Lunch With John Hegarty

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On a dreary afternoon in New York's Flatiron District, John Hegarty strides purposefully into a trendy new restaurant called Commune. The co-founder and global creative director of London-based Bartle Bogle Hegarty is in a New York state of mind these days; the one-year-old BBH Manhattan satellite office has become his pet project, prompting him to move here full-time for a projected two-year stay. It's been a hectic period for Hegarty of late: One of his dot-com clients has gone belly-up; he just finished a photo shoot (with Hegarty himself behind the camera) with rock legend Iggy Pop; and he's been watching the turmoil following the presidential election with the keen fascination of an outsider looking in. All of this and more was on Hegarty's mind as he sat down to a bowl of pasta with broccoli.

Hegarty: You know, lunch is not big here in New York the way it is in London. Over there, we tend to start earlier and work later, so people need a break. And it's a very social business there, partly because agencies are all centered in Soho.

Berger: Do you miss British food, or is that not possible?

Hegarty: Actually, food in the U.K. has gone forward in leaps and bounds. But the sad truth is, British food got destroyed by the Industrial Revolution. It took all these people off the land and shoved them into factories, and said, "Don't leave the lathe, stay there and we'll shovel some stuff down you and keep you working." So food became fuel. The Industrial Revolution really stripped British people of their connection to the land, which is also why painters like Constable became so popular - because they painted the rural idyll. And that was something people had left behind.

Berger: Aside from lunches, what are some of the big differences between the London and New York ad markets?

Hegarty: I think the biggest difference is that in the U.K., big clients will go with smaller agencies more so than they will here. Take, for instance, one of the hot new agencies right now, Mother, they've got a huge amount of Unilever business. Now I don't think that would happen here, with P&G, they wouldn't go to a young hot agency. In America, big equals good. The idea being that if you're big, you must be doing something right. It's a cultural thing, I think. It's a big country. Another difference, too, is that there is more of an urge here to be like other people. So if a brand in a category is behaving in a certain way, other competing brands will behave that way, too. Because that obviously must be what the market wants. As opposed to saying, as we tend to in London, "OK, the competition is doing that, so we're going to go over here to separate ourselves out. How can we be different?" That may come out of being a smaller market, where you can't spend your way out of problems; you have to think your way out.

Berger: Why are you staying in New York so long? And how are things going here so far?

Hegarty: We all felt that if we were going to be taken seriously in America, then one of the partners would have to go and be part of it. And if we were going to stand for creativity, it should be a creative partner. And I'm enjoying this. I'm not rushing to go back. This is the fourth agency I've started, and I understand you can't judge it until after three years, or really five years. I keep saying, "This is a marathon, not a sprint." Great things don't happen in a hurry. Of course, I said that once to Paul McCartney and he said, "Oh yes they do - I wrote `Yesterday' in three minutes." If I'd have been quick enough, I'd have said to him, "Yeah, but imagine if you'd spent four minutes."

Berger: Is that true? Do you think he really wrote it in three minutes?

Hegarty: Oh, absolutely. He woke up with the song in his head, and wrote it over breakfast.

Berger: There's a lesson there about trusting first instincts. Imagine if he'd had to pass the song through a review committee.

Hegarty: Yes, they'd have probably said: "Hmm . . . 'Yesterday'. . . can we change it to 'Tomorrow,' instead?"

Berger: Have you ever gotten burnt out on advertising, and been tempted to do something else?

Hegarty: A number of times, I've directed commercials, and thought, 'This is OK." But I like having ideas and making them. And why would I want to make somebody else's idea?

Berger: It's a big trend now, agency creatives becoming directors.

Hegarty: I think it's a real concern. I'm not sure it's good to become a jack of all trades. Some of the best things I've done occurred when I'd written something, and then I'd talk to a director, who'd say, "You know, the way to make this great is to do it like this." Other people add to it. So two and two doesn't become four, it becomes 22. Rather than doing it all myself, I want to work with people who stimulate me. If I do everything, I'll end up like Paul McCartney - playing every instrument in the bloody band, and it all sounds terrible.

Berger: What about giving up hands-on creative work to manage the agency; how have you dealt with that?

