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"I GENUINELY BELIEVE," DECLARES JOHN HEGARTY, "that in 200 years' time, Levi's commercials will be more talked about [in the U.K.] than Henry Moore's sculpture. Advertising is bringing art to the masses, and it says more about social attitudes." Clearly, this is not your averagely cynical agency head talking: after almost 30 years in the business, the chairman and creative director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty remains "consumed by interest in this fascinating business that touches on so many things. It's like working in 33 industries at once."

Consequently, Hegarty has been content to remain in advertising since starting as a junior art director at Benton & Bowles, after leaving art school in 1966. In '68, still in his early 20s, he became deputy creative director at the fledgling Cramer Saatchi Consultancy, as it was then known. Charles Saatchi became a friend, but Hegarty was never converted to his business methods. "The Saatchi ideal of a one-stop shop was driven by a desire to lock everything into a growing Saatchi & Saatchi empire rather than by an analysis of what clients wanted," he says. "It failed because it didn't provide what clients actually need, which is outstanding ideas that get their heads above the parapet and get them noticed." Hegarty's own agency was to adopt a different approach.

"What turns people on at BBH is advertising and the product of advertising," he adds, and that, Hegarty believes, is the secret of their success. Winners of the International Agency of the Year award at Cannes for two years running and recipients of innumerable other awards, BBH is universally acknowledged to be a world leader from its London offices, unimpeded by a lack of offices around the globe.

Hegarty emphasizes, however, that, "We never said we wouldn't ever have other offices. All we said was that we would never set up a conventional agency with offices in every major capital: not only do we think they are outmoded but there are plenty of them, servicing businesses that want that kind of organization, and we don't see any point in competing.

"We believe that you can create from one base and, with the right kind of research and thinking, send ideas round the world. But," he adds, fueling suspicions that an American office will be BBH's next big step, "we are considering how best to facilitate our clients' requirements to get their advertising into the right kind of media at the right kind of level in the market."

With work running in 47 countries and nearly 25 percent of its business now with international clients like Coke, Levi's, Haagen-Dazs and Jim Beam, BBH is nevertheless proof of Hegarty's maxim that "the idea is bigger than the network." It was, he says, a niche position that he and joint chief executives John Bartle and Nigel Bogle took up when they formed the agency in 1982, nine years after the same trio had co-founded the London office of TBWA. Their peers in British advertising often attribute a large part of BBH's success to the complementary nature of these three individuals.

"Each is a master of his own discipline," says Mike Cozens, a former senior copywriter at BBH, now creative director at Young & Rubicam. "Their respect for each other, for the product and for the advertising creates an environment where everyone feels able to surpass themselves, rather like Collett Dickenson Pearce in the '70s."

According to Hegarty, success also stems from adherence to their modest but clearly defined original aims. "We never set out to be all things to all people and we predicted that 10 to 12 percent of clients would respond. It's closer to 15 or 20 percent now, but we are keen to retain the integrity of the idea that advertising made in London can be placed wherever necessary."

Though still determined to resist pressures for flotation and merger, BBH now has billings of about $240 million and a substantial staff of 217. The growth from 20 employees in 1983, Hegarty insists, is entirely "a by-product of quality and the need to meet new challenges and opportunities." He stresses that they are still driven by the quality of the work, rather than short-term business objectives, but admits he is doing a lot more international traveling these days, "not being an evangelist, but just meeting clients and explaining our approach." Meanwhile back in London's Soho, Steve Hooper and Dennis Lewis, who have been at BBH since 1985, have been appointed co-CDs, "simply because there is now too much work for me to direct, though I still see it all," says Hegarty.

The statistics to support BBH's creative success are readily available. There is the 398 percent increase in Haagen-Dazs sales in the first year of advertising; Boddingtons' rise to become the best-selling take-home bitter in the U.K. within 15 months; a 530 percent growth in European volume sales of Levi's 501s between 1985 and 1992. But as Hegarty himself says, their clients are self-selecting-"those who don't want what we offer won't come to us."

