Sir John Hegarty, Worldwide Creative Director of BBH, has been at the forefront of advertising for four decades. But as the digital world reshapes the industry, his latest challenge might just be the biggest ever: to change the way the industry does business and open up the creative workspace.
There are two black sheep in Sir John Hegarty’s office in Soho, London. One of them is literal – a stuffed animal inspired by BBH’s first ad for Levi’s, which gave birth to a corporate logo and a typically catchy slogan: ‘When the world zigs, zag.’ The other sits at a desk scattered with the detritus of a 40-year career (framed images from successful ads; D&AD Yellow Pencil; CLIO award bedecked with multicolored wristbands), sporting a trademark checked suit and wry smile.
Hegarty is an old sage in the global advertising game – responsible for legendary campaigns for the likes of Audi (‘Vorschprung durch Technik’ was his idea) and Johnnie Walker, as well as Levi’s, British Airways, and Google. But as digital technology ushers in a new era for the ad industry, he shows no sign of slowing down and letting younger men take over.
Indeed, Hegarty seems reinvigorated by the demands of the digital age. This last act of his career may just be the most profound.
- Think Quarterly: As digital tools become creatively empowering, what will the ad industry look like in the future?
- Sir John Hegarty: My big view of it is that the world is moving towards entertainment. As we become richer – relatively speaking – entertainment becomes the thing we want most. So a medium that is about entertainment is a medium that will inherit the future. Right now, digital is still really an information medium. That will change but we’re still in the very, very early days of it.
- Are these tools already beginning to change the creative process?
- They certainly are. Creativity challenges technology; technology inspires creativity. One of the amazing things technology has done is democratize creativity – it’s put it into the hands of more and more people, and I think that’s an ongoing process that we can’t change. Why would we want to change it? I think that’s its power.
- Does that mean that traditionally creative companies like BBH are going to be threatened?
- I don’t think so because I still think advertising is 20 percent idea and 80 percent execution. It’s knowing what ideas are going to be great. It’s knowing how to make those ideas. I always love that great quote, ‘We’re all artists, it’s just that some of us shouldn’t exhibit.’ Just because everybody can do it isn’t to say they should. I get very annoyed when people say to me, ‘We can crowdsource!’ No, we can’t. Anybody can do it? No! I don’t think they can. Everybody can dance, everybody can sing, everybody can play tennis, everybody can kick a football: Are they any good at it? No, not necessarily. I went to art school. I trained, I tried, I had to work at it. I think the idea that you can just pick up a pencil and do it is nonsense.
“Creativity challenges technology; technology inspires creativity. One of the things technology has done is democratize creativity – put it into the hands of more people. That’s an ongoing process that we can’t change. Why would we want to change it? That’s its power.”
- What are some of the challenges of technology?
- You have to be fearless. Fearlessness is fundamentally important to creativity because you’re putting ideas in front of people that they haven’t seen before. It’s creative destruction. The people who make the big changes, the big leaps, are the ones who actually disparage the technology – ‘I don’t care about that; I want to do this…’ And suddenly the technology goes, ‘Hmm, okay, I’ll find a way of doing it.’ What you need is somebody who understands the technology working with somebody who has the ideas. Not dissimilar to the film industry, where you have a director who’s got this big vision and a camera operator or DP saying, ‘I can make it happen if we do it like this...’
- Digital technology is changing the way you work, and you believe the workspace itself must also evolve, is that right?
- Increasingly, we’re looking at a world where ideas are fundamentally important, one in which creativity is going to be central to the future of our economy. The question is: How do you engender that? How do you actually increase creative activity? I look at the environment. If you go back 30, 40, 50 years and look at the office, it was a very austere place – desks were in formal lines and you had to work until a bell sounded. Gradually, we loosened that up because we want people to be freer, we want employees to think more, and we want them to enjoy what they’re doing. We brought in potted plants and furniture designers. Today, we have coffee bars where people can mingle and exchange thoughts and ideas.
- But there has been another fundamental shift: Many people don’t want to work at one job all the time. They want to work for three or four months of the year, take a couple of months off and go somewhere, look at something, read something, do something – enrich their lives in some way.
- Our traditional, formal way of employing people runs counter to the way they want to work. But I don’t want to lose talented people at BBH simply because we can’t accommodate their creative impulses. As both working life and the office itself become less structured, I see an alternative vision: The office as a members’ club. The club is run by a core of senior executives who organize it. Rather than a traditional employee, you’re a member, available to work on projects. As you only get paid when you work, if you want to go to Tibet for three months to study that’s okay – there’ll be another project waiting when you return.
- I want to loosen up the process and make the workplace somewhere that you positively want to be; somewhere that is stimulating and invigorating, where you meet different people and encounter different ideas; somewhere that grows your experience of life and grows your creativity rather than sucks it out of you. A workplace that achieves that is the future.
“I want to make the workplace somewhere that you positively want to be; somewhere that grows your experience of life and grows your creativity rather than sucks it out of you. A workplace that achieves that is the future.”
- What is the role of process, oversight, and management in this future?
- Of course, you can’t operate without process. The trouble in large companies is that process takes over as you struggle to make the machine work. But in a club, the permanent members – the senior executives – are the ones who operate the process and make it work. Those people are dedicated to it, freeing up the other members to come and go as they please. In turn, those members have to be given flexibility and have to be allowed to fail. As long as you’ve done all the things that you should do, if something fails, we’ll accept that. It’s going to happen. It must happen if you’re going to be constantly pushing the edges of the envelope.
- Can you really achieve this at BBH?
- Well, we’re trying. But the truth is, I’m not sure BBH can do it. I think the next generation will have to do that. We’re, in a way, too tied to what we are – and that’s alright; that’s where creative destruction comes in. It’s up to the next generation to pull things down, look at the industry again, reshape it, and reframe it in their image.