's pre-tax profits were £14.3m in 2002, Hegarty isn't exactly hard up.

He grew up in Edgware, north London, where his mother was a school secretary and his father was a labourer. He entered advertising after Hornsey art college. "I was lucky that learning was fundamentally important to them. They were kind and supportive but I was pushed as well," he says, speaking of his mother in particular as a key influence.

In 1967 he joined the Cramer Saatchi consultancy which became Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970, where he was a founding shareholder. He left in 1973 to co-found TBWA London as creative director, and broke away from that in 1982 to found BBH with his partners Nigel Bogle (still with the agency as chief executive) and John Bartle who left the business in 1999.

Hegarty has been at the top of his profession for more than three decades. But still, he admits, he sometimes watches a gardener mowing grass in a park or a man digging a hole in the road and hankers after the simplicity of their work.

He lives in fashionable Clerkenwell, on the edge of the City of London, with his partner of 10 years, and has two children in their 30s. You have to wonder what keeps a man in his early 60s going in a famously cut-throat industry dominated by thrusting 30- and 40-year-olds.

Despite his relatively poor background, it certainly isn't the cash. "Money has a loud voice but no soul," he says. No, the reason he is still working when many of his successful contemporaries are lounging around their French villas is that overwhelming optimism again. Work, he says, gives him a sense of purpose and allows him to remain engaged with the world.

"I work because I love it. I'm genuinely interested in stuff. I love staying alert and keeping an open mind. The thing that ages you more than anything else is closing down, having a fixed point of view. This is probably the most exciting place to be. Why would I want to walk away from it?"

With an agency with offices in London, New York, Singapore, Tokyo and Sao Paulo, Hegarty is more of a manager than a creator these days. But being removed from the everyday action and having a global overview allow him to contemplate the issues facing his industry.

One that clearly perplexes him and tests his powers of optimism to the limits is the weird, bitchy and resentful relationship between advertising and the media - particularly the press. For reasons that aren't clear to him, advertising and advertising people are presented as objects of ridicule and scorn by many journalists, and he doesn't bother to disguise the fact that it makes him angry.

Perhaps it is because journalists reflect their readers' prejudices and so they pass on the ambivalence that many ordinary people feel for advertising - fascination mixed with resentment and suspicion. But Hegarty sees it as laziness and ignorance. "Many journalists have a twisted view of advertising and conveniently forget they are in the advertising business themselves. Journalists present advertising people in such a bad light because you deal only in stereotypes. In fact, journalism is loaded with stereotypes."

He swats away the suggestion that the same is true of advertising. "At least we are trying to break out all of the time. That's why we have a black sheep as a logo. But when I look at most journalists and newspapers, all they do is copy each other. The amount of originality in journalism I could get on to my little finger." Newspapers, he maintains, "have lost their courage and that's why your market is declining".

This ties in with another of his current themes - how to market to a sated society. "By and large, we've got enough of everything. I don't need another car, jeans brand, toothpaste or newspaper. Consumers don't believe any more that you've got some magic ingredient. So how do you keep your brand in the consumer's eye?"

Some might conclude that this is bad news for advertising. Far from it, says Hegarty. Historically in the West and today in the developing world, advertising could tell people about the existence of a new sausage or improved soap powder. Today advertising is pure gloss.

"Image is the only possible answer. Nowadays products work and they tend to be more or less equal, so you buy what you believe is the brand that you should be seen with. So really we've entered the world of fashion in which creativity and innovative thinking are paramount."

An even bigger problem is how to address consumers faced with so many media choices. Hundreds of channels, personal video recorders (PVRs), the internet and computer games, not to mention the off button, mean consumers are no longer a captive audience. How do you hold their attention?

"We've moved from the age of interruption to the age of engagement, from a passive consumer to an active consumer who basically doesn't just sit back and wait for things to be delivered but who goes and seeks things out. A whole new mind-set is needed in the way you create and develop work and how you plan your media," he observes.

One solution is to make advertising more like entertainment. From the moment 22 years ago when Nick Kamen dropped his jeans in "Launderette", the seminal commercial Hegarty created for Levi's, BBH has been the master of the compelling ad.

But the agency also leads the way in coming at the problem from the other direction - making entertainment more like advertising. Advertiser-funded programming (AFP) may make perfect sense from the point of view of the advertisers and media owners, but what about viewers? At least adverts declare their hand openly. Isn't the danger that AFP is either very clunky and intrusive or insidious? Won't viewers become resentful if they have to decode the commercial agenda of every programme before they engage with the content?

Again he argues that it's not the idea that is the problem, but the execution. "Absolutely right. Too much AFP is done badly and is not part of the story. It doesn't satisfy the viewer, so it doesn't work for the advertiser. But AFP can work properly if it offers you value and makes a point that adds to that story."

He quotes the Big Mac conversation in Pulp Fiction as an example of how brands can be legitimately included in programming and add to dramatic effect. "That scene wasn't funded. But the director was using brands to give a better understanding of the characters. That's what AFP should be about."

Besides, the idea that AFP is a modern malaise is just nonsense. Commerce and art have always gone hand in hand, and when they do there is an explosion of creativity, he argues. "Look at Titian's The Annunciation. In the bottom right-hand corner you will see a decanter. Why? Well, the Venetians had developed clear glass and they wanted it in there as an advert. So the connection between culture and commerce is hundreds of years old."

For all that, he believes that it's going to be hard to find a better way of selling than the 30-second ad. "In a time-poor culture it is the most intense, multi-layered way of telling you about a product. And mass media will always be with us because shared experience is so fundamentally important, a basic human need."

As a highly skilled and successful adman, Hegarty could be considered to be one of the high priests of consumerism. Even he agrees that we, in the West at least, have enough material possessions. You have to ask whether it ever worries him that he has spent his life promoting a set of values that could one day end up destroying the planet.

The answer, as you might suspect, is an optimistic but emphatic "no". Environmental problems, he argues, are not caused by the consumer society per se, merely the way it currently functions.

"I don't spend one second of one night ever worrying about those things. Not because I am not concerned about them. But I don't think it is the fault of consumer society. It's the fault of the way that certain things in our consumer society work. Sustainability is perfectly possible and we should be aiming for it.

The solution, he seems to say, is creative thinking guided by the market. "We've been given this fantastic world of resources. What we haven't yet worked out is how to use them intelligently. That's the next frontier, to understand how we live in harmony with nature - in a consumer society.

"It needs a communal will and leadership from our politicians - which is currently lacking. My job is to help to articulate that to a wider audience in a way they can buy into."

When he is not working, Hegarty indulges his lifelong interest in art - he is a keen collector and has exhibited his photography. But his real pride is the 25-hectare vineyard he owns near Carcassonne, in southern France. There he produces 50,000 bottles of Hegarty Chamans. Typically, its not just any old brew but an accomplished and critically acclaimed fine wine, a prince among rouges. Simon Hoggart, in The Spectator, describes it as "an astounding discovery... at £8.50 one of the best-value wines I have ever tasted anywhere".

The making of wine is a perfect metaphor for how our consumer society should progress, says John Hegarty. "Yeast eats sugar and shits alcohol. What we have to do is look at how we turn one thing into something else that has value. That is the way forward."