Sir John Hegarty on How the Ad Industry Has Lost Its Courage

Find Out Also Why He Finds the Word 'Consumer' Demeaning

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The advertising business has forgotten its basic principles and has lost its courage, contends British agency founder Sir John Hegarty.

I talked to Sir John on a variety of topics during a video interview just before his induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame. He was funny and articulate when he traced a career path in an industry that was dysfunctional when he entered it to one that seems to have lost its passion today.

Sir John got into the advertising business in 1965, about the same time the Beatles were releasing "Help!" His was the first generation of creative people who actually wanted to be in advertising, he noted.

Up until then, advertising tended to be populated by "disgruntled creative people" who really wanted to be something else -- if they were art directors they wanted to be painters, if they were copywriters they wanted to be doing a stage play while advertising paid the bills.

"It was not populated by people who really wanted to be there, and consequently they didn't take responsibility. The creative people didn't take responsibility and the account people ruled the roost. So you had this kind of clash. It was a dysfunctional industry."

But Sir John and his contemporaries came into the business believing that it could be "smart, witty, intelligent yet also inclusive. And we learned from the great Bill Bernbach who was our -- I don't like to talk about heroes because they always let you down in some way or other -- but he was the man we all looked up to."

Sir John Hegarty
Sir John Hegarty

Sir John's first job was at Benton & Bowles' London office. "I was this upstart young creative who was very lippy, who had all the opinions going for me in the world." And he soon found out he was dealing with people "who just didn't get it."

But he kept offering up his unadulterated opinions on how things should be, "and in the end it was kind of, 'John, I think our paths should now part and you should seek your fortune elsewhere.' It was a very nice firing in a way."

At Benton & Bowles he'd worked with a young writer named Charles Saatchi. Charles Saatchi set up a consultancy and Sir John went to work for it, and it eventually morphed into Saatchi & Saatchi.

His next step was co-founder and creative director of TBWA in London, and nine years later, in 1982, Sir John joined with partners John Bartle and Nigel Bogle to start Bartle Bogle Hegarty. The agency won the first three accounts it pitched and went on to win just about every creative award on the map.
But Sir John is still thankful to Benton & Bowles. "What I've always loved about actually being at Benton & Bowles is I knew how shitty it could be."

One of the things Sir John learned was that advertising is not science. "We have clients that want advertising to be a science. … I think marketing directors go down on their knees every night and plead with God, 'Please can you make it a science?' Sadly, it is not."

'It's an art'
Selling, Sir John told me, is "an emotional occupation. It's an art. And therefore you have to have your sales messages constructed in such a way that appeals to people. And information goes in through the heart. We are emotional creatures. We are not logical."

Sir John has great disdain for the word "consumer." "It's demeaning. I think it just implies that the people we talk to just wait for our sales messages to be directed to whatever it is we want them to do. And I think that great advertising, great work, great brands have a dialogue with the people they talk to."
Sir John believes that brands should be both functional and fashionable. Functionality "gets you on the pitch. It works. It does what it says on the box and it does it brilliantly. Now I've got to make you feel good about me. I've got to make you feel good to use this."

Sir John puts no stock in John Wanamaker's famous quote about half his advertising being wasted. "It's the most stupid thing ever said about advertising. A brand is made not just by the people who buy it but also by the people who know about it."

"I know about Lady Gaga, but I'll never buy one of her albums. … But I know about her. That's adding to her fame, it's adding to her value, and that's what brands have to do."

The digital revolution has made people forget the basic principles of advertising, Sir John maintains. "I think they've forgotten the basic principles of brand building because all of a sudden a thing called digital has appeared and a whole lot of people have said we don't need to do that advertising anymore because some bloke in a sweaty T-shirt who's 18-and-a-half has said to you, 'You don't need to do that.'"

Sir John says we've listened to the so-called experts for too long, "and they've misunderstood what advertising is about and what the job is. I think it's an example of why there has been a dearth of great work, because the basic principles have been lost. We've got to get back to them."

Part of the problem is that CMOs aren't being taken seriously, Sir John asserts. "They've failed to gain traction on the boards. They've failed to get companies to understand what they're doing. The accountants set up the figures, they don't understand all the soft stuff, which of course is where all the value is, and so chief marketing officers are not being taken seriously."

To add to the dilemma, CMOs drift from one industry to another. "They don't give a shit about what industry they're in. They take all the marketing jargon and apply it and they all end up in the same place. They don't passionately believe in what they're doing."

"I think what our industry has lost is courage. I think it's lost belief. I think it's chasing the dollar. A company is set up and they sell themselves within five years of setting up. And I always say that money's the last reason to do anything. Don't get me wrong -- money's important, it creates a nice lifestyle. … But ultimately you do something because you believe in it, and I don't think enough people in the business today care and love it."

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