These nonclients will include any who demand to see creative pitches. BBH is now famous for its refusal to take part in such contests, shunning speculative creative work in favor of research and strategic planning. According to Hegarty this not only enables the agency to produce more-focused work, it encourages clients to think about the problems they want to resolve in a more intelligent way. The result, he adds, is a better working relationship between the two.

His claim is borne out by clients like Levi's, whose European advertising manager, Martin Rippon, describes BBH as "good business partners who are serious about understanding our requirements, which means we can take a teamlike approach to cracking the advertising." Rippon suggests that BBH, in turn, has taken something from Bob Haas' Levi's culture. It has certainly been a memorable collaboration, with BBH's sexy, high-profile campaigns for 501s bringing the agency almost as much coverage as the product. Hegarty is happy to predict that, "when the history of advertising is written, we will be known for Levi's as DDB became known for Volkswagen." Since he credits Bill Bernbach as the pioneer who invented modern advertising, this doesn't worry him unduly. But he does react defensively to the suggestion that BBH has itself become a fashionable brand name, identified exclusively with products like expensive ice cream and yuppie clothing like Hugo Boss.

Indeed, the campaigns through which BBH has become best-known and respected all share an inherent potential to appeal to the young and fashionable, or those who aspire to such attributes. It could be argued, however, that it is only after the BBH treatment that such product qualities are revealed. Levi's, for example, was perceived in Europe as "the sort of thing middle-aged bank clerks would wear on weekends" before the agency's commercials identified them forever with the perfect physiques and enviable sex lives of young men and women.

The sensuality of ice cream, such as it is, was only realized when BBH persuaded Haagen-Dazs to modify its worthy but unexciting "Dedicated to perfection" slogan to the "Dedicated to pleasure" tag that accompanies the correspondingly erotic images of the campaign. The provocative large-type headlines themselves-like "Feel me" and "Lose control"-are couched within smaller-type pseudo-innocent copy. For instance, "Our customers feel Haagen-Dazs is unique. Between you and me there are no secrets to it, only the world's best ingredients." This is accompanied by a photo, worthy of Mapplethorpe, of a man's naked back with an ice cream handprint on it.

An even less glamorous product, Boddingtons Bitter beer, one of three Whitbread Beer Co. brands at BBH, has now become an equally successful and popular creation, thanks to the ingenious "Cream of Manchester" strategy. Until 1991, Boddingtons was the popular local pint in the Manchester area; then BBH attacked with a series of print ads, later extended to television, in which punning images depict the ale filling ice cream cones and pricey chocolates, and the rich foam being lovingly smoothed into luscious female flesh as a face cream and a suntan lotion. A photo of Lol Creme holding a glass of beer is called "The Creme of Manchester," while a photo of nothing at all is called "Vanishing cream."

The equally clever Murphy's Irish stout campaign, which features photo-illustrations in its print work, is based on the concept of stoically prevailing in the battle of life, tagged, "Like the Murphy's, he wasn't bitter." For Australia's Tooheys Export, there's a funny mock TV talk show, shot on videotape, called "Channel Tooheys," in which the beer-crazy hosts have no more than three seconds for any guest who isn't discussing beer.

Indeed, while BBH print is almost invariably notable for its clean, contemporary and brash yet somehow elegant look and its meticulous attention to typography, the BBH reel is an odd blend of low-key but unusual stylishness (Levi's, Hugo Boss, Audi and others) with out and out nutty comedy. A Rockport commercial, for example, features a short, nerdy man and a tall, gorgeous woman who are trapped in a sewer tunnel as a villainous character unleashes a torrent of water at them. The man sets his booted feet firmly and grabs the woman in a tight embrace. When the tidal wave clears, they've both been washed clean of their clothes down to their underwear, and the man, still gripping the woman's outstretched arm, is heroically erect. The VO:

"Rockport XCS boots: grips even better when it's wet."

A Cadbury commercial for the Picnic candy bar is a parody of a detergent spot in which a woman, cackling about her sparkling wash, has a vat of melted chocolate poured on her head. Tag: "More yummy bits than the average break can take." A brilliant bit of documentary revision for Sky TV takes file footage of Stalin making a speech and re-records him as a Cockney comedian. And a Phileas Fogg bagel chips spot presents a British bigwig who phones a New York deli and demands the best bagel chips in the world. This is a job for Al, sort of a Kosher Superman when he's not just a fat guy who works in the kitchen. He flies overseas in his superhero costume and lands on an airport runway, skidding on his belly.

