Principles remain, practices change: John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty

The founder-creative of Bartle Bogle Hegarty on the importance of story-telling, the changing nature of advertising, and the flip side of over-dependence on technology


John Hegarty of  Bartle Bogle Hegarty says a brand is made not just by the people who buy it but also by the people who know about it. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty says a brand is made not just by the people who buy it but also by the people who know about it. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Mumbai: Technology creates opportunity, but it’s creativity that creates value.”

This is the credo that John Hegarty, founder-creative, Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), lives by. At the heart of the advertising industry for the last six decades and having worked on brands such as Levi’s, Audi, Boddingtons, Lynx, British Airways and Johnnie Walker, Hegarty believes there is a creative deficit in the industry. In an interview in Mumbai earlier this week, he stressed the need for better storytelling. Edited excerpts:

You previously mentioned research that showed audiences have a declining view of advertising over the past 20 years.

This is pretty serious and we are not addressing it. It’s the elephant in the room. Everyone is talking about technology, social networking, and digital strategy. All of that is important. But ultimately we have to create things of value. Just like a client has to create a product or service of value.

What is causing this decline?

I have been very disappointed in the (quality of) work overall. It’s because there is a creative deficit. But I remain an optimist of the research and creativity that needs to happen in our industry.

What is hampering creativity?

My major concern over the past 10 years is that we are not seeing the value of creativity. People have been talking about technology and not creativity. My aphorism on that is technology creates opportunity, but it’s creativity that creates value.

Can you explain this with an analogy?

Look at the beer market in the UK. It used to be a really fascinating market with great communication. Now you see a decline in the quality of advertising in that market. It is having less of an impact on the audience. In the UK, for instance, overall sales of beer are flatlining. Yet the craft brewing industry is exploding. If you look at communication in that market, look at how brands are talking, they are talking in a much more exciting way. They are youthful. There is a brand called BrewDog. It’s doing fantastic things—different and daring. It’s engaging with people.

I got involved with a brand called Camden Town Brewery—look at their design, labels. They have a lager called Hells. I guarantee you if a big company had decided to call their lager Hells, they would have done research and then they would not have named it Hells. But with Hells, there is an instant attitude. I see very few brands with attitude. What you see is lots of data and you end up in a very average place.

We see a lot of global brands losing out to smaller, regional rivals...

I will just go back to the beer analogy. Look at Heineken. They have a line now—‘Open your world’. That’s their global line. Brands are coming up with global communication but they don’t talk to people individually. They (Heineken) used to have great advertising in the UK—‘Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’. It doesn’t work globally, but yet, a politician just last year was presenting his policies and said ‘I am going to present a policy that other policies cannot reach’, quoting the line that Heineken hadn’t used in 15 years. That’s the power of what we did—we got into culture. What is happening today is that brands are doing all this global work and it’s just sliding across people. It’s not touching them. It goes straight through the ears.

Which is the best decade of advertising in terms of creativity?

It would be the 1990s. Then you began to see the disruption of digital technology undermining people’s confidence in what they were doing. The last five years have seen incredible disruption. That disruption is continuing. It has accelerated.

What does this disruption mean for BBH?

We have to look at the opportunities that all these new technologies provide for our clients. We don’t want to turn our backs on that. It is the most exciting time to be in the communication industry, because of what you can do.

But on the other hand, you have to remember that the fundamentals of what we do haven’t changed. This is why I say—principles remain, practices change. So we have to do two things—one, reinforce our abilities to come up with brilliant ideas and tell stories and, two, look at how we can disseminate those stories.

Is this very different from how it was done in the past?

It was very formulaic then. You had television, print, posters and radio and that was it. Now you have got all of those plus the assets of the digital world that you can put into this mix.

Even the nature of relationships between clients and advertising agencies has changed...

That’s true. The new-age thinking is that you have to constantly change in a fast-changing world. They (clients) last 18 months in a job, they come and they go. We have got a lot of stupid people out there listening to a lot of stupid people and what you get are stupid results. Our relationship with Audi dates back to 1982 and you can see that in the work. It shows.

Are advertising budgets also getting trimmed as companies move towards digital?

With increase in digital, there is a feeling that the rest is wasteful as you can now have a conversation with your consumers one-on-one, know where they are and communicate with them. Increasingly companies are being run by accountants and not entrepreneurs. They want accountability.

How do you justify broadcast or traditional media’s role to a marketer who is looking at one-on-one communication with digital?

A brand is made not just by the people who buy it but also by the people who know about it. If that is the case, then how do you create your communication programme? The people who know about it add status to it, they add value to it. If I say Rolls Royce, I have added value to that brand even though neither you nor I are ever likely to buy it. It’s like asking would you like a glass of champagne as opposed to a glass of sparkling wine. The fact that you know about champagne or Rolls Royce, that fame is adding value to it. That is what a brand does. It’s not just about talking to people who buy it. Marketers are just not getting it.

A lot of marketing now focuses on big data and insights derived from it. Is that a concern for you?

We have always used data. It’s always been there. My concern today is the over-reliance on it. The ex-chairman at BBH, Jim Carroll, gives this talk on wind-tunnel marketing. His view is that if everybody has access to the same data, then you have access to the same outcome. It’s a bit like cars in the 1980s. They were all designed in the wind tunnel and they all landed up looking the same. At some point, a brand has to decide that it wants to be different.

Does this mean that advertising as we know it has changed?

If you looked at advertising. it used to exist in spaces between things—in between television programmes, in films and in newspapers. Now if we create interesting ideas and work, it can exist on its own. Creativity becomes the media.

What does this change mean for creative agencies like yours?

We are becoming a screen-based society with the way people are consuming video. Therefore, getting people to interact with their screens and producing ideas that they can consume in lots of different ways is one of the exciting opportunities for us.

How does this change the work that you do?

Recently BBH won a BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts award) for a piece of work that it did for the United Nations on refugees. Instead of treating it as advertising, they treated it like a film. That is genuinely ground-breaking.

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