John Hegarty Has Contrarian View on Big Data

BBH Founder Says He Doesn't Want Brands To Understand Him

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John Hegarty was a contrarian at Advertising Week Europe, rejecting marketing's reliance on data, and insisting that advertising needs to up its creative game before it can hope to benefit from new media platforms.

John Hegarty
John Hegarty

The founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty participated in a "Wired Global Conversation" panel that included John Kamen, chairman and CEO of, and Bob Greenberg, founder, chairman and CEO of R/GA.

When the conversation turned to data, Mr. Hegarty admitted, "You'd expect a creative person to pour slight scorn on data." He explained, "It's because I've spent my life dealing with people who've got all the data in the world and yet they can't invent anything."

Referring to the recent European scandal over supermarkets selling horsemeat horsemeat labeled as beef, Mr. Hegarty said, "Supermarkets have an incredible amount of data coming into them, and yet they didn't realize they were flogging horsemeat to people…I would have thought someone along the line should have been looking at the broader picture. You look at too much data and you don't actually see what's going on around you."

Mr. Greenberg jumped in to defend the potential of data. He said, "I think creative use of data is also a possibility. Data visualization has created ways in which you can take the data that's available and tie it into a live event – like when I walk into Nike Town [wearing a Nike + band] and they'll know who I am and they'll be able to serve up really relevant content."

But Mr. Hegarty was not impressed. He said, "I'm not sure I want people to know who I am. I find that slightly Orwellian and I object to it. I don't want people to know what I drink in the morning and what I drink at night. I think there's a great problem here - throughout history we have fought for our freedom to be an individual, and you're taking it away from us. I think there'll be a huge backlash to that and Nike will have to be very careful."

Developing his theme, Mr. Hegarty added, "To those brands that say 'I understand you' I say 'Fuck off, you don't understand me. Mind your own business, I don't want to be understood by you. I don't understand myself sometimes… and it can be fun.'"

Regarding mobile advertising, Mr. Hegarty emphasized that advertisers must put the consumer first, not the technology. He said, "We have a major problem in that our work isn't as good as it used to be, and consumers value it less and less - that's the first thing we have to address."

He continued, "Our solution to the problem is to constantly think how we can interrupt consumers more, how we can trip them up, how we can shove a message in their face that they don't want to see. We're becoming more aggravating, when surely we should engage consumers and give them something they want to watch and respond to…Instead we talk about what we can do on this platform or that platform…The only space I want to occupy, the only space that's interesting to me, is the one between people's ears. That's where I want my message to go and how I get there is an irrelevance."

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