Hegarty: It's a real disappointment. But you just have to tell yourself, "I'm building something bigger." So your rewards become different - the quality of the agency, the work, - it's a more holistic appreciation you get out of something. But I think it's hardest for creative people, because everything about the way we feel and think is the antithesis of management. Management is about drawing people into something, being fair and open, whereas creativity is about egomaniacs, believing in something against the views of other people. So the two are almost diametrically opposed. But ultimately, I'd rather be sitting in a room and making ads every day, because that's the fun bit. I mean, think about it - you sit down, have an idea, and a client then spends millions and millions of dollars telling everybody about your idea. I mean, that's the most fantastic ego trip. How can you not like that?

Berger: Do you think TiVo and Replay are a serious threat to the future of television commercials?

Hegarty: My reaction to them is, well, that's great. Anything that can improve the quality of the viewing experience has to be seen as a positive. It also means, more than ever, that if anybody is going to watch what I'm creating, I'll have to make it better. But in the U.K. we've always had to deal with this - because if people didn't want to watch commercials, they could always flip to the BBC. Maybe that's why our advertising - despite what Joe Pytka says - is strong and wins more awards.

Berger: What does Joe Pytka say?

Hegarty: In an interview he said something like, "British advertising has its thumb up its ass." As opposed to Joe having his head up his ass. But in the end, I think advertising has always had to subvert its way into people's conversations, and we'll just go on doing that with TiVo and Replay.

Berger: What about agencies starting content divisions, and merging program creation with ads?

Hegarty: Well, if you do that, you're back to soaps, aren't you? I'm a bit wary of that. Why would people in advertising suddenly think they're going to be able to produce the next Friends? This is not to say there aren't certain opportunities to take something out of your advertising and expand it. For example, we could take Flat Eric and turn him into a character in a show. But we'd be wise to take that character to a production company, and say, "Here, you do something with it."

Berger: Will there in fact be a Flat Eric TV show?

Hegarty: I don't know. It's something we've looked into, but there's a complication about who owns the character. But the idea that an agency will make programming - I've been hearing this since 1969. And I'll tell you, it's not what we advertising people are good at. We're good at the power of reduction. Most people who go from advertising into long-form writing find it very difficult - because they're so trained to distill. So stick to what you're good at. After all, writing shorter in some ways takes more skill. Think of what Pascal said: "My apologies for this letter being so long. Had I had more time, it would have been shorter."

Berger: One of your Web clients, Furniture.com, went under. And even a site like Pets.com folded - despite the fact that Chiat's sock puppet advertising was huge. That character penetrated the culture here almost as much as your Flat Eric Levi's character did in Europe. Yet the company didn't get any traction from that. What does that say about advertising?

Hegarty: It reminds you that advertising can only do so much. With a retail dot-com, one about pets or selling furniture, you're trying to change very long-established habits. People have a relationship with where and how they buy things, and that's going to take a long time to break down. In the end, I don't think these dot-coms' pockets were deep enough. But it's also true that while advertising can drive you to the brand, the brand has then got to take over and start to deliver. The idea that it's all about advertising is nonsense.

Berger: Did you ever work on political ads?

Hegarty: No. Two things we said we wouldn't work on when we started the agency was politics and cigarettes. Early on, we talked about this and someone said, "I'd never work on anything I wouldn't like to see my children partake of." And I thought that's a pretty good way of doing it. So I'll work on alcohol, which my grown kids drink - I'm happy to serve them a glass of wine. But I've spent my life encouraging them not to smoke. And we stayed away from politics because we felt it becomes very personal, and it's hard to be objective about it. I must say, the political ads I've seen here have been appallingly bad. What I couldn't understand about Gore was, if he was a brand, surely you'd just keep saying to people, "You've never had it so good - let's keep it going." But he was afraid to do that. He was a brand with a genuine advantage, and he wouldn't use it.

Berger: Should advertising be removed from politics?

Hegarty: No. There's nothing wrong with taking a political idea and distilling it down to a simple thought. Some of the great slogans of our time have come out of political thought. "You can fool some of the people some of the time," and so forth. "Liberte, egalite, fraternite" captured the French Revolution in three words. "You've never had it so good." That was Harold Macmillan in the U.K. in 1958 - and it should've been borrowed by Gore. There's a kneejerk reaction to advertising by the intelligentsia, that somehow it's able to subvert the truth. When actually what advertising is best at doing is taking the truth and distilling it down to a single dramatic message - because ultimately the consumer will spot an untruth. I've always said, the best strategy you can have is tell the truth. Though you have to express it in a way that is disarming.

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