Cannes Lions

Sir John Hegarty on 'scam' Lions entries, the Catholic Church, data and Martin Sorrell

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John Hegarty at the 2016 Cannes Lions.
John Hegarty at the 2016 Cannes Lions. Credit: Photo by Christian Alminana/Getty Images

Sir John Hegarty has been coming to the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity since 1989, when he first served as a juror. "Of course it was just one Grand Prix," he says. "It was film, that was it."

Times have changed. Hegarty hasn't, much. He is here, again, in town this week to tout "Feed our Future," a new global campaign for the United Nations World Food Programme done in conjunction with SAWA, a global trade body of cinema advertising companies.

A founding shareholder in Saatchi & Saatchi and a co-founder of TBWA London before starting Bartle Bogle Hegarty in 1982, Sir John has himself been behind hall of fame work for Levi's, Volkswagen and Audi. Never shy about his opinions, Hegarty took the opportunity of yet another Cannes Lions to share a few thoughts on the current state of creativity with Ad Age.

This Q&A has been edited.

There's a lot of talk about a retrenchment at Cannes this year.

It had lost focus. If you start handing out so many Grand Prix, it devalues the Grand Prix.

Had it gotten out of control?

It's a moneymaking machine. And that's always the way when you allow the accountants to drive the company. All they do is go for profit. Of course profit is fundamental, but you end up undermining the value of that brand. Many awards schemes have done that. I don't think that Cannes is the only one guilty of that. It's become—you don't need me to tell you, walk up and down the Croisette—it's become a tech festival, not a creative festival.

You've bemoaned the increasing role data and tech have played in the creative process.

I was accused by Martin Sorrell of being a dinosaur because somebody said "Hegarty doesn't believe in data," which is not actually true. Data is fundamentally important. One of the greatest stories ever told, the Nativity, came out of data collection, didn't it? You've got to remember a brand's job is also to convert. you've gotta go out and throw your net wide. How do I know who's going to like what I'm selling?

Meaning that with targeting, advertisers are preaching to the converted?

It's not that. It's a lazy way of marketing: "Look at the data, what does the data tell us? It's an instruction manual!" No, it's not an instruction manual. You've got to think about how you're building the values of this brand. I know I'm boring and I say this all the time, but a brand is made not only by the people who buy it but also by the people who know about it.

"Those people" being the brand itself and also agents of the brand?

If I say to you "Rolls Royce," you say, "Ooh!" You're probably not going to buy one, but by talking to a broad audience who understands what your brand is about, you become part of culture. We are forgetting that part of advertising's function of course is about effectiveness, but it's also helping that brand become a part of culture.

Have you seen any of the work this year at the Palais?

No I just got here but most of it is scam anyway so I can't be arsed.

What do you mean by that?

Most of the print work is scam, you can tell it, you can see it a mile away.

Meaning it's work just created to win awards?

Yeah. I didn't come here to look at somebody's portfolio. I mean, fine, if you say to me, "This is the portfolio section," then fine I'll go and have a look at it. But when you pretend that this is a piece of advertising that had an impact on the marketplace, forget it.

Last year the talk was all about Fearless Girl. There doesn't seem to be a corollary this year.

I'll get provocative here again: Fearless Girl did what for the brand? I don't know what brand it was associated with. We've lost connection. We've confused persuasion with promotion. Everybody got hugely excited about the Nike FuelBand 10 years ago. I thought it was a brilliant promotion. I used to be a runner. There was no way I would ever run in Nikes. New Balance, yes. I don't care how many FuelBands you create, I won't buy them. I don't think you make a great running shoe. You have to persuade me.

So what would it take to persuade you to buy a pair of Nikes?

You've got to persuade me the technology behind your running shoe is that it makes running better and safer for me. That takes a long time.

Time doing what?

What I constantly hear is a debate about what technology is doing, not what our audience wants to listen to. I had a conversation, lovely guy, an ex-client of ours who now does digital media for Jaguar Land Rover and he says, "You know, John, I've got to be on all the time. I walked away and I said, 'Why? Who says you have to be on all the time?'" Facebook will tell you that. Google will tell you that. It serves their interests, not yours. We've drunk the Kool-Aid

What do you make of consultancies moving into the agency space?

Why shouldn't these people get involved? Unless you understand how to convert that into a communications program that stands out in the marketplace, then what's the point? The trouble is agencies are their own worst enemies and are not very good at establishing a trusted rapport with clients.

To what extent does the holding company model get in the way of that relationship?

It's probably a busted model. It's not really answering the needs of clients. Clients can do so much of what holding companies did with media, with data, with data analysis. We had that big report showing that holding companies were not being transparent. So clients look at agencies and holding companies as being people who can't really trust. Agencies and holding companies should know that the foundation of the brand is trust. So I can't see a future for the holding companies. Over the next 15 years I think you see a complete realignment and a breaking up.

What do you think of what Martin Sorrell is up to?

I think he's got all kinds of problems. Over to him, really. When you say "models," what kind of models do you mean? [Laughs.] Let's hope they remain business models. It's a shame what he thinks he's going to do. He looks like somebody who's trying to have revenge and as we know that's a dish best eaten cold. He should go off and do something else. He had a very good run. My only prediction about the future is creativity.

You mentioned the Nativity being the original data-informed creative. You look at the Ten Commandments, some of the most enduring "content" ever, and it was written on stone. The oldest medium there is.

Exactly. The greatest brand in the world is the Catholic Church. Best logo. Every lesson in marketing is there. The point is: Two thousand years, some problems, still going. Where will you be in 2,000 years?

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