Magical Mystery Tour: Hegarty Book Delves Into Creative Process

DDB's Reinhard Reviews BBH Founder's Book on Good Advertising and How It Rejects the Status Quo

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Do we really need another "how to" book on advertising? John Hegarty thinks not. The legendary creative leader of London-based BBH believes there are far too many such books, and that they have done us more harm than good. When pressed to name one, he cites David Ogilvy's "Confessions of an Advertising Man." Mr. Hegarty says "His whole thing about rules was such a disservice to creativity. We all know that creativity is about breaking rules."

John Hegarty
John Hegarty

So it's not surprising that in his own new book, "Hegarty on Advertising," he rejects all attempts to control the unruly creative process. This book is about working magic, declares the author. And what's the real magic? According to Mr. Hegarty, "We start with a blank piece of paper and we create a brand that has value in the marketplace!"

To produce that magic, he correctly insists that an agency must have a creative-led culture and a differentiating point of view. Mr. Hegarty's point of view, and that of his agency, comes from one of his own famous ads, a 1982 spread for Levi's black denim. The ad was headlined "When the World Zigs, Zag," and starred a black sheep going in the opposite direction of a flock of white sheep. In time, the black sheep became the BBH logo and the symbol of the agency's guiding philosophy, which is to admonish staff and clients alike that to succeed in a zigging world, one must surely zag.

While much of the best BBH work over the years has been smart, surprising and engaging, it hasn't always struck me as zaggy. But I agree with Mr. Hegarty that a healthy disrespect for the status quo is essential to the success of any advertising agency that covets a creative reputation.

Though Mr. Hegarty seems proud of the industry recognition his agency's work has garnered, in private conversation he blasts the award system as "the beast that 's devouring our industry." He claims The Gunn Report encourages creative directors to cheat by entering bogus ads in award festivals to win points. He agrees with me that awards shows should consider a special category for "ghost" ads that never ran but that demonstrate how an advertiser might have creatively addressed the market.

"Hegarty on Advertising" is written in two parts. The chapters in Part One occasionally do morph into a "how to" text, laced with useful insights about ideas, brands, pitches, briefs and the central role of the creative director. Mr. Hegarty says: "Getting the creative director appointment right is crucial. They represent the soul of the company." He acknowledges the importance of other disciplines but stresses that "ultimately, it's in the beliefs and passions of the creative director that the agency's future resides." Mr. Hegarty believes we'll do well to think of ourselves as being in the fashion and entertainment business. His coined word "fashiontainment" is painfully awkward, but his suggestion to change the word "consumer" to "audience" is a good one, and his fashion analogy reminds us that brands, like fashions, need to be continually refreshed. Of the new media, the author says "Digital has made what we used to call 'below the line' exciting." According to Mr. Hegarty, linking established media to the digital world is now the holy grail of marketing.

What's the greatest of all brands? Mr. Hegarty argues that it's the Catholic Church. He commends the church for its choice of a strong simple logo, the cross, which the irreverent Mr. Hegarty says "is made even more powerful when you attach the founder's son to it." He notes how the church went global and then "to enhance their cultural and philosophical importance, the church worked with the best architects, painters and musicians. When Nike launched their 'Just do it' campaign back in the '80s, they used the Beatles. Well, the church engaged Mozart Beethoven, Handel and Bach."

I share Mr. Hegarty's belief that storytelling is central to the art of communication and his view that we haven't yet found good ways to tell stories in new media. Instead, "We've become obsessed with gags" he says, "and not very good ones. The great thing about stories is that they carry a message. Someone farting in a room gets 20 million hits but it has no substance." Mr. Hegarty believes the Brits are better storytellers than the Americans, but he finds this a paradox. "British copywriters had learned the lesson (visual narrative) from Hollywood yet their American counterparts seemed not to have." Mr. Hegarty arrived at this conclusion while spending two years in the States helping to launch the BBH, New York, office. Of his American writers, he says, "Instead of telling a story they wanted to write a short lecture." While I can think of many examples of great storytelling in the annals of American advertising, U.S. copywriters might do well to reflect on Mr. Hegarty's opinion.

An art director by background, Mr. Hegarty is himself a good storyteller.

Readers will enjoy his tales of new-business pitches gone bad and behind-the-scenes glimpses into how the agency's signature work for Audi and Levi's came about. Part 2 of "Hegarty on Advertising" is given to such narrative as the author traces his career from his first job as an assistant art director at Benton & Bowles, London, through his stints at Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA to his eventual decision, with John Bartle and Nigel Bogle, to form Bartle Bogle Hegarty.

The book's final chapter, "How Advertising Drove Me to Drink," is about Mr. Hegarty's second career as a vintner.

"Hegarty on Advertising" is easy to read. The boldface insets and underlined bits let us know what the author thinks should be highlighted. Of the examples featured in the book, the best work incorporates what most great creative work combines -- simplicity, surprise and a smile. A 1997 ad for a fashion brand shows a stunningly dressed model alluringly posed against a bridge railing alongside a roadway. Slightly out of focus in the background, a car is seen to have crashed into the railing, obviously the result of a distracted driver. The ad's only copy: "Wallis. Dress to kill." A 1998 ad for Choosy, a brand of cat food, features not a cat, but a puppy with a crayoned caption: "When I grow up, I want to be a cat."

Mr. Hegarty's own favorites include a series of posters from the '90s for Boddingtons, a brand of beer from Manchester differentiated by its creamy head. In an act of zagging, the agency challenged conventional wisdom that creaminess was not a selling attribute and made that very feature the focus of a campaign that transformed the beer, according to Mr. Hegarty, into a cult brand. The ads exaggerated the creaminess of the product by showing it variously as an ice cream cone, as shaving cream and as many other "creamy" objects. Of these executions Mr. Hegarty believes "you can see the lineage in this campaign all the way back to that original Volkswagen work by Doyle Dane Bernbach in the early '60s." It was that work, when he first encountered it as a student at the London School of Printing, that inspired young John Hegarty, then and there, to get a job in advertising. I'm glad he did.

Keith Reinhard is chairman emeritus, DDB Worldwide.
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