We're 75--so what? Heritage is nothing if you're not relevant

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Our recent cover story on "the death of beer"-which explored the very real, bottom-line-biting trend of young drinkers choosing cocktails and hard liquor over suds-provoked quite a bit of reaction, from those who applauded our gutsiness to those who strongly disagreed with the premise of the piece.

I enjoy and welcome criticisms of our work, and see intelligent debate as the best way to get at the real essence of an issue. But one beer defender really infuriated me.

Here's why: This person's position was essentially that beer would return to dominance simply because of its heritage and long-standing place in American life. People would drink beer, he said, because they've always drunk beer. It would be around because it has always been around.

What ridiculous nonsense. I pity anyone in the beer business who might look to this guy for answers on how to respond to their challenge.

Beer boosters, though, are far from the only ones to adopt such head-in-the-sand attitudes in the face of undeniable change, which brings us to today's lesson:

Heritage is nothing.

Strong words, admittedly, from the editor of a media brand that is in the midst of celebrating its 75th year of publication, but it's a position I'll passionately defend. Because Ad Age will never make it to its 80th if it doesn't continue to play a meaningful and relevant role in readers' lives.

The past does have relevance, because of lessons learned and because the goodwill accumulated across decades of delivering on your brand promise can set the standards and serve as a shield against downturns. (It can also turn into a negative if you hide behind your reputation or it delays a realization that you've lost your way.)

"For most brands, a strong heritage is considered an asset, a competitive advantage. ... Your past helps guide your future, encouraging brand loyalty and aiding profitability."

So wrote creative visionary John Hegarty in a piece he penned for a U.K. newspaper earlier this year on the heritage trap. (It's a view he also planned to incorporate, if only to note the irony, in acceptance remarks for his Lifetime Achievement honor at the Clio Awards festival this past weekend.)

Before jetting to South Beach for the Clios, London-based Hegarty stopped off in New York last week. He had just returned from Brazil and was looking trim and tan and more like Mick Jagger than ever. We had lunch at media hotspot Michael's, where it was harder than usual to get a table because of all the L.A. types who had flown in for the network upfront presentations. (The broadcast, prime-time upfronts provide the perfect symbolic backdrop for a discussion of how relying on what worked in the past can bite you in the ass.)

Hegarty said ad agencies' tendency to worship long-ago glories is one of the reasons they are losing relevance these days, particularly since they don't own their ideas: "It's incumbent on us to reinvent ourselves."

As he wrote in his piece for the Media Guardian, "Just as a shark has to keep swimming to survive, an agency has to keep evolving to succeed. It has no fixed assets, no past equity to trade in. ... It has only its next idea, and it better be a good one."

Agencies need "the desire to break what you've created and the courage to start again."

Bartle Bogle Hegarty is still trying to make a bigger name for itself in the U.S., but remains one of the most revered agencies in the U.K., where its black-sheep mascot symbolizes its "zig when others zag," challenger-brand mentality. It's a position of which Hegarty is equally proud and wary.

"As far as the client's concerned," John said last week, "what we think about tomorrow means a lot more" than what we did yesterday.

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