Despite this range, it's now being asked whether BBH can sustain their creative leadership against younger, more radical agencies like Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury. On the international front, they have Wieden & Kennedy seeking to push its hot creative image across Europe at the same time as BBH looks the other way across the Atlantic.

Hegarty sighs at this and relates how, after the famous Levi's "Laundrette" commercial back in 1985, people asked him how he, then a 40 year old, could relate to the 18 and 19 year olds that the spot so successfully targeted. "It's ideas that are the foundation of communication, and good advertising is about expressing ideas. The secret is to hire open-minded people who are constantly aware of what's going on and welcome change, while maintaining their integrity. Like artists who go on being interesting such as Picasso and Hockney, they will always be rewriting the way they communicate. Other agencies get involved in technique, using words like 'interactive,' for example. But that's just another way of doing things, like television commercials were different from print ads."

The current young generation of creatives at BBH do appear to justify Hegarty's confidence in their ability to continue and develop the agency's culture. One leading young art director acknowledges the agency as being "the solid bedrock of an immaculate culture which is like the inherited craftsmanship of a leading fashion house." That, he says, is inevitable and will continue, but he foresees a danger of things becoming "too warm and comfy," and warns that too strong an internal focus could lead to missed opportunities. "We must be able to look at the industry from the outside and take advantage of the way it is going to change. That will mean coming up with ideas appropriate to new media and sponsorship opportunities beyond conventional press ads and commercials and developing closer relationships with clients."

Hegarty, however, doesn't accept that advertising in its current form is en route to obsolescence, as Jay Chiat, for one, has suggested. "Advertising has always been amoebalike; it changes and responds with time and attitudes. Consumers are more advertising literate now that they're bombarded with information at an unprecedented rate, but the criteria for a great ad remains the same. It makes people re-evaluate, either to reconfirm a buying habit or make them ask, 'Why am I not buying this product?'*" Hegarty's apparent lack of cynicism may be explained by his conviction that "people want to be persuaded. Life is about making decisions, and all conversation, all intellectual argument is about persuading people. We're not the hidden persuaders, flogging things that people don't want. In fact, advertising has an important role to play in a mixed economy."

And BBH has applied its talents to charity, with a series of posters for the English Collective of Prostitutes campaign to legalize prostitution. The nature of the organization made it bound to attract media attention. But did it achieve much for the client? "You can't build Rome or change parliamentary attitudes in a day," Hegarty responds.

"You can only get more people to understand the issue and make them indignant enough to put pressure on government."

His aspirations for BBH certainly do not encompass transforming it into a revolutionary organization, political or commercial. But he does think that the advertising industry in general is run badly, in a very short-term way. "At BBH, we take the longer-term view, that the quality of the work drives the business. Bad work indicates bad quality controI, like producing a bad can of beans or a bad automobile affects the reputation of a business. For us, a bad ad, one that lacks integrity of thought and single-mindedness, represents a business failure."

Single-mindedness is important to Hegarty. His personal and professional ambitions overlap in a single desire to make the agency more renowned, respected-and profitable. Though he once wanted to be a painter and he would love to make a film, he believes "you can only govern today. If you make today exciting it will impact on tomorrow," he explains, "and if you make a great commercial it will further the agency's greatness."

His frequent appearances on television chat shows and programs about contemporary culture suggest that he believes that good general publicity will not do its reputation any harm either. Hegarty is the only adman to have been a "castaway" on "Desert Island Discs," the long-running BBC radio show in which celebrities are invited to choose their post-shipwreck record collections. Naturally, he nominated "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," the backing track of "Laundrette," the Levi's hit.

It's not likely, though, that Hegarty will find himself stranded on a desert island anytime soon; he has no time to sail. He's "working on such a broad canvas that I'm too interested to harbor unfulfilled ambitions